March 06, 2004

Lecture versus Discussion

In the comments to "We could hire God this year," David Salmanson asserts that lecturing is not teaching:

For those of you taping a lecture as an example of your teaching, don't bother. Lecturing is reading in a less interactive format. If they want to see a videotape, they want to see you interacting with students in a class discussion format: that is, teaching a class. That's the only reason I could think of for wanting to see a videotape. And incidentally, only semi-finalists would have to send the tape. I love this because you get to see what the applicant's definition of teaching is. My hope would be that everybody who sends a lecture gets tossed into the no on-campus interview pile. Of course, maybe this is why I bailed on academia for high school teaching.

"Failed Again" replies as follows:

Discussion is the only form of teaching? Now, I value a good class discussion, and have tried valiantly to use that model for years, almost entirely to the exclusion of the lecture model.

What I have found--only quite recently, at that--is that except in very small classes (15 or fewer), students overwhelmingly despise the discussion model. As someone who is quite dependent on student evaluations at this early stage of a career, I have had to pay close attention to that finding. What I have come to discover is that students (with the exception of the very small seminars) regard 'discussion' as a cop-out. They repeatedly have stressed in their evaluative comments that they want to know what *I* know about Early Modern literature, culture, history, theology, etc.--not what *they* know (which in many cases is not very much).

Discuss. (Or give a lecture).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 6, 2004 01:25 PM

Of course lecturing is teaching! The best courses I have taken have been lecture courses, often with a once-a-week discussion section thrown in.

And sometimes that section is by far the worst part of the course, depending on the subject - just lots of students talking about things they don't understand and confusing each other, with a section leader struggling valiantly to correct all of the misapprehensions without making the students feel dumb. Often necessary, but certainly not the best educational experience.

An excellent lecture is a like a reading of a great book tailored to a particular audience, paced properly, rendered in a lively way. (And who'd have thought an academic would diss "reading," by the way?)

Posted by: af at March 6, 2004 02:00 PM

The only real discussion style that works is when everyone is on the same page and has read the material beforehand. I've seen it work in a doctoral seminar, and I've seen it fail miserably in a number of undergrad classes.

As well, "lecture" is a term with a lot of emotional baggage. Picture the elderly white man opening the yellowed pages of a notebook that hasn't been updated in 30 years and beginning to read from the notes. But there are lecturers who mix in short discussions and - here's a key - allow questions from students.

And a final note: Who's going to do a discussion with 150 freshmen in an intro class?

Posted by: bryan at March 6, 2004 02:19 PM

As someone who graduated from college two years ago, I must say that I define group discussion among undergraduates as largely "groundless speculation based in deep ignorance." The best courses I had were lecture courses. I felt like professors were cheating me when they didn't lecture -- like they knew all this stuff and were just wasting time with stupid "leading questions" and the too-long comments of my ignorant classmates who didn't even do the reading and just wanted their "class participation" points.

I'd like to take an opportunity to bash the "presentation" format, as well. In upper-division courses and in grad school, this can be good, but basing lower-level courses on presentations is, again, a waste of time. I have heard the cliche that the best way to learn something is to teach it -- I would edit that to say that the best way to master something is to teach it. When you're starting from ignorance, "teaching" is just a stressful waste of everyone's time.

In short, bring back the lecture. People are paying good money to gain some knowledge -- "critical thinking" is wonderful, but it has to be based in knowledge.

[insert scream.]

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at March 6, 2004 02:20 PM

Bryan's lecture/short discussion/questions mix is the ideal, as shaped appropriately for the occasion. Even when there's 150 freshman facing you, you should ask a few carefully crafted questions, and try to get some limited amount of feedback. By the same token, even a doctoral seminar should have a small amount of lecturing thrown in--the comments of even the smartest and best prepared students will fail to serve the needs of the whole group unless the teacher is guiding things somewhat. (I haven't hit the ideal at either end yet by a long-shot, but I try.)

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at March 6, 2004 02:26 PM

Reader Adam Kotsko hits the nail on the head with 'I define group discussion among undergraduates as largely "groundless speculation based in deep ignorance.",' methinks. I am reminded on an excerpt from Iain Pears's book "Death and Restoration" that I read in a blog somewhere (probably It was the following (I saved it to savor later, and eventually even bought the book -- people with these insights deserve incentives):

"And lectures. Dear me. A bit authoritarian, you know? Don’t you think a group interaction module might be better?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where you break down hierarchy. They teach themselves.”

“But they don’t know anything,” Argyll protested. “How can you teach yourself if you don’t know anything to start off with?”

Posted by: Wundergeist at March 6, 2004 02:27 PM

Absolutely. I've seen senior professors who feel compelled to produce a "discussion" standing at the lecturn and straining as though it were a bowel movement after a three-week constipation. All the while steadfastly refusing to share their own knowledge of the subject, gained from professional immersion of a kind the undergraduates will never know.

Posted by: at March 6, 2004 03:32 PM

If group discussion is such a waste of time in the undergraduate classroom, why are so many of us required to use this method in our teaching?

Except for small seminars, I prefer to lecture (with lots of supplementary AV). I usually stop several times to invite Q&A and discussion, but students can always raise their hands. The only time I have discussion classes is right before an exam or major assignment. My student evaluations are usually between 4.5 and 5, and my classes are usually packed beyond the enrollment cap. And I don't consider myself an easy grader. The typical comment I get from students is something like "hard, but I learned a lot."

However, when the department sends someone to observe my teaching (always someone with an education degree), the report invariably contains the same criticism: "not student-centered," "too much lecture," "over their heads." The report always concludes by recommending that I attend seminars led by other education faculty (most of whom are avoided by students like death). The education faculty seem to be indifferent to knowledge of subjects in favor of mandating techniques which they alone are qualified to evaluate.

Maybe I answered my own question.

Posted by: THB at March 6, 2004 03:41 PM

The education faculty seem to be indifferent to knowledge of subjects in favor of mandating techniques which they alone are qualified to evaluate.

