by PhilipJ on 3 January 2009
As will be no surprise to anyone who has ever sat through a lecture, traditional lecturing doesn’t work, or at least, not as we wish. The most recent discussion of how traditional lecturing is failing students is from physicist Eric Mazur, who writes in the most recent edition of Science in Farewell, Lecture? (pdf, closed access):
The traditional approach to teaching reduces education to a transfer of information. Before the industrial revolution, when books were not yet mass commodities, the lecture method was the only way to transfer information from one generation to the next. However, education is so much more than just information transfer, especially in science.* New information needs to be connected to preexisting knowledge in the student’s mind. Students need to develop models to see how science works. Instead, my students were relying on rote memorization. Reflecting on my own education, I believe that I also often relied on rote memorization. Information transmitted in lectures stayed in my brain until I had to draw upon it for an exam. I once heard somebody describe the lecture method as a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either. That is essentially what is happening in classrooms around the globe.
The traditional lecture method ignores the fact that lots of people learn in lots of different ways, and when it comes to things like calculation, watching someone else do them does little for one’s own understanding. It might make sense to you for the brief moment while watching, but it is not a substitute for doing it yourself to really master something.
I think the relative lack of utility of the traditional lecture has been masked by the fact that students are (usually) in a university program out of choice, and will pick up the slack and teach themselves as is necessary to succeed in the course. It is also my philosophy that the quicker a student realizes they should (and can!) be teaching themselves the material, the more enjoyable the learning process and the better they do.
So what are we going to do with all these professors who still need to teach courses? Mazur’s take is to change the way the classroom is run:
[…] I have begun to turn this traditional information transfer model of education upside down. The responsibility for gathering information now rests squarely on the shoulders of the students. They must read material before coming to class, so that class time can be devoted to discussions, peer interactions, and time to assimilate and think. Instead of teaching by telling, I am teaching by questioning.
I’ve had a couple of profs over the years who have taken this approach, and I have always felt it works so much better than the traditional method. The only problem is that it is most effective in the small class setting such as upper-level undergraduate courses. It can be implemented in a large introductory class through the use of so-called “clickers”, but the implementation is key. Quoating Mazur again:
I often meet people who tell me they have implemented this “clicker method” in their classes, viewing my approach as simply a technological innovation. However, it is not the technology but the pedagogy that matters. Unfortunately, the majority of uses of technology in education consist of nothing more than a new implementation of old approaches, and therefore technology is not the magic bullet it is often presumed to be.
Are any of our readers using clickers and changing their teaching methodology (I think Rosie has used them in her courses)? If so, I’d love to hear your feedback on how they were received by students, and whether it was more or less work to prepare for the course. I fear (but appreciate) that the effort involved will be a deciding factor on whether these new teaching tools (implemented properly!) will be embraced.
* I don’t agree that science is somehow different from other subjects when it comes to traditional lectures and their relevance to learning. No subject is just a collection of facts to be regurgitated on an exam.