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Month: August, 2012

Alternatives to lecturing in college classrooms

[Note: This post was originally written for the UNL political science grad student blog]

Tomorrow I will be presenting to the UNL grad students on teaching skills and I thought I would put a few things on the blog to serve as a reference or as a starting point for those who want to look more deeply into a few of the points I will raise.

The big point I want to make is that lecturing is often not a good way to facilitate learning, particularly when used as the sole instructional strategy.  Lecturing is comforting to instructors because it gives us complete control over the classroom.  It can create the illusion of more successful teaching because we think we are better able to prevent digressions or misunderstandings.   And students tend to be comfortable with it because they don’t have to do any work.  But it’s also the case that students don’t usually learn much in a lecture unless application tasks are mixed in with the more basic information transmission.

Let me start with an anecdote.  A few months back the political science blog Duck of Minerva linked to a study in the biomedical literature on modulations in cognitive effort over time. In essence, the study hooked a college student up to a device that measured how much his/her brain was working at any time and watched the pattern over the course of a week. It turned out that this student used less brain power while sitting in lectures than s/he did while asleep!

An interesting thing about this finding is how astounding this is to us when we consider it as  teachers, and how obvious this is when we consider it as current students.  One thing about being grad students is that we are not that removed from undergraduate lectures and we can perhaps more easily remember the experience of sitting in large lecture halls, taking a required intro class, and vaguely listening to someone read their notes to us.  Even though being grad students we tend to be a motivated sample of the student population, I bet almost all of us can relate to the saying that “Lecturing is a way of passing the information in the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notebook without passing through the head of either.”

So what exactly is the problem here?  The problem is that learning does not come about solely from listening.  Consider any skill or body of knowledge in which you can consider yourself proficient.  How did you get that way?  I guarantee it was not from simply listening to someone talk about it.  Whether it’s cooking or golf or running regressions or analyzing Supreme Court opinions, the only way to become proficient in anything is to actually do it.  A lecture, at least on its own, does not require students to do anything.  If you place too much weight on lecture as a pedagogical strategy you should not expect your students to be any more competent at thinking about politics than you would expect of a painter that never put a brush to canvas.

One of the major voices in “active learning” is Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur.  Here is a nice piece describing Mazur’s work on interactive learning and the “flipped classroom.”  The idea of the flipped classroom is that information transmission (getting facts and concepts into students’ heads) occurs outside the classroom via readings, videos, etc., and application is done in class.  In other words, students do the sorts of things we traditionally think of as homework in class, and take in info (as we traditionally conducted lecture) outside the classroom on their own time.

Here is Mazur explaining these ideas:


This approach obviously requires students to do their reading outside class – something that most students simply do not do.  In a future post I will talk about strategies for getting students to read, particularly motivating through the use of puzzles, and the use of Just in Time Teaching (JiTT) questions.


Google’s amazing visualization of the small arms trade

It’s available here.

I have often thought that academics could make some real progress in making our work interesting and relevant to the public by identifying ways to present our research other than regression tables and dense jargon.  Efforts like this one on small arms are exactly on the right track.

Even if we don’t have the resources to make visualizations like this, there are ways to make regression tables much easier to interpret for people who haven’t taken a lot of statistics classes.  This paper by Jonathan Kastellec and Eduardo Leoni provides some nice suggestions