Could this be why "our nation's public schools are failing"? Although it was hugely impractical of me to do, I chose to do a straight-up English major instead of an English education major (and thus chose not to become certified to teach) because I wanted to actually learn something in college. Sadly, actually learning something is increasingly a very bad career move, as the existence of this site testifies.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at March 6, 2004 03:50 PM

Teaching isn't just telling them what you know. It's also finding out what they don't know or more importantly what they know that's wrong and correcting them. Discussion isn't the only way of doing that. Instant reaction short papers written, emailed and read in between class meetings can do the job better, but this technique requires even smaller classes than discussion does.

Posted by: jam at March 6, 2004 04:03 PM

I mainly lecture, but try as much as possible to get students to ask questions. Though often students do seem to think that other students questions are just wasting their time in the expensive class they paid for as people have noted. I use two overhead projectors with lots of diagrams, tables etc. as well as Powerpoint style bullet points. Some times handouts they can write on. Also I draw the diagrams up from scratch or color on top of one I printed from the book or multimedia package. We also have what I call "problem sessions" where we solve problems - me writing on the overhead but getting different students to do each step... well this is economics. Students don't want Powerpoint presentations either... In my environmental econ etc. classes I get students to do presentations of their projects in the last 3 classes once they have been through all the rest of the class. This works very well. I think students presenting the readings only probably works in a grad class and I did do that the one time I got to teach a grad only class. When I taught geography I also used 35mm slides of places I'd been when relevant or ones that came with the book (nowadays that would all be Powerpoint I guess). I walk around and gesture a lot (Ms Mentor says that is good)....

and sometimes some of this works... my colleagues (tenured and non-tenure track) in econ seem to mostly get very high evaluations compared to national averages or elsewhere at our mainly science and engineering college.

Posted by: moom at March 6, 2004 04:50 PM

With my undergraduates, I do lecture-with-a-lot-of-questions, interspersed with occasional discussion periods for skills development. (More discussion periods when it's a course like comp or intro to lit analysis, where the students need supervised practice sessions.) This goes down well with the students: there's enough interaction for them to feel involved, but otherwise it's me telling them things they don't know. Graduate courses operate according to a strict seminar format: I talk for maybe 20 minutes to provide context and introduce potential topics, then the students take over. I used to do more discussion sections, but, as has already been pointed out, the undergraduates regard them as a complete waste of time--and say so. (And I suspect that more than a few students think that "discussion periods"="instructor wants to slack off.")

Posted by: Miriam at March 6, 2004 04:55 PM

As an underpaid disposable contingent worker, my feeling is that my employer does not pay me enough for what I know. If they want what I know, they can pay for it. On the other hand, it's rather easy to come up with a couple of leading questions per class session, and so that's what I do.

And ironically, in contrast to THB, I found that my evals went through the roof when I switched over to this model. Granted, in a 90 minute meeting there may be one, or perhaps two good points raised amidst the great swirl of "groundless speculation based in deep ignorance," but the fact is the students go away happy. And in my position, that's what really counts.

Posted by: Chris at March 6, 2004 05:01 PM

I've found that the discussion model can be very good (particularly in small classes, or particularly where a group of students is really into it, though this group can be large). I've also found that the lecture-open-to-questions model can be very good. It seems mostly to be a function of (a) having a good teacher who (b) likes the format they're using and (c) is into what they're teaching in that particular class.

Posted by: wolfangel at March 6, 2004 05:17 PM

One thing that I learned, and which in physics has been demonstrated repeatedly over 40 years at basically every school where it's been tried, from the Air Force Academy to your local community college, is that involving students makes their grasp of the material better. The format cannot devolve into the unguided discussion mentioned above, but neither can it be an old-school lecture. The general term for these types of techniques, should anyone be interested, is "interactive engagement". There has to be real student involvement, some sense of participation and ownership of the class, so that the students have incentive to actually work to retain the information. With a lecture there is much less of that incentive; often sitting in class is pretty much equivalent to reading the text, so only the few who would crack a textbook and read it on their own will be motivated to internalize the material. With classes ranging from 150 at a small school like my current one (~2500 undergrads) to over 200 at my alma mater (15000+ undergrads) to almost 1000 (30000+ undergrads)where I did my internship, it is not possible to mitigate this; you must get the students involved, or they will not learn it, they'll just buffer it and throw it away as soon as the exam is over.

Another thing we've learned is that it is never better to just lecture when compared with involving the students. (And no, stopping once in awhile for questions does not count. It doesn't generally engage the students sufficiently to motivate them.) Almost to a man (so to speak) people who think their lecturing is the best way to go about teaching are flat-out wrong. Once you create diagnostic tools and use them over and over nationwide for 40 years, you can conclusively say that pure lecturing is just not the best way to teach. All studies I'm aware of, including a mammoth survey of results I can point you all to if you want, clearly show that interactive engagement is the way to go. I am told the results from education research from the other sciences is similar, so I bet the extrapolation to liberal arts is valid. Really, how much difference is there between tossing calculus-based physics at freshman and tossing intro composition at them?

For a demonstration of the techniques I'm talking about, scrounge up a copy of Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction: A User's Manual, or contact someone involved in physics education research. I myself know some about this since I spent 3 years as an RA in the PER group at my alma mater and did a summer internship in PER at one of the top schools in the US in my field.

Posted by: AGM at March 6, 2004 06:06 PM

I'm in a class now which is almost entirely discussion, and I'll echo Adam Kotsko's sentiments. The commentary offered by an undergrad who just read The Sickness Unto Death for the first time a day or two ago is not really worth as much as the professor's, especially when the professor's occasional forays into lectures are consistently interesting. Not that discussion classes can't work; I've had some that were great. But the professors in those classes aren't shy about stepping in and lecturing for a bit.

