4 Things Lecture Is Good For

By Robert Talbert, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/13/12

1. Modeling thought processes.

The benefit of hearing an expert learner…is that, if the lecture is clearly given, the audience can gain some insights into what makes the expert an expert. A good lecture does more than convey facts — it lays bare the cognitive processes that an expert uses to assimilate those facts….

2. Sharing cognitive structures.

[A] lecturer [can] share the mental models and internal cognitive frameworks that worked for him/her when he/she was learning the content. For example, when I took Calculus as a high schooler, I learned the Quotient Rule using the little ditty “Ho D Hi minus Hi D Ho over Ho Ho” and I still cannot perform the Quotient Rule by hand without singing that to myself. I share that whenever I teach Calculus — and it’s not something [students] would necessarily have come up with on their own.

3. Giving context.

Good lecturers know more than just their subject material. They know the context in which that content sits and how the material relates to other things — things that a novice learner might not think about…. Lectures are good places to learn some things from people with a broader set of experiences than you have.

4. Telling stories.

Stories…are a kind of cognitive structure that help students to relate to the course and see the course content in a different way….

Notice that what I don’t include in this list is the one thing lectures seem most commonly used for: information transfer…. There are serious problems with retention and recall of information given in a lecture even if the lecture is rhetorically solid — and this is to say nothing about the disconnect between the [lecture’s] length…and the [students’] attention span. Resorting to a lecture because I need to “cover material” is just an admission that I didn’t design my course well. If that’s all the lecture is for, put it online so students can at least pause and rewind.

Notice also that I do not count whether a lecture is inspiring or not…. Being inspired and being taught are not the same…. Having one’s thoughts provoked doesn’t mean that one has interacted with the lecturer in any real way. I am inspired by many of the TED talks…I hear, but it doesn’t mean I have learned anything….

Lectures do have their place, and when it makes sense to give one, we should do so with clarity, organization, and rhetorical skill. We ought to aim for balance, with lecture and active work combining together to produce as rich a learning environment as possible.

Robert Talbert is with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University, Allendale MI.


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