I had one of those “HA! I KNEW IT” moments when I read an article in the November 2012 issue of University Affairs. Léo Charbonneau wrote, in “Students prefer good lectures over the latest technology in class”, that students like listening to interesting, meaningful lectures, and that the latest trends in university educations … clickers (reminds me a bit of dog training, although in this case I think it is the instructor who is being trained), online courses, and even discussions contribute less to their interest and intellectual engagement in a course than listening to good lectures. I have to say I feel a little vindicated here; over the years, every time I received teaching support materials that recommend anything but lectures, I have had this sneaking suspicion at the back of my mind that these recommendations just weren’t consistent with my own memories, distant as they may be, of being thrilled, engrossed, and excited by lectures given by my own professors. How are we meant to pass on our knowledge to students if we do not, once in a while, sit them down and tell them something?
As a result of this article, I am now ready to admit my great academic secret: I value lecturing. I think students learn from lectures. Often, when giving my favorite lectures – when talking about studies that have always made me think “I can’t wait to tell my students about this!” – I love lecturing. I look at my students, and they look at me, and we share a moment of amazement and fascination about the natural world.
Lectures are even valuable for grad students. Indeed, grad students are a delight to lecture to, as we are all in the classroom by choice and share a commitment to many of the same things. Lectures in grad school are a bit out of fashion these days; however, I think they have an important place. After all, students in grad school are generally there because they loved their undergrad experience and love learning; they are more appreciative than the average undergrad of an intellectually engaging lecture.
So how do we give a lecture to grad students while maintaining the atmosphere of mutual discovery that we strive for in a graduate level course? I find it useful to interrupt the lecture after challenging or controversial topics to allow discussion … this helps students engage, and learn to think critically and express their thoughts. Grad classes are small enough for meaningful discussions and academic debates. Like many profs, I find it both amusing and educational to challenge students’ positions and let them try their skills at debating me, too, occasionally, which undergrads can find intimidating. When conducted with respect and enjoyment, this demonstrates that the professor sees themselves as an intellectual equal to students. This is important to the development of a student’s self-image, and encourages students to challenge professors outside the classroom.
Lectures can also play a unique role in the preparation by grad students for their careers. Naturally, one can go into a great deal of depth when lecturing to grad students. In particular, it is useful to go into detail regarding case study methods and rationale, as it gives an in-context opportunity for graduate students to think and learn about research methods and testing hypotheses. Finally, lectures are opportunities for students to enhance their role as experts in the eyes of themselves and their peers. In senior graduate level classes, I have students give some of their own one-hour lectures to other students, as one of their assignments. I give most of the lectures in the course, but I make it clear that the students are providing critical course material through their lectures; student lectures are not an end in themselves, but come with a genuine responsibility to teach peers about a topic they learn a lot about. Of course, this is an opportunity for students to learn how to structure, design and give a lecture, followed by comments and recommendations for improving their performance next time; for some students, this may be the only formal education they receive in terms of how to give a lecture. However, this stage also represents a natural progression from the role of student towards their eventual role as educator and expert, along the continuum of their development from student to professional.