And anyone who thinks lecturing is just another form of reading must only be acquainted with bad lecturers.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 6, 2004 08:01 PM

I have seen lectures that are literally some guy standing at a lectern and reading directly from typed pages. I've never quite understood the point. We could get just as much information much more rapidly if we simply read the pages.

In the sciences with which I am familiar, it's much different. We may throw up a slide with some complicated bit of data on it, and what we then do is explain how it was obtained and what it means, hopefully with interaction with the students. It's mostly unscripted. It's also intensely data-rich in a way a discussion section never seems to be.

I still find discussion sections, an hour set aside each week for talking whether we need it or not, to mostly be a waste of time on both sides of the desk. For that kind of thing, I prefer a lab -- there's some specific task everyone can be working on productively, and questions and discussions flow more naturally in the gaps between tasks.

Posted by: PZ Myers at March 6, 2004 08:31 PM

Salmanson is part of this "inclusiveness" teaching movement that is making stupidity integral to the college curriculum. Students are quickly picking up on the tripe fed to them during their freshmen orientation and become all pissy if you correct some knuckleheaded comment in class.

This is off topic, but not as far off topic as you think.

If Salmanson was in my class, I would tell him to check his self-esteem at the door, sit down, shut up and listen. If he thinks that lecturing is reading, his classes must suck.

Yeah, John Lemon is back... but not for long. He's gotta get back to publishing and publishing like a monster is what I've been doing this year.

[Edited by IA to conform to posting policies.]

Posted by: John Lemon at March 6, 2004 08:39 PM

I teach at a big school and many of my departments intro courses have big lectures (150+ students) for 60% of class meeting time and discussion sections of 20-25 led by TAs. I've taught on both sides of this, and when both instructors understand and perform well in their role, I really think this is a great model. In terms of popularity, I think it's a push--when both instructors are doing a good job, a similar number of students express a strong preference for one part of the course.

As should be clear, I like and value lectures, and I use them often in my classes. But I'm a little troubled by the lack of non-pragmatic defenses of discussion here. Discussion serves a pedagogical goal lecture almost never can--getting students to figure things out for themselves, sometimes figuring things out collectively. My exams tend heavily toward application--applying theories, comparing historical accounts, etc. and in classes that have been more exclusively lecture, students generally do much worse. I do think I'm a pretty good lecturer (although I fear I may pitch things a bit too high at times), but I haven't figured out how to convey that skill in lecture.

I've seen enough of Adam Kotsko around here and elsewhere to know that he's quite bright and well read--I'd imagine, much moreso than most of his classmates were. I often sympathize with students in his position during discussion--they prefer lectures because they learn little from other students, and they often get the most out of my lectures. They don't need coaching and prodding to think analytically and carefully. But the "middle class" of students in terms of intelligence and ability get a fair bit more out of a well formed-discussion than he does, I suspect.

Of course, a discussion in which students vent their prejudices does no one any good, and you really have to get past the whole "everyone's contributions are important" kind of thinking that leads to rank speculation. When students do that, I quickly, politely get socratic on them. After a few experiences with trying to defend each ill-conceived premise and empirical claim, they think harder about what they say (or, sadly, stop talking, although I try to prevent that). The best discussion classes I have are ones that are geared toward solving a problem--"How does Theorist get from position A to position B?" for example. If I go around the room while students guess until someone gets it right, I'm doing a lousy job and wasting time. You have to mine misinformed comments for an insight other students can build on, ask leading subquestions, etc. A good discussion is as much an art as a good lecture, at least in my experience.

Posted by: DJW at March 6, 2004 08:48 PM

Amazing to me that so few posters here have discussed the significance of what they teach. Versus, say, what others teach. I teach literature classes, contemporary American ones at that, and use what I'd call guided discussion techniques. I've switched from standing in front of rows of students (always 25 or less) to putting them in a circle. We discuss as I prod them with various questions, and I often restate their answers. They know they're sometimes looking for what I'm thinking, but even that's more engaging for most of them than me just telling them what I'm thinking. At other times, they're clearly glad to see that I really want to know what THEY think, because I know their perspectives differ from mine.

But then, again, these are lit classes. So much of what I'm doing is just trying to get them to read better, and to enjoy it more, in the hopes that they'll go on to read more on their own, and to read more critically what they do go on to read. I don't imagine this would work as well in classes where you're trying to get a certain amount of set knowledge into their heads.

Posted by: Poin D at March 6, 2004 10:16 PM

What about this approach:

Tell students *in advance* to be prepared to present their thoughts about a particular broad topic (viz: compare & contrast the French and American revoluions). At the next class, pick student at random, who then gets to come up to the front and present 10 minutes on the topic (verbally--not PowerPoint or whatever)--and then, invite other students to agree or disagree.

As Dr Johnson said, the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully, and the prospect of standing in front of the class and looking like a fool might work almost as well...

Obtains many of the benefits of discussion but with less randomness and BS.

Posted by: David Foster at March 6, 2004 11:26 PM

My comments were long, so I posted them here. It's a strong defense of discussions. I'm curious whether people think this might be a factor of school size in addition to field.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at March 6, 2004 11:35 PM

Just an undergraduate's opinions here, but one of my TAs this year is doing something I really like: everyone has to give a 10-minute presentation on some topic, and then the class discusses it. 3 presentations per hour-long conference. That doesn't leave too much time for the awkward silences and staring out into space that characterize discussions, and even the fearful and shy people have to talk at least a bit. (Random presentations, though? I'd die of fear).

Posted by: Emily at March 6, 2004 11:45 PM

Discussion or lecture? Sometimes it does not matter which method or combination thereof you use, you can still get the same results: unprepared and uninterested students who have no desire to do much work for a class they consider to be a waste of time.

I'm not sure which circle of Hell I've been relegated to, but I'm a short-term contract adjunct (i.e., I sign a new contract each semester that is only good for the duration of the semester) in a medium-size community college in northern California. My PhD is in American Studies/Civilization and I have an M.A. in Political Science/Theory, so I've been able to teach in both Humanities and Political Science. This semester I started teaching two Humanities courses and have been struggling with acute student apathy.

