The medievals may have had it right

Back in the day, an education (for those who had one) consisted in great part of two things: the lectio and the disputatio, the lecture and the disputation.  There wasn’t any group work, and the magister was, quite literally, the sage on the stage.  Then somewhere along the line people decided that lectures, while apparently good for college students, were bad for younger children.

Well, hang on a second.

Newer teaching methods might be beneficial for student achievement if implemented in the proper way, but our findings imply that simply inducing teachers to shift time in class from lecture-style presentations to problem solving without ensuring effective implementation is unlikely to raise overall student achievement in math and science. On the contrary, our results indicate that there might even be an adverse impact on student learning.

You should read the whole thing, but here’s the skinny: for math and science classes, it seems like lecturing might, on average, be better than problem-solving in transmitting concepts.

Contrary to contemporary pedagogical thinking, we find that students score higher on standardized tests in the subject in which their teachers spent more time on lecture-style presentations than in the subject in which the teacher devoted more time to problem-solving activities. For both math and science, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecture-style presentations (e.g., increasing the share of time spent lecturing from 20 to 30 percent) is associated with an increase in student test scores of 1 percent of a standard deviation. Another way to state the same finding is that students learn less in the classes in which their teachers spend more time on in-class problem solving.

I’m not convinced that this is limited to science and math (though it may be for practical reasons which I’m about to discuss).  I’m supposed to lead “class discussions” about topics in philosophy in my role as a graduate student.  But sometimes I realize that something from the Professor’s lecture just didn’t stick.  I only have an hour.  What am I going to do?  I can have a “discussion” about it, but we’ll only get half way into the topic, and we’ll spend a lot of time working through theories that don’t quite get it right.  Or I can just roll up my sleeves, walk into the classroom and say, “OK, no discussion today.  Today you shut up and listen.”  So that’s what I sometimes do.  (Warning to instructors: you have to have a certain type of rapport with your students before you can get to the point where they don’t get offended at being told to “shut up and listen”.  Do not do this on the first day of a new class under any circumstances!)

I’ve often thought that the reason a lot of people decided lecturing was bad was twofold:

(1) Teachers actually have to really know their subject to lecture effectively — a good lecture is harder than running a good workshop, for instance.  It requires a greater mastery of the material and greater preparation, especially if you allow questions.  Because some (not all, and probably not most, but not a trivial number either) teachers often do not really know their subject thoroughly– and by that I mean that they have a bachelor’s degree in the subject and don’t engage in a great deal of outside reading in their discipline — lectures by what are essentially undergraduates in the subject  just aren’t that good.   If a nontrivial chunk of your instructors kinda suck at a teaching style, well… that teaching style is going to get a bad rep.

(2)  Many teachers try too hard to be “fun” and “engaging” because their ego is tied up with whether or not their students like them and think that they are fun.  Lectures, for all their potential, aren’t fun.  They can be mind-blowing, they can be boring, they can be exciting even… but fun is never a word I’d use to describe a lecture.  There’s a certain positive feedback loop that can get going between teachers and students that’s a little addictive: they like you, you like them, you’re fun, they’re fun… everyone has a gay old time.   But the euphoria of that feedback loop can sometimes obscure a lack of real learning.  That’s not to say it always does, or even mostly does.  But it’s possible.  I’ve seen it happen.  And the thing that makes it worse is how everyone thinks that Mr. FunFun is a “great teacher”  and goes to him for advice, and his advice is “Don’t lecture… it’s not fun.”  Well… yeah.

Incidentally, (1) may be why these results showed up in math and science.  Math and science undergrads tend to be a little better at their subjects than humanities undergrads.  (I was a humanities undergrad, so I realize I’m casting an aspersion on myself.  Yet it’s true in my case, too.)  Math and science also tend to have easier-to-isolate components that can be pinned down for lecture.  Lecturing on Rome requires a theory, some synthesis with the rest of history, some story to be told — or it’s just going to be a recitation of disjointed facts, which is about the furthest thing from an effective lecture that I can imagine.  Lecturing on matrix transformations or the esterification of an acid, well… doesn’t require quite as much of “the vision thing”, as Former President Bush once called it.

Anyway, the study’s conclusions aren’t a full endorsement of lecturing as a teaching style, but it goes a long way, I think, towards clearing the oft-sullied name of the lectio, and for an amateur-medievalist like myself, that brings great joy.

Now if they can only convince high schools to bring back disputations…

UPDATE: Post edited to remove non-functioning HTML tags.  -M