“[Lecturing is the] best way to get information from teacher’s notebook to student’s notebook without touching the student’s mind.” — George Leonard
Every student I know has a different opinion on lectures, but the overwhelming majority seem to detest them.
Some people like lectures because they provide a low-commitment, low-stress environment; in a sea of 50 students, you have guaranteed anonymity, you will never be called on and chances are you will never have to do anything in class besides take notes. So what’s the catch? You are learning next to nothing.
It’s no surprise that during any given lecture, you can find one student sleeping, one shopping on Amazon and one watching Netflix muted with subtitles on. When a professor is talking and not actually teaching, students quickly realize there is no reason to pay attention. Even those who do pay attention still struggle to understand what they’re being “taught.”
From the perspective of a student who has had to sit through lectures, and an Education major who knows what good teaching looks like, I think lectures are the worst way to teach concepts to students. Even at a glance, you can see a few reasons why: lectures are long, boring and rarely cover material as in-depth as they need to. Sure, while a lecture may be filled with rich content, that content is of NO use if the students aren’t engaging with it and retaining it. What good is a room full of students rushing to copy down notes from the board, too focused on writing to actually understand what they’re writing? And if a lecture is so jam-packed that the professor has to race against the clock, this leaves no time for questions or discussions, which are important tools for students to get a deeper understanding.
Professors rationalize their decision to lecture by providing a textbook and posting PowerPoints online for students to study from. They may say “I gave my students all the information they need, so it’s up to them to learn it, memorize it and pass the exams.” There are several problems with this.
One, if it is entirely up to the student to teach themselves the content, then what’s the point of even coming to class? What are they paying for?
Two, learning material strictly from a lecture and a book is near impossible. A student may have all the vocab and concepts memorized word for word, but they won’t truly understand it until they see it in some other representation and/or engage with it—a video, discussion board, in-class debate, lab experiment, anything to make the material come to life. It is a proven fact that students retain and understand more when they do or create something meaningful about the topic.
Arguably, students who want a deeper understanding of the content can create these experiences for themselves—but they shouldn’t have to. When 80 or 90 percent of a student’s learning is happening outside of the classroom, then the educator is not doing their job.
As an Education major, I have been taught that a lesson plan should always be fun, engaging and universally accessible. As a teacher, it’s your job to take a topic and find a unique way to help students understand it. You have to probe students’ prior knowledge, demonstrate ideas in multiple mediums, make opportunities for critical thinking and discussion, have students create something meaningful about the material and more. On top of that, you have to be ready to differentiate your teaching to meet every students’ needs. Along the way, you need to assess if your students are learning, and use that data to improve how you teach. You can’t just lecture for three weeks then give an exam. If you did that in a high school classroom, every student would fail.
In my three years at college, the classes I’ve loved the most were ones that felt more like high school classes. Not because they were easier, but because the professor actually got down on our level and talked to us, led discussions, got us out of our comfort zone and had us do fun activities. I looked forward to going to class everyday because my presence meant something. I couldn’t just nod off in the back of a lecture hall. And on top of the classes being more enjoyable, I learned more from them and got better grades. The material was presented to me in a way I could connect to, and I felt more comfortable asking the professors for help. These classes felt less like work and more like enriching life experiences that I would remember for years afterward.
All in all, a good class should provide excitement, involvement, deep thought, and a sense of community and purpose. At my future job, if I showed up to teach students with just a PowerPoint and a textbook, I would be fired. Education majors spend years learning how to craft fun, effective lesson plans for students—it’s time that college professors start doing the same.