At first, I lectured, used PowerPoint and A/V examples to illustrate points I was trying to make. However, I quickly found that a.) About 5 people out of 45 bothered to do any reading all at. And b.) Those same 5 people were the only ones who were taking notes on what I was saying. When exam time rolled around, there were a lot of students who failed the exam (no surprise there). But what did surprise me was how many students blamed me for not providing them with any sort of handout, study guide, or even a copy of the test before it was given. When I said that their notes on the reading and lectures should prepare them for exams, many said that the other instructors at the college provide them with study guides so they don't have to take notes. Also, apparently some instructors provide the students with questions and answers of the exam the class session before the exam is given. (Yes folks, even though I didn't realize it at first, I am teaching remedial high school courses for college credit. Many students expect to get a 4.0 GPA at this place. Who can blame them? With instructors who are willing to provide them with everything they need to get an A, why should they do any work on their own?)

Since my lecture format wasn't working, I moved to discussions -- because a good many of the students had no idea what I was talking about. Since most do not do any reading before class, I start the conversation by asking VERY general questions about a theme that's in the reading. After some back and forth, I try to link what the students have said to those themes in the book they haven't read.

So far, this method is helping me with my sanity, and the students seem interested in what is being said. Since I don't plan on teaching at this "college" after this semester, the discussion/"lecture-lite" method allows me to get through these last couple of months without killing myself.

Posted by: TDA at March 6, 2004 11:51 PM

TDA. Wow. Sounds like the eighth circle. Just do whatever it takes to make it through the semester.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 7, 2004 12:28 AM

(First post, so I'll include a little bit of bio to give background you already know about each other)

I'm a 3rd year undergrad in the Plan II Honors Program at UT Austin. I have a reasonably strong family background in academia. I'm currently studying abroad at the University of Otago in New Zealand. I haven't really had enough time to judge the NZ (British, I presume) system, so I'll stick to what I've had.

Well done lectures are probably the best way to get information across in a compact way to a student body. Reading is better for pure content, but the lecture requires the lecturer to determine the key points and general thread of the concepts in a way that students can usually understand far better than reading a text.

However, to promote deep understanding, I cannot see a better way than discussion after (reading, lecture, etc). I've very often found that I have to discuss a work with someone knowledgeable, or I'll find it unconvincing or incomplete, because I'm seeing obstacles they deal with elsewhere, or had not mentioned.

There's also the necessary element I made of "good lecturers", but I'm accustomed to discussions not being bored students saying something mindless to get their participation points, and I value the time spent interacting with instructors. Perhaps I simply need to become a office hours junkie.

My perspective is probably based on just dealing with a better class of student. Too bad most posters here have no options in that line.

Posted by: kd5mdk at March 7, 2004 12:39 AM

Before Fall 2003, I used a mixture of lecture and discussion formats (weighted toward lecture) in my sophomore-level medieval lit survey course. I did the same for an upper-level Chaucer course--ostensibly a seminar, it had 30+ students in it. Subject matter was a key factor in this regard: students are intimidated by medieval texts and feel that they know little or nothing about medieval history. So the bulk of students keep their mouths shut. In the Chaucer class, Middle English was an aggravating factor in keeping discussion to a minimum.

When I started this job, I was using a more discussion-heavy mix. The evaluations I got made it clear that students wanted a higher percentage of lecture. They were more comfortable with a passive stance that filled in the blanks on the subject than an active stance that would have resulted in my constantly puncturing their stereotypes about Ye Olde Darke Ages and performing their ignorance.

In addition, it is very difficult to get students to feel that they have a stake in the discussion of "pre-modern" literature other than Shakespeare. They simply don't see the relevance of such texts to their own lives. My colleagues teaching American and modern literatures (and Shakespeare, for that matter) report completely different student attitudes, and these colleagues understandably err on the side of discussion.

In Fall 2003, I had my first shot at a large lecture course (120+ students, large for an English department course at this university). This course had six Friday discussion sections in addition to the Monday and Wednesday lectures. Because of the rapid pace of the course (British literature from 670 to 1760) and the necessity for providing historical and cultural context, I did not take questions during lecture. (I did answer the questions of those few students who asked them anyway.) I used Web pages as a means of presenting a lecture outline: this let me include images and video as part of the lecture Web page. I did not provide students with printouts of the outlines, nor did I leave the outline Web sites on the course Web page for students to peruse at their leisure. I did go back over the lecture notes (and the TAs' accounts of their discussion sections) to put together study guides for the two exams. These guides were simply week-by-week lists of key terms, concepts, events, and personages (usually 6-10 items a week). Students could (and did) study for the exams by filling in the blanks on the study guides via the course e-mail list (to which I frequently posted as a means of compensating for the auditorium's lack of pedagogical intimacy).

I felt, as did my faculty observers and a large number of students (who reported their feelings about the course to their faculty mentors), that the lecture format I used here worked about as effectively as it could have, given the large amount of material that needed to be introduced throughout the semester. This is in part because a literature lecture does not reproduce the course reading assignments in any way, shape, or form. What I'm doing in a lecture is modeling literary analysis of a text, demonstrating the skills I want to see the students practicing in their weekly short reading responses, their essays, and their exams. My goal for the next time round is to make this more explicit from the student's perspective and to focus TA discussion sections on practicing these skills.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at March 7, 2004 02:00 AM

One problem is that undergraduates have no real context or meta-knowledge with which to understand and evaluate the pedagogical choices an instructor makes. Not only am I a firm believer in making the rationale for one's own actions explicit--"today I am going to lecture for thirty minutes on topic X because [reason Y]"--but I also think undergraduates would benefit from a required course that introduced them to different pedagogical strategies, the pros and cons of each, and the debates and current thinking about each by educators. Simply reading this thread would give most undergraduates more exposure to genuine pedagogical thinking than they ever get during their time at school. The point is to give them a context, other than just the instructor's perceived idiosyncracies, for udnerstanding why their class on Baroque art has more lecturing than, say, their class on the contemporary novel.

