Is Lecturing Bad?

Shot of a young male teacher giving a lesson to his students on the lecture hall
Shot of a young male teacher giving a lesson to his students on the lecture hall

My earlier blog, "Stop Teaching, So Students Can Start Learning," generated several questions and comments. I used the words 'stop teaching,' because the very idea of 'teaching' tends to create a mindset that focuses squarely on teachers and diverts attention from students actually learning. Recognition that learning can occur without teaching can help educators to identify ways to help students learn rather than to lecture at them.

Herein lies the controversy: Is lecturing bad?

Lecturing is the oldest and perhaps still the most widely used teaching method around the world. For many, it is almost impossible to imagine a classroom without lectures. All of my education, from kindergarten all the way to my Ph.D., was based on lectures. Thus, when I first started to teach, lecturing was the only form of teaching I knew. So I put in long hours in preparing for my lectures, straining to make them interesting and fun for my students. And I did enjoy lecturing, feeling a great sense of accomplishment at the end of each talk. My student evaluations were always great. I was happy and content.

So what is wrong with lecturing?

There is nothing wrong with lectures per se. The real question is: Are students learning from lectures? Numerous studies show that lectures are ineffective ways to promote thought, change attitudes or develop behavioral skills. A traditional lecture is like a one-way street: students are passive listeners, the information flows from the teacher to the students, and it is not easy to tell whether the learner has absorbed the material. With more teachers using PowerPoint slides and reading out one bullet-point after another, modern lectures have disengaged students more than ever.

Yet I wouldn't discount lectures totally. They, after all, are an integral part of our education system, and dismissing them altogether is not realistic. However, I now realize, after years of teaching and experimenting with various techniques, that students learn best when engaged. If you can figure out a way to engage students, any method, including lectures, will work. Project-based approaches and hands-on activities do engage students easily and directly, but not every subject can be taught all the time with hands-on activities.

So how can we make lectures engaging?

One way is by following the example of movies. As we watch movies, information flows to us only one way, like lectures. Yet movies totally immerse us. They may make us cry, laugh, or feel angry, and may even inspire us to take action on issues they raise. If one-way communication in movies can be interesting, why can't a live human being, who actually stands in front of you in real time, make a 50-minute lecture engaging? A movie is a static presentation that cannot be changed while you watch it. On the other hand, a teacher can look into your eyes, collect instant feedback from your facial expressions and body language, and make appropriate changes to the lecture. That is how lectures can be interesting, exciting and inspiring as well.

If one-way communication in movies can be interesting, why can't a live human being, who actually stands in front of you in real time, make a 50-minute lecture engaging?

Furthermore, a successful movie tells an engaging story, provides visual experience, creates scenarios with drama and dilemma, takes its audience through an emotional journey, and uses mystery to keep audiences on edge. So we, as educators, can make our lectures more engaging by using some of the principles successfully used in movies:

Capture their attention. Your success as a teacher depends on winning your students' attention. It does not matter how knowledgeable you are--if they don't pay attention, there will be no learning. Some educators may question: "Why should we try to capture students' attention? Isn't it their responsibility to pay attention? Aren't they adults?" I can personally attest that I still can't listen to someone for more than a few minutes if I don't have a compelling reason to do so. So do you really think high-school and college students will listen to our ramblings? In an academic environment, content and details are important, but captivating students' attention is most important. This can be done in many ways. Something as simple as asking a question at the beginning of the class may do the trick, to get the students thinking and searching for answers to share with the class and the teacher, thereby stimulating a more interactive, engaging learning process between teacher and students.

Tell a story. Many college professors, especially in STEM disciplines, resent the idea of storytelling. They seem to think storytelling is somewhat beneath them. But they forget that everyone enjoys a good story, including themselves. Beginning with a story is an effective way to start the class. The story could be a personal experience you had that was relevant to the subject, or a historical event, or even an anecdote. For example, when I teach Newton's law, I don't simply write down the laws and explain them as it is normally done. I start with a story from Isaac Newton's life. This approach provides a real context to my teaching, brings an important human character into it, and injects drama into our classroom, just like in the movies.

Every equation has a story. Students encounter equations in math, science and engineering subjects. Equations can be intimidating and overwhelming, so they are dreaded, and most students resort to rote memorization of them. Yet every equation has a story behind it (e.g., a scientist who dedicated his or her life to arriving at that equation), controversy around it, a thought experiment attached to it, or some significant effect on our lives. Introduce one or more of those aspects of that equation first, before you write it down on the board. Give me an equation, and I will tell you a story!

Keep the mystery. We educators try to explain everything. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, once wrote, "The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer." Mystery creates an inexplicable feeling of wanting more. Mystery makes the process enjoyable. We explain theorems, proofs and derivations, but we forget that these were not so obvious to the scientists who discovered them. So why are we explaining everything? Keep the mystery! Help students to solve it on their own and make their own discoveries, and you will be pleasantly surprised how students become engaged. If all else fails, you can still explain (lecture) to your heart's content. Infusing a dose of mystery into your teaching doesn't require you to become a writer like Agatha Christie--it only takes some planning.

Show them the big picture.
Most students don't really know why they learn a particular subject, nor do they learn its relevance to the overall scheme of things. Students think of each subject as one more hurdle they must overcome in order to graduate. This creates apathy for the course. The only way to overcome this indifference is to help students to understand why they are learning what they are learning. When they know where all this is leading to, they will be more excited about the learning process.

You don't have to be a spellbinding speaker to deliver great lectures. You just need to bring in a few well-thought-out elements that can engage your students.

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