Lecturing the Lecturer

A quietly provocative op-ed in the Times asks, “Are College Lectures Unfair?” Its author, journalist Annie Murphy Paul, pulls together several strands of research to argue that as a form of education, the lecture may be “biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent.”

The question being addressed is not whether lectures belong in college, whether they’re efficient or not, or cost-effective, or obsolete in this online age of Massive Open Online Courses. Not any of that, but rather whether the lecture format itself – developed over centuries and installed at the heart of Western models of higher education – favors some groups and/or types of students over others; whether it is inherently, structurally invidious. Ms. Paul writes:

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

Accordingly Paul advocates pedagogical approaches that de-emphasize lectures in favor of what she calls “active learning.” The “supports” she mentions as part of this approach include frequent quizzes; online “checkup” testing on key concepts before class, and various other methods of feedback and reinforcement deployed to help students “become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.” Well, who wouldn’t benefit from that? Indeed, Paul cites research showing that all students do benefit -- but that “women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Paul’s critique raises challenging questions. Are there really group learning styles, and if so, should college and university instructors tailor their approach to them? Is there some “group-neutral” way to present information, to teach? Seeking to explain why lectures favor some groups of students over others, Paul speculates that poor and minority students, having disproportionately attended low performing schools, arrive in college “with less background knowledge,” and that “this is a problem, since research has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.” She notes that “The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.”

But this is always going to be true, on an individual basis and without regard to group categories; indeed, some would hold that the ability to absorb and retain information – and the habit of doing so -- is part of what distinguishes truly excellent students from merely adequate ones. And yet, if you’re an educator, how comfortable can you be with having the great majority of your “excellent” students be the ones from certain predictable backgrounds? On the third hand, however, if not all students have the basic general background knowledge that conduces optimally to listening to a lecture, do we conclude that we need to get rid of lectures? What if students lack the basic background experiences that conduce to reading? Do we eliminate books? 

Paul describes an intro psychology class at the University of Texas that ran two sections, one with pure lecture and the other augmented by frequent quizzes, and notes that the change “reduced by 50 percent the achievement gap between more affluent and less affluent students.” Is a certain pedagogical method best because it eliminates, or diminishes, disparities in group results? Is finding the optimal way to teach – in general – one and the same as finding a way to that reduces achievement gaps... or are these separate goals? Perhaps there is no such thing as finding the optimal way to teach “in general.”

I wonder about how the mode of teaching relates to the subject being taught. The two classes Annie Paul devotes the most time to in her article are a biology class and a chemistry class. But do science professors typically limit their courses to lecturing? It seems commonsensical that instruction in science, in which a certain basic content and set of procedures needs to be flat-out learned, would be optimized via quizzes, content “checkups,” hands-on lab work, and so on.

But what about the humanities? Let me lay my cards on the table and confess to having long believed that colleges and universities should provide not fewer lectures, but more of them; that professors of literature, history, philosophy and the like should be able to get up and talk compellingly and knowledgeably about their subjects – and that if one does, and you are present, then you’re lucky. I love the idea of  a mesmerizing master teacher holding forth; I imagine myself bedazzled by such famed lecturers of yore as Isaiah Berlin or George Santayana. Along with the discussion-driven seminar, I view the lecture as a foundation of liberal education at the college level.

Years ago, researching a magazine piece about college teaching, I spent several weeks profiling renowned college teachers. One was the Yale cultural historian, Jay Winter. I recall a lecture in the chapel at Harkness Hall, where he discussed equality in postwar Britain. (You can read my profile of Winter here.) He opened his lecture with a prosecutorial touch: “Here’s the claim I’d like to advance. It’s a contested claim, but it’s one that I think will make sense, in light of the evidence I’m going to advance later.” Then he delved into what he called an “anthropology of the past,” using old diaries, letters, photographs, post cards and the like to establish “the mental furniture people carried around with them.” He himself had an extraordinarily well-furnished mind. He seemed to know everything, and conveyed it with near-freakish fluency, in fantastic sentences, loaded with subordinate clauses, that rolled cleanly off his lips. Listening was one-third calisthenic and two-thirds captivation. The best lecturers enwrap you in a music-like pattern of theme and development, melodic line and improvisation. This is knowledge enacted via performance. You are being educated not just by the material, but by the mind at work.

Well, these are surely contested categories, as Winter would say. Are they passé? I’d be sorry to see the lecture consigned to the trash heap of outmoded pedagogy. But innovation is everywhere. The other day I read that Udacity, the leading provider of MOOCs, is partnering with tech companies in an ambitious program to teach tech skills to millions, at very low cost, offering instruction in programming, data analysis, web development and the like via online courses culminating in a so-called “nanodegree,” which Udacity is working with Google and other companies to get recognized as a viable professional certification. Udacity’s CEO, Sebastian Thrun, notes that while he can’t turn you into a Nobel Laureate, “what we can do is something like upskilling — you’re a smart person, but the skills you have are inadequate for the current job market, or don’t let you get the job you aspire to have.”

Upskilling, via a nanodegree awarded through a MOOC! O brave new world, that has such courses in it! What’s clear is that there are probably as many ways to deliver education as there are conceptions of education and types of students to be educated. This is America, after all. Meanwhile, Annie Paul notes that “the act of putting one’s own thoughts into words and communicating them to others, research has shown, is a powerful contributor to learning,” adding that “active-learning courses regularly provide opportunities for students to talk and debate with one another in a collaborative, low-pressure environment.”

I think we used to call that a seminar.

















Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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