Posted by: Matt K. at March 7, 2004 09:02 AM

My own preference (as an upper-year undergraduate--studying English, sort of) is for the discussion, rather than the lecture, model. The more effective seminar courses I've taken had professors who could provide short lectures to bring people up to speed on information they might not have gained from the reading for a particular day.

The problem with the discussion method is that it is heavily contingent on the students' willingness to participate and their preparation for a given day's discussion. If the interpersonal chemistry of the seminar members works out, it (the discussions of the texts) can be a great experience. Frequently, though, the silence of a room (mostly) full of people trying hard not to let on that they don't have any idea what they're talking about... well...

When the students talk, it's a worthwhile experience.

Posted by: mwb at March 7, 2004 09:36 AM

What about the role of "technology in the classroom" (personally, I detest this buzzword)? Does it really help student understanding of the course material?

Posted by: cwd at March 7, 2004 11:05 AM

I think technology is a completely open question. It all depends on what it is and what you do with it.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at March 7, 2004 11:55 AM

TDA: I've recently experienced the same phenomenon of students demanding more explicit notes from ME, rather than taking them themselves. They want it all laid out, exactly as it will be on the exams. It drives me nuts. I can't possibly put everything in my head down on paper.

My usual lecture style is to couple visuals with my verbal explanation. As a specific example, we're recently covering the visual system, and I put up a diagram of the opsin molecule: 7 transmembrane domains, retinal binding site, etc. I spent about 5 minutes talking about it, relating it to the structure of some olfactory receptor molecules we'd seen the week before, explaining how this protein confers wavelength specificity, all kinds of various details. None of the details are in the visuals, which students are able to download from the web; yet only about a third to a half of the class was busily writing away or even expressing some level of alertness. They are the subset who will do reasonably well on the exams.

It used to be worse. Once upon a time, I tried to put comprehensive notes on the web, and it was a horrible failure. Students would download everything and print it out and bring it to class, and then sit there in complete passivity. Faculty reviewers of my teaching even commented on it, on how my students were shutting off their brains and relying on last minute cram sessions with the notes I provided to make it through the exams. It just didn't work.

On my exams, anytime I tried a question that required integrating ideas or using their imagination, they would fail completely. They were great at regurgitation, but thinking wasn't something they'd exercised much in class.

The tricky part of lecturing isn't unspooling part of my brain in public and doing an entertaining information dump; it's getting students to engage with the material as it's presented to them. Discussion sections after the fact rarely seem to do that. I've found it far more effective to stop lecturing every once in a while and start calling on random students to tell me what they don't understand so far or to explain some detail, or point out something I've just mentioned and ask them to explain the significance ("photoreceptors have cilia--where else have you seen that?")

Posted by: PZ Myers at March 7, 2004 12:43 PM

Oh, my God! Somebody used the word "meta-knowledge." Is it any wonder why the vast majority of Americans think the professoriate is out of touch with reality?

I shall go downstairs and take my meta-blockers now.

Posted by: Meta Lemon at March 7, 2004 01:24 PM

The other challenge is that some professors are just not good at leading discussions. In the not-so-distant past I have taken a doctoral seminar from a prof who can't stand more than about ten seconds of silence. As a result, just when somebody is gearing up to say something, he breaks in with a comment or another question. While his points are always interesting and valuable, we're getting more content and not so much in the way of learn-to-formulate-and-defend-ideas out of the course.

Posted by: oliviacw at March 7, 2004 02:01 PM

#16 Yes that sounds like Economics lectures... and what I try to do.

In my env econ. class I could see one student bury his head everytime another one that asked lots of (mostly good) questions ask a question. Engineering students seem to just want to get the lecture done...

I did have one professor in the past who just stood there and read from her textbook. I really thought that was weird. Reading a lecture like that seems to be the humanities model. I've seen it at conferences. I can't imagine economists or geographers or other scientists doing that.

Posted by: moom at March 7, 2004 03:32 PM


I tried the full notes on the web because students demanded it - there were also the overheads only. I think few looked at the full notes, and am not sure the others even remember the overheads are there. I now have the overheads there only. Some bring them to class and then annotate them with what I say. It tends to be foreign students (Malaysia, China) who tend to do this - they think it is better than trying to take complete notes in English when I'm talking (I had to take notes in Hebrew as an undergrad when I was a native English speaker - I guess I am just a genius LOL :P - well actually I relied heavily on the text and readings - my notes which I still have are not very extensive).

Posted by: moom at March 7, 2004 03:46 PM

"Oh, my God! Somebody used the word "meta-knowledge." Is it any wonder why the vast majority of Americans think the professoriate is out of touch with reality?"

Well, someone else used the words "bowel movement" so I guess it all evens out.

Posted by: Matt K. at March 7, 2004 04:37 PM

Presumably it's all Greek to Mr Meta Lemon.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 7, 2004 04:39 PM

I was talking to a friend today and mentioned the job posting which began it, and his first comment was 'who would be studpid enough to actually video tape a real class? The idea here is that you should "stage" a class. Stock it with friends, write out questions for them to ask you, that sort of thing'.

And here I thought I was the cynic. It's a good idea, though, don't you all agree?

Posted by: Chris at March 7, 2004 05:48 PM

How will hiring committees authenticate the tapes? Will a new division of the Educational Testing Service take this over? And why should applicants get to send a tape of what they regard as a good performance? Wouldn't it be better to have a tape of a randomly selected class (taken by one of the new video cameras in our classrooms, installed for "safety and quality control purposes")? Better yet, how about tapes of random moments of an applicant's daily life (perfect for assessing "fit")?

