The Power of Lectures and Learning Designs


Lisa and I were born curious and remain curious.  The internet helps satisfy our inquisitiveness through RSS feeds to blogs; podcasts; videos on TED Talks, YouTube, and Vimeo; MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and group discussions and research projects with colleagues online.  And as learning concierges at the Studio, we are doing work not even imagined as a career a decade ago.  So we must be self-directed, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) learners to keep growing our knowledge and skills to provide value to groups and individuals.

We are continually refining our digital literacy skills and teaching/learning designs to foster adult learning.  That’s why headings such as “Lecture Me. Really.” that appeared on October 18 in the New York Times grab our attention.

University lecture hall from nikolayhg at Pixabay,

University lecture hall from nikolayhg at Pixabay,

I admit to knee-jerk stereotypes about classroom lectures when asked what I think about them. To me, they are largely compulsory, passive, time-in-seat ventures for those who have to earn or maintain professional credentials. But Molly Worthen’s defense of lectures  in the NYT  reminded me that I like lectures more often than not. Worthen explained that “good lectures” produce significant learning by

keeping students’ minds in ‘energetic and simultaneous action’ (John Henry Newman) as they synthesize, organize, and react as they listen.

teaching a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.”

building an argument instead of reciting facts (Monessa Cummins, Grinnell College).

helping students build the habit of ‘listening for an extended period with an analytical ear’ (Cummins).

Worthen observed that “listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people.” (It is unusual in my experience for people of all ages! Who has the time to do this very often?) She encourages her colleagues to promote “lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.” (I agree with her push in this regard.) Worthen for this reason disdains videotaped lectures online that can be restarted and stopped at will.  She believes instead in the power of live lectures to lead to more in-depth and sustained critical thinking. Notetaking, for instance, during a live lecture with pen and paper instead of a keyboard “helps students master material better” because they must synthesize the ideas as they listen.  The goal of notetaking is not to reproduce the lecture verbatim but to reduce it to meaningful, brief captures.

Worthen’s essay impressed me enough to reconsider the power of “good lectures.”  Of course I often seek TED talks, podcasts, and videotaped lectures in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) because they are very worthwhile.  My notetaking/initial sense making may occur on paper or in DIIGO bookmarks to synthesize and retain for future reference. My reactions to these recorded “lectures” are similar to that of medical and dental students at McGill University in Canada who participated in a survey on why they chose to participate in optional lecture classes.  Participants identified ten themes that were then ranked by students on a Likert scale.  The top three statements that students agreed with most often were:

Hearing about a subject in lecture reinforces my thinking.

Lectures help me focus on what is important in the subject at hand.

Lectures provide me with an overview, the big picture of the subject at hand.

The students also stressed that the “value of lectures depended upon the quality of the lecturer. The most frequently stated characteristics of a good lecturer were animation, enthusiasm, passion, and clarity/organization.” (That’s why TED Talks, certain podcasts and other videos are popular; the speakers know how to engage viewers to think about the topic.)

As we all know, however, everyone is not a gifted lecturer or presenter. That may be one reason why Ron Barnett offered the searing critique of lectures below …

‘… refuge for the faint-hearted … it keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturer and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond … the students remain as voyeurs; the lecture remains a comfort zone … the student watches a performance and is not obliged to engage with it’

…and offered three objectives for higher education in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional that do not necessarily require lectures. Authors Greg Light, Roy Cox, and Susanna Calkins described Barnett’s conception of the three objectives of higher education to:

Create epistemological and ontological disturbance in the minds/beings of students

Enable students to live at ease with this perplexing and unsettling environment

Enable them to make their own positive contributions to this super-complex world

What this says to me is that if ideas were apples, teachers would upset the apple cart (the planned, the known) to provoke students to examine their existing understanding. Then students, assisted by teachers would reload the apples. Learning requires active engagement and one that may be very uncomfortable as students leave their secure perspective to expand their vision.  They may need support to make this journey through theoretical potholes and chasms before they find solid ground again. They also need safe surroundings in which to test and refine their understanding and skills before they use them in real-world environments.

It is a path similar to what we do in the Studio to help adults, who may be many years removed from their last formal learning experiences, to realize that the world of work is changing rapidly.  Fluency with new digital tools, skills, and routines is necessary for them to meet 21st century requirements for communication, collaboration, and connection.

And yes, at the Studio, we might include lectures, usually prerecorded, as well as other OERs (Open Educational Resources) available online, to expose adult learners to topics before we come together as an online group to delve more deeply into issues.  Then we do a variation of Harvard physicist and lecture critic Eric Mazur’s “peer instruction.”  In his classroom, Mazur poses questions and students work together to answer them. Similarly, we encourage adults to identify and explore relevant issues in small groups, and work out loud to synthesize, analyze, and problem solve with each other.

Worthen helped me appreciate the value of “good lectures” especially if they are short and mixed in with reflective practice and purposeful interactions.  What about you? Which learning methods are you most comfortable with?  How do lectures help you learn?  How could they have greater value for you?

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Birds picture from cgrape at Pixabay

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