In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher

PackedThe New York Times published an essay this weekend by education writer Annie Murphy Paul titled “Are College Lectures Unfair?” In the essay, Paul uses a number of research studies to make the argument that active learning instruction, while beneficial to all students, is particularly effective at improving learning outcomes for traditionally underrepresented student groups, including students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, and women in STEM fields. Consequentially, compared to active learning instruction, the traditional college lecture seems to privilege “white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Given a provocatively titled, yet research-based essay in a major publication arguing against the traditional lecture, I predict a flurry of blog posts and opinion columns in the next couple of weeks, most of them titled “In Defense of the Lecture.” If history is any indication, many of them will read like Alex Small’s 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education piece, indeed titled “In Defense of the Lecture.” It’s a thoughtful essay, written by someone who seems to be an intentional and effective teacher. It’s just titled incorrectly.

I joked on Twitter yesterday that I’ve never seen an essay titled “In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher.” But that’s how I read titles like “In Defense of the Lecture.” Why? Because these pieces are usually written in opposition to a research-based essay like Annie Murphy Paul’s. And the research comparing lectures and active learning, at least the research that I cite frequently, has a fairly specific definition of “lecture.”

Donald Bligh, in his 2000 book What’s the Use of Lectures?, describes the lecture as “more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants the audience to learn something.” Bligh goes on to summarize the research literature: Lectures are as good as other methods at transmitting information, but lectures are generally not effective at promoting thought, changing attitudes, inspiring interest, or teaching skills.

In their 2014 meta-analysis of 228 studies comparing lectures to active learning instruction in STEM contexts, Scott Freeman and colleagues use Bligh’s language, defining traditional lecturing as “continuous exposition by the teacher.” Their meta-analysis showed that active learning instruction led to lower failure rates and greater student learning (as measured by exam grades) than traditional lecturing.

While we’re at it, here’s the consensus definition of active learning that Freeman et al. used:

“Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

The research seems pretty clear to me. Lecturing, as defined as “continuous exposition by the teacher,” is, in general, on average, less effective at promoting student learning than active learning instruction.

Alex Small’s Chronicle essay may be titled “In Defense of the Lecture,” but it’s not a defense of the lecture at all… if you define lecture as “continuous exposition by the teacher.” According to his essay, Small regularly includes questions and discussion with students alongside the modeling of expert thinking that he provides from the front of the room. That sounds like active learning to me — surfacing and activating student prior knowledge, providing students opportunities to practice their thinking and receive feedback on that practice.

One of Alex Small’s comments, written in the discussion section accompanying the essay, jumped out at me this afternoon:

“Half my detractors are saying I’m not lecturing and half are saying I need to stop lecturing. Can we get a consensus one way or the other?”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? The research is clear that “continuous exposition by the teacher” is less effective than active learning, but when many college instructors hear the word “lecture,” they don’t think “continuous exposition by the teacher.” They think of the kinds of “lectures” that Alex Small describes, ones in which students are regularly engaged in, well, active learning. (Thanks to Jo VanEvery, via Twitter, for this point.)

Let’s be clear: According to the research, if your understanding of “lecture” involves engaging students in discussion and interaction during class, then you should keep lecturing. It’s “continuous exposition by the teacher” that’s the problem. My only advice would be to consider whether all of your students are learning actively, or just some. It’s easy to engage a few, harder to engage all. See my recent post on Think-Pair-Share for some ideas for helping all of your students learn actively during class.

Back on Twitter, Eric Detweiler pointed out something critical. Detweiler wrote, about essays defending or critiquing the lecture, “What is framed as central to the course, or a ‘break’ from it, is fascinating.” Alex Small appears to see himself as someone who lectures, with a variety of student interactions mixed in. Me, I see myself as someone who practices active learning instruction, with the occasional “times for telling” (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998). Yes, I lecture, too. Just not continuously. A well-timed explanation can be very effective at promoting student learning, and, as Alex Small points out, students need to see expert thinking modeled from time to time.

It’s quite possible for two people with remarkably similar teaching methods to talk right past each other.

I should add that some lecture defenses argue that “continuous exposition by the teacher” is a straw man, that no one really teaches that way. I wish that were true. I’ve sat in the back of enough classrooms to know that, yes, there are instructors for whom “lecture” does mean “continuous exposition by the teacher.” Articles and books like Bligh’s and Freeman’s and Paul’s are thus important, because it needs to be clear that the nothing-but-lecture approach is not supported by the research.

But for those of us who have more nuanced understandings of a college lecture, let’s see if we can get past this miscommunication. If you read a critique of lecturing, see if the author’s definition of lecturing matches your own. When I read a defense of lecturing, I’ll do the same.  I’m sure I’ll continue to use “traditional lecturing” as a shorthand for something more specific, but I’ll make an effort to clarify what I mean whenever I can.

And, please, let this be the only blog post I see titled “In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher.”

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