How about this: "All applicants must, at their own expense, submit one month of 24-hour video surveillance. VHS and DVD formats are acceptable."

Posted by: THB at March 7, 2004 06:10 PM

This taping thing sort of worries me, actually. At UW, I've basically done all the teaching I'm likely to do, and am now looking ahead to research overseas to complete my dissertation. I can't just produce a tape on demand under those conditions.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at March 7, 2004 06:39 PM


Yep, it sounds like you're at a community college! I teach at a non-elite 4/4 regional university that offers bachelor's and master's degrees. We have many junior college transfers, and while a number of my students are very motivated, others are as apathetic as the ones that you describe. The apathy quotient skyrockets in evening classes, which, to be fair, tend to enroll students who struggle with the school/work/life balance for sometimes unavoidable reasons. And a key problem is that a lot of the students at campuses like yours and mine, who arrive only with the knowledge that to get a better job they need a certain kind of educational credential, need socialization into the values of liberal education, including the value of active learning, and explicit appeals to the long-term benefit of careful thinking for their lives in the workplace and as citizens. To a certain extent what seems to us to be apathy can come from innocence or stress rather than malice. I personally find the challenges posed by these kinds of students far less aggravating than similar attitudes from more privileged student populations that I’ve encountered.

But that level of apathy and practiced resistance to real learning can be very frustrating, whatever its underlying cause. Also, I'd be very suspicious of students who make claims about other instructors' typical practices, especially when it comes to handing out copies of the exam (or a pool of questions from which exam questions will be drawn) in advance. Some students have one such instructor but try to make it out to be twenty to see how much of their own work they can put on your shoulders. I even had students try this one on me when I was teaching in a research-oriented system with a relatively strong student population with a humanities orientation. It's a negotiation ploy frequently tried on the "new" instructor. You might do a reality check by asking around about exam prep strategies casually in the copy room some day--and keep in mind that in institutions with a number of "practical" programs, standards and practices may vary widely by department, which may well be (as it is on my campus) a large source of the students' shock at your expectations. The point in ferreting out the source of their attitudes is not to excuse them but to figure out ways to help communicate to students that different disciplines have different purposes and expectations.

The "blame game" you describe is also quite common on my campus (and, so I've heard, systemwide), and I've found that there are ways to defuse it without giving in on my standards. Instead of giving them "study guide" handouts that point to specific areas that will be on the exam, I tell them at the beginning of the quarter (and write in the syllabus and repeat multiple times) that there will be nothing on the exam that was not discussed in class and that therefore they should take notes and mark up their readings accordingly. (This doesn't mean that this information registers; I still haven't come to understand the ones who don't process the fact that there's all the information they need on the syllabus even when I point them to specific sections in it. But at least I can point to these written documents to counter claims that I was the problem.) Then, before exams, I spend part of a class session preparing them for the exam. This generally involves a PowerPoint or a handout, but not one with hints about the answers. Instead, it contains study skills suggestions (which these students often need and appreciate) and information on the types of questions that will be asked (mine are short-answer), followed by examples of questions and responses. This little dog-and-pony show short-circuits the blame game and demonstrates my desire to be supportive, while also insisting that they take responsibility for processing the material we've discussed.

Speaking of making them take responsibility for the material, and getting back to the discussion vs. lecture thread, I'm surprised to have seen only a couple of posts that acknowledge active-learning strategies other than discussions that involve the entire class at once. With either the students you describe who don't do the reading, or those that do but need some help processing it (which is what causes some classroom silences), asking them to work in small groups on specific questions targeted to passages in the reading--and then report back to the class on their findings--eliminates the passivity that the lecture model encourages while grounding the discussion in a way that moderates the tendencies to ill-informed speculation that so many people have pointed out here as a drawback of the discussion model. Also, shy students and those who are less academically confident often feel more comfortable in the groups than talking in front of the class, all of which results in less silence and tooth-pulling when the full class discusses together. Students have time to formulate responses in the safety of small groups. (This even works in large lecture courses, by the way, so long as one has a microphone that's loud enough to let them know when to stop.) When it becomes clear, however, that silence is created by students not doing the reading, asking for a brief freewrite that will be collected sometimes scares them into coming prepared next time. You might want to try these ideas, too, as a strategy for enduring the 8th circle.

But take heart: even with the "blame game" and the warped perceptions typical in fall semester of students making the dramatic adjustment to college level work ("we're gonna be asked to Read Books in an English class?!" said in outrage), I got high marks last semester. And I've also been reassured by various administrators that those whose job it is to evaluate my evaluations know how to read them. ("How dare he take attendance!" and "Totally unreasonable to expect us to read 6 novels and use proper grammar!" are taken despite their tone to reflect positively rather than negatively on the instructor.) Some harmless chitchat in the mailroom might ferret out some useful information from more reliable sources than your students about attitudes toward such remarks on your campus.

Posted by: at March 7, 2004 07:07 PM


I have to admit that I don't find group work to be a particularly effective way of bringing shy students into the mix. In my experience, student groups quickly figure out who the "talkative" member is and lean on him/her to prep the group's "presentation." The silent students stay silent, and the talkative ones continue to do the talking, both in group and out of it. I've tried to cook the books by carefuly setting up groups in advance, but even then this pattern seems to hold. I do circulate around the room whenever I've asked the students to work in groups, and this has a slight effect on the students: I can engage with them for 5 minutes or so, and in this way I can try to get the silent/shy students talking. But once I leave a group to move on to the next one, I can hear the old pattern reasserting itself.

(Then there's the entire "group that spends 5 minutes prepping their answer and the other 15 minutes discussing their pub crawl plans" problem.)

