Scott Aikin admits that he’s “a very conservative pedagogue.” That’s why the author and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University says that, this fall, he’s asking his students to keep their laptops at home. Instead, he wants their full attention for his main method of teaching: lecturing.
“I call it ‘the chalk and talk.’ I have a piece of chalk and I talk. I fill the board with notes and sometimes diagram things or map out an argument. Students are allowed to stop and ask questions or challenge at any time, and I’ll make good on answers. That’s it. Students only need pens and paper for the class (if not their books, too),” he said.
Aikin’s method appears beyond retro — some would even call it obsolete — but Aikin says that’s fine with him. He finds being the “sage on the stage” to be most effective. “The most content-full and involved classes from my college (and even graduate) days were primarily lecture courses,” he said. “Everything I do as a lecturer now I’ve cribbed from those I thought effective in front of a class.”
Studies show lecturing to be an effective tool for transferring information: for example, a 2011 study of classroom teaching methods performed by Guido Schwerdt of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Amelie C. Wuppermann at the University of Mainz, Germany, found that larger amounts of class time lecturing increased junior high math and science students’ test scores over time spent on problem-solving activities. But the majority of higher education seems to be moving in the opposite direction, toward project-based and student-led work, especially for time spent in class.
A large reason for the shift is much of the information conveyed in a typical lecture is already available for free, at any time online, freeing up class time for more in-depth, hands-on work. Dr. Tim Lahey, infectious diseases specialist and Associate Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, says the dilemma whether to kill the lecture is “the million dollar question in education, medical and otherwise.” One of Lahey’s main goals as head of Dartmouth medical school’s curriculum redesign is to incorporate more interactive work, what he calls the “evidence-based (and fun) teaching tools,” that he believes will revitalize medical school learning.
Teachers are wrong to assume that their role is to only convey information, and that merely saying the magic words will translate into learning for students, Lahey said. “Our students can access lots of information really efficiently now online, probably more efficiently than we could ever relay it,” he said. “So the added value of interactions with faculty should be talking through difficult concepts, refining difficult decision-making, and otherwise doing the challenging stuff that can’t be done with a laptop or phone. I try to structure lectures with that in mind.”
Lahey is eager to introduce more peer instruction in the revamped medical curriculum, because, he says, it’s clear that students working together in small groups produce superior outcomes to lecturing.
Peer instruction was first introduced by Eric Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University and Area Dean of Applied Physics, to his classes in 1991. Mazur, who found that this method helped students understand better, said lectures are much like musical concerts — they can still be appreciated, especially as a motivational tool. But what’s changed is that the lecture is no longer the only way to transfer important information. “Ever since the Middle Ages, the primary vehicle for conveying information was the lecture,” he said. “But this is the 21st century, and there are so many ways to convey information, it’s not the necessity it once was.” Students don’t learn by listening, they learn by doing, and Mazur points out that the brain’s “hard work” of learning has to be performed by the learner, not the lecture.
Mazur’s method of peer instruction for physics classes involves two steps: first, he “primes the pump” by assigning reading or watching an online video of a lecture outside of class, and has students annotate the parts they had trouble understanding. Part two happens at the next class, when Mazur revisits concepts students stumbled over. “I say, here’s a question, think about it individually,” he said. “Then, commit to an answer, write it down on a piece of paper, or sometimes we use clickers, or handheld devices, or whatever. But here’s the crucial step: After you have committed to an answer, turn to the people around you, find a person with a different answer, and try to come to some agreement.”
When students show each other how they came to a certain answer, they get a chance to refine their thinking, showing the other student why they did what they did. “When I say it, it may sound very clear and convincing, but to the students you are not really helpful,” said Mazur, explaining professors’ sometime curse of knowledge, and that new learners are sometimes able to explain a new concept to confused students better than a professor.
And while even “conservative” professors like Aikin still actively seek student involvement through discussions and allowing students to “share the expertise” in class, some students think it’s not nearly enough. Somewhere between standards and what professors deem best for students lies what students want out of the learning experience, a concern that professors rarely consider, says Zak Malamed, Student Voice founder and University of Maryland College Park sophomore. Malamed said that personalized learning is very important to 21st century students. “Professors do not engage students enough, if at all, when trying to innovate the classroom,” he said. “It’s shocking how out of touch they can be, just because they didn’t take the time to hear their students’ perspectives.”
In Malamed’s favorite class on social media, the professor asked how students wanted to learn what was on the syllabus, and made the class a conversation in a way that felt relevant to modern society. And the most memorable lecture Malamed has experienced at the university level was with Harvard’s Michael Sandel: “He interacts with his audience – it’s terrible that I see it as an audience, by the way – and engages the audience with each other. It makes the classroom seem much smaller than it is, and saves me from my short attention span.”