To Lecture or Not to Lecture

I still remember things said in some lectures that I heard in the late 1970s, the 80s and the early 90s. In some cases I remember what was said, in some cases I simply think and live differently to this day because of what was said.

Earlier this year David Goodblar wrote a piece in Chronicle Vitae under the title “‘Is It Ever OK to Lecture?’” Mostly the piece just recounts the arguments made in favor of “active learning” vs. lecturing. His take away conclusion is that lecturing is OK if it includes active learning activities. A bit disappointing as a dodge of the question in the title, but it left me wondering whether the whole piece, and much of the active learning conversation, is perhaps grounded in a false premise.

The author characterizes lecturing as just “tell[ing] students what we know.” The standard caricature of lectures is that they are mere conveyance of information with goal being that students remember what we said, but that’s wrong. It might be what far too many instructors do when they are supposed to be lecturing, but a good lecture is something different from articulating information that students are supposed to absorb or write down.

A proper lecture is an interactive experience in which the speaker connects with the minds of the audience and takes them on a journey and changes them in the process. I’m a serious advocate and practitioner of all manner of “active” pedagogy, but I’m disappointed when supporters resort to cartoon versions of alternatives to bolster their case. The argument between active learning and lecturing as it normally happens is between great active learning and mediocre lecturing. It’s easy to win that battle. But out in the wild there’s plenty of really great lecturing and plenty of really tedious active learning too.

Why do we rarely see, in conversations like this, pointers to ideas about how to give really awesome lectures. I think it’s because the conversations are dominated by individuals and organizations that live OFF bandwagons and trends, making their names telling faculty to get with the program or risk being labeled dinosaurs, rather than living FOR education per se. There is material out there – see Chris Anderson on how to deliver a compelling TED talk or folks like Nancy Duarte on great talks more generally or Conor Neill on how to start a speech or so many others just waiting for a little curation – that can help the mediocre lecturer most of us are become the one who can deliver the lecture that a student will remember 30 years later.

When we have that skill in hand we can make smart, strategic pedagogical decisions about when to lecture and when to use other methods.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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