What I've found to be an effective way of getting shy students to contribute is to either (a) use weekly on-line response posts or (b) require students to bring short response papers to class. My best attempt at the former, on-line approach was to give the students a weekly instigator post, one that contained a discussion question about the week's reading assignments. The students were required to respond to this message, but in a slightly structured format: the first student could write two paragraphs of whatever response they wanted, but subsequent students had to spend 1 paragraph commenting on their predecessor's post and 1 paragraph adding something new of their own. This approach minimized repetition of ideas, and it meant that I could work students' posts and ideas into class lecture/discussion. The second, paper-based approach ensured that each student had something to say if I called on them in class--no one was in the situation of having to manufacture a considered response from thin air, and that was a boon to a number of smart but shy students.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at March 7, 2004 09:28 PM

Yikes! Who knew I was going to touch off such a storm? And at the end of the quarter with papers to grade and comments to write and no time to engage the discussion! I would like to point to Ivy League Grad's post as an example of someone struggling to do valian teaching under difficult circumstances. Of course it is nearly impossible to run a discussion with 100 people in the room. That has to do with the economic conditions of the academy. And of course a discussion leader may need to briefly lecture when a gap in knowledge is evident or to provide relelvant background. But I want to make a couple of points. 1) Leading a discussion is hard. It requires practice and tons of thought before hand. Since teacer training is negligable most PhDs never learn how to run a good one. I had a lot of bad discussions before I could consistently have good ones. 2) It also goes much better if students are held accountable. Some of the things that were mentioned such as graded reaction papers, on-line postings, etc. etc. that force students to engage the material lead to better discussions. Does this require more work on the teachers part? You betcha. 3) My bias is field specific. I have yet to see anybody effectively demonstrate basic historical methodology in a lecture. 4) In a perfect world, I'd like to see teaching post applications include a sample of comments on a student paper, another important aspect of teaching. This will never happen. 5) I made an assumption that this institution was primarily a teaching oriented place and therefore had smaller classes of 30 or less as the norm. 6) I have always assumed that the "tell me what you know students" have a high overlap with the "tell me what I need to know for the test" students. History is one of the few fields where enough expertise to speak credibly on a subject can be gained pretty quickly. I'm sorry I can't participate more fully but this is just a nightmare couple of weeks heading into spring break. Conference paper, essays to grade, end of quarter comments for each student, plus teaching classes every day. But this is why I chose to bail for high school teaching. I actually enjoy this stuff.

And John Lemon, I have no idea what "inclusiveness" means and I assure you, part of my discussion strategy as an undergrad was to make sure I asked questions about stuff I did not understand. You can do that when there are only 8 other people in the room. And I assure you, I do not tolerate stupidity, I do tell students when they are wrong in plain language (such as "no" or "check your facts" or "can you read the line that you think says that aloud, including the second half of the sentence?"), I encourage them to do the same to each other.
My hat (cowboy, of course) is off to everybody - lecturer or discussion leader - who at least thinks about their teaching practice and does not become complacent. And lectures work well for students who are aural learners. who knew?

Posted by: David Salmanson at March 8, 2004 10:30 AM

Hi. Complaints that students aren't able to "discuss" and similar complaints about student expectations could, perhaps, be alleviated by some premliminary discussions at the beginning of the semester--why do so many instructors assume that there is a shared culture in the classroom, that students know all of the customs of this foreign country they've entered? I think that just as students don't come (alas) to you knowing how to take lecture notes, they don't come knowing what it means to have a useful classroom discussion. And you do have to share your expectations every time, since students are getting 4 or 5 or 6 different experiences/sets of expections every semester.

Posted by: sappho at March 8, 2004 10:38 AM

Re #44:


This is exactly what I used the first lecture of the big survey class to do: I talked about the nature of literary history, the issue of the canon, the problem of periodization (e.g., can we really say that the Middle Ages ended in 1485 as some texts do?), and some of the decisions that went into structuring the syllabus as I did. Unfortunately, I had to squeeze all of this into 50 minutes of time and still begin discussion of our first author. The next time I teach the survey, I'll have an extra class period and thus more time to give to a lecture on methodological principles. We actually had a student exclaim in surprise to his or her TA that "This course spends too much time on history! Why are we talking about history in a literature class?" I want to be able to anticipate such remarks in an opening lecture and forestall as many of them as possible.

The TAs then devoted the first discussion section to a review of the syllabus and a clarification of my/our expectations (since I gave the TAs a more substantial role in shaping the course as compensation for their greater workload in handling all the grading).

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at March 8, 2004 12:28 PM

Interesting discussion. Ha Ha.

One thing I think you all need to ask yourselves is: Can I be replaced by a machine? Even the best lecture can be recorded and replayed infinitely. Your cable system is probably re-running David Goodstein's Mechanical Universe series, check them out, they are great, even if you don't understand physics.

If the teacher is not adding anything to the class beyond the lecture, he can be replace by a machine.

Law Professors have been running discussions in very large classes (I recall a couple of 100) with the diabolical efficency of Spanish Inquisitors for years. Now it helps that they have older and perhaps more goal oriented students, but it can be done.

#14 above refers to professor Eric Mazur. If you check his web site there are papers on his teaching methods in physics.

My son is taking AP American History this year (He is a 10th grader). At the begining of each chapter his teacher gives the students 20 to 30 questions:

Here are a couple for this week:

"What were the causes of the Philippine Insurrection? Describe the charcter of the war and the controversies that surrounded it?

"Describe the reasons for the Republican nomination of McKinley and Roosevelt in 1900."

Things to remember: 1) if you are not adding value, there is no reason to pay you, 2) if you can be replaced by a machine, you will be when the machine is cheap enough, and 3) you can buy a new DVD player for $50 and a new TV for less than $200.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 8, 2004 10:54 PM

"One thing I think you all need to ask yourselves is: Can I be replaced by a machine?"

