In Defense of the Lecture

I love to lecture. I am better at lecturing than I am at leading discussions, although I like the intimacy of the small group and think I am getting better at such discussions. I am passionate about lecturing and I try to give my students their money’s worth every time I step behind the lectern.

Barry Strauss notes in a short piece on the Minding the Campus website that college lectures have been attacked as being either too authoritarian (the Left) or too lowbrow (the Right). Lectures have also been attacked by pedagogy gurus who argue that student learning does not and cannot take place in a large lecture hall.

I have largely ignored all of these criticisms of the lecture. Perhaps I have ignored them at my own peril. Perhaps I only THINK that my students are learning something from my lectures. While it is true that most history education takes place through the close reading and discussion of documents, I also think that a large lecture, for reasons Strauss mentions in his piece, is still valuable. I’ll let Strauss explain:

In any case, lecturing is a democratic activity. Communication in a democracy means persuasion. It also means stepping outside the comfort zone of a circle of friends of acquaintances and speaking to strangers. Democracies cannot afford the luxury of speaking only to small groups; they require speaking to the crowd.

With speech comes danger, and crowds can fall for demagogues. A good lecture course educates students against just that danger, because it gives them the leisure to evaluate the lecturer’s words. Discussion sections provide just that opportunity, since they allow the student to ask follow-up questions about the lecture. Usually, the interlocutor is a graduate-student teaching assistant – a less daunting figure to challenge than the professor.

I like this–lecturing as part of the democratic process.

I am interested in hearing again from students and faculty. Faculty–do you think lectures are worthwhile pedagogical tools? Students or former students–do you learn anything from sitting through lectures?

10 thoughts on “In Defense of the Lecture

  1. Janet: I remember that class well–my first at Messiah College. I seem to remember that several of the students were a bit surprised when we rearranged the tables and spent the day discussing the readings.

    Your point about taking notes during a discussion is a good one. I do, however, think that a good professor will try to guide the discussion so that students are able to glean important insights from the document. Open-ended discussions with no real goal or purpose are not particularly helpful. Students need to take something away from these kinds of discussion sections.

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  2. In my experience, a combination of lecture and discussion works best. If I remember correctly, Dr. Fea, you structured your upper level classes with lecture days and discussion days. When preparing for an exam, I find it easier to review lecture notes, since they are structured logically and convey the material clearly (as a lecture should). Discussions can sometimes go off track, and sometimes it's difficult for students to know “what's important” or “what's right” and they just give up taking notes on discussions. I've seen this happen in all levels of courses. While it is important for students to have discussions and work on forming their own opinions and then defending them, there is a place for lecture in every classroom at any level.

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  3. Tim: Thanks for the comment. Since I know a bit about the school and the context in which you are working, I would say that it is appropriate to lecture. When I taught AP at SBS I lectured regularly.

    Should you be doing this? It all depends on how you define “lecture.” If lecture means that you are standing up in front of the class talking at students with no interaction, then I might have some concerns.

    What I imagine you are doing, however, is giving them information from your powerpoint and seasoning the presentation with questions and conversation.

    I also imagine that you are taking some time to work through primary sources with them. I tried to spend a least one or two class periods a week with primary documents. I would lecture on the first three days of the week and devote Thursday and Friday to a close reading of a document related to the lecture topic. This was harder to do in an AP class where we had to keep moving in order to cover the material, but it was still possible.

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  4. Dr. Fea: This response is a little late, but I wanted to get some feedback. I do lecture frequently to my seniors via structured powerpoints. I do this, in part, because I feel that it is good college prep, but it would be nice to hear another opinion. Do you think lecturing to seniors is a good idea to help prepare them for the college environment?

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  5. Jamie: Good thoughts. There are too many colleges that offer “Social Studies” degrees with very limited content in history.

    I work with a lot of secondary history teachers and I am always shocked at how little history many of them took as undergraduates.

    A few months ago I was doing a seminar for forty or so teachers on the American Revolution. When I surveyed the group, I found that only one of the teachers had taken an upper-division course in the Revolution and less than half had taken the introductory US survey class. Yet these teachers were teaching multiple sections of US History in their high schools.

    At Messiah College all “Social Studies” majors must fulfill all the requirements for the history major as well. It is the equivalent of a double major. Granted, it is a lot of work with very little flexibility, but at least our students are very prepared to teach history.

    While the lecture is not the only way of preparing people to think like historians, I do believe that it can be an important part of a history education, assuming that you have a prof who can deliver an engaging lecture. I know some would disagree with me on this, but I think Strauss makes some good points that should be taken seriously.

    Thanks for the post.

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  6. I love lectures. I actually changed my major from Social Studies Education to History because I felt the Education Department was attempting to make its students phase out the lecture because it did not promote learning. Granted it was not the only reason I switched, but it was a big reason.

    I think lectures are necessary to get the correct background information when studying a topic. You need to learn from an experienced professor in your subject matter before you can begin to understand the material and make connections yourself.

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  7. David: Thanks for the post. I think Strauss is saying that a lecture COURSE is democratic. He seems to be implying that recitations or seminars are devoted, in part, to discussing the week's lectures. I must admit that I do not do this enough in my lecture courses. Conversation about the lecture makes it democratic.

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  8. John,

    I very much enjoy lecturing and think it's a valuable pedagogical tool. However, I never really feel that I am enacting a democratic process when I lecture. I can understand Strauss' point about how recitations might generate debate, but how does a teacher create debate about a lecture within the setting of a large lecture hall?

    David Pettegrew

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  9. Tim: Thanks for the comment. Do you lecture to your students? I usually advise secondary teachers against it, but I also know that the kids at SBS are pretty smart and may be able to handle one every now and then.

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