As a matter of fact, I've recently asked myself this question in relation to this weblog. My ongoing problems with auto-generated comment spam have got me wondering: could this blog run itself, by means of auto-generated weblog entries? Could I come up with some sort of programme which would churn out daily entries based on a series of keywords (academic, academia, adjunct, adjunctification, and so on), and then just walk away?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 8, 2004 11:18 PM

By the way, I'm all over the 'let's replace faculty with machines' idea (see my "RoboProf" entry).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 8, 2004 11:29 PM

I'm a second-semester senior undergrad, but I've also been a TA in my school's philosophy department for the past two years.

I can't really comment on the merits of lecture classes versus discussion classes for undergrads except when it comes to philosophy. My view is that small seminar-style discussion classes are great - but only for upper level or majors-only courses. Very little is gained by having discussions in big intro courses; the people who already know what's going on sit there bored and the people who don't sit there confused (and not knowing what to write down). Lecturing is what most of us want and need in our first course or two in philosophy.

Once you get a smaller group full of philosophy majors who've taken at least a couple of the same lecture courses as prerequisites, discussion is invaluable - at that point we have done enough philosophy that it makes sense to have us apply it to the harder stuff. When it's a seminar with other majors and a faculty member whose papers you've been reading for years, you're more inclined to speak up and to do so intelligently.

Posted by: Erikah at March 9, 2004 07:34 AM

I don't get why if I'm lecturing I can be replaced by a machine. I have to write the lecture, right? I'm not just reading it out of the textbook. Do the people who suggest that a machine could do this have any idea what it takes to write a really good lecture? The capacity to integrate your knowledge with what the students have been assigned to read - figuring out what background information they need, what issues are the most significant, etc. - is the most valuable quality in a prof.

It's implied that the lecture spoonfeeds students and discussions make them active. But I think excessive discussion is a way of spoonfeeding too. When I was an undergraduate, when I was interested in what my profs were saying in lecture, I'd actually discuss it - after class! - with other students, one or a few at a time. My feeling (when I'm in a contrary mood) is that if you don't care enough about your education to do this, you shouldn't be catered to anyway. Of course this is a hugely debatable point.

Posted by: af at March 9, 2004 12:08 PM

When do I lecture? At the beginning and end of the week, when the info isn't in the book, to tie together discussions, and when I haven't prepared for discussion. My classes (Community College, so freshman-sophomore) are mostly discussion -- but generally structured. That's the key, I think. Plus:

  • A very high percentage of the grade is based on class participation
  • Discussion (usually begun with a q&a session on the general period or topic) is almost always on primary sources in the surveys
  • students have to take online quizzes on the textbook before we begin the topic, so they have at least opened the books
  • I give the students a set of questions for note-taking for each primary source (same questions), and let them know that I reserve the right to do random checks for notes. Anyone who isn't prepared has to leave for the day
  • When students work in small groups on tougher documents, or for group presentations, I give them guidelines for how to work (quiet brainstorming, taking turns to get everything onto one list, etc.), and I go around and answer questions or nudge them back on track.
  • I sometimes let them go onto tangents, as long as we can get them back to the main discussion
  • I always stop and answer questions and return to the board whenever people are stuck
  • I give credit for questions as well as for answers

I've been doing this for a while, and it works pretty well. The tough part is getting students used to the idea that they have to take some responsibility for a good class -- Ultimately, it's mine, no question, but students who are invested in the class seem to enjoy it well, and to help each other ... ugh -- it sounds like an ejimicator's dream, but really, I find it very difficult, and the students find it pretty rigorous.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at March 9, 2004 03:08 PM

I just found this discussion and it's pretty depressing. I've been teaching composition and literature in northern California community colleges for 39 years. I thought the lecture/discussion debate happened back in the 1960s and 70s and was long dead. But apparently, lots of new teachers just repeat these old arguments.

The central question for teaching has been immortalized by our sitting President when he asked about students "Is they learning?" That's the task before every teacher: figuring out what students need to learn and how they best learn it and then arrange the conditions for them to learn it. Arguing lecture vs. discussion is beside the point. Just this week in my three classes I've lectured, I've had peer editing sessions, I've had students reading aloud, I've had them write in response to prompts, I've had them collaborate in writing a sonnet, I've shown video tape, and I've had them writing on weblogs and web discussion boards. They also work in research groups for one paper. Good teachers develop a range of strategies, tactics, and tools and use whatever works.

And, since students today won't read unless motivated, I give quizzes on the assigned books that count enough to make a grade letter difference if they are failed.

Posted by: John L at March 10, 2004 04:05 AM

With regard to providing lecture notes to students, I've noticed a strange trend here at a technical Uni in Edinburgh - I came from a small liberal arts college in South Carolina, and was quite used to small, intimate lectures where professors lectured, we could speak back, we all took detailed notes, etc. Here in Britain, our lecturers actually _chastize_ us if we take notes. All of the notes are provided beforehand on WebCT, and if you're caught scribbling something on a blank piece of paper, the lecturer will stop talking, look at you, and remind you that all the notes are available on the web. Furthermore, if you dare speak during the lecture, the very put off lecturer will acknowledge you as quickly as possible, then get back to the slides. Maybe I was spoiled as an undergraduate, but I've been appalled at the quality of teaching at this new university. Granted, I didn't choose the best uni (i came for a specific research institute), but I never expected so many lecturers to be so autopiloted and unimaginative. I wouldn't even bother going to the lectures, except that I want to be recognized by those who will mark my work.

Posted by: ghani at March 14, 2004 12:57 PM

It has taken me five going on six years of teaching to figure out and put into practice the following gross generalizations about students:

1. What students learn in humanities courses is what they reflect upon. All the rest is rote memorization, worthless in life, and virtually worthless even on essay tests.

2. Students can think about what they can't remember.

3. Students remember very little of what they hear, and almost all of what they say.


4. Discussion is feasible only with students who have done the reading.

So to teach you need to have students who have done the reading and who particpate.

Keep in mind that they understand (eventually) much, much better than they can articulate, but they only understand what they say themselves.

The only purpose large lectures serve is to remind students to go to section.

Posted by: Michael Kochin at March 15, 2004 01:08 AM