A Reaction to Worthen’s “Lecture Me. Really.”

Perhaps the reports of the death of the Sage-on-the-Stage are premature. Periodically defenders of the lecture approach to teaching rise up to be heard. For instance, continuing op-ed writer Molly Worthen produced “Lecture Me. Really,” a pro-lecture piece aimed at preserving a traditional tool in humanities pedagogy for the New York Times Sunday Review.

Worthen’s defense centers on several factors:

  • Active learning is a “craze” that partakes of “that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.”
  • Lectures are “essential for teaching the humanities most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning . . . the art of attention . . . the `building of an argument’ . . . .”
  • Lectures are not always pure lectures and can include questioning.
  • Lectures communicate “the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor.”
  • Students synthesize the lecture into notes.
  • Students learn critical thinking.

Despite Worthen’s insistence that “Today’s vogue for active learning is nothing new,” active learning as we know it came into the academy during the last decade of the Twentieth Century. Concerned with teaching, the lecture method primarily envisioned students as passive recipients of knowledge, while the key word in “active learning” is learning—focusing on what knowledge, skills, and values students gain in college courses. Twenty-five years with a growing reputation and body of research make active learning more than a “craze.”

Problems with Lecturing

One major problem with the lecture method is that it does not accomplish what Worthen claims as one of its virtues: it does not lead to students developing attention spans. As we emphasized in our New Forums publication Teaching Applied Creative Thinking (2013), Penner (1984) states an hour-long lecture “outlasts a student’s attention span by 40-50 minutes, so much of even a good lecture is lost. As Medina (2008) puts it, `Before the last quarter-hour is over in a typical presentation, people usually have checked out’” (7-8). In fact, later in Brain Rules (2008) Medina pegs the average student attention span somewhere around 12 minutes. Not only do students check out, but, more importantly, they retain almost none of what they hear in a lecture.

Why don’t students retain what they hear in lectures, even when they take notes? Retrieval. Moving information from one’s short-term memory to one’s long-term memory demands constant retrieval of the information. And retrieval happens in such active learning activities as group work and reflection. Instead of merely remembering or understanding, skills suggested by lecturing, students need to pull information from their memory and utilize it through one of the four revised Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills—applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Do lectures promote critical thinking? As Jake Barnes says in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” We ran across a study that claimed up until a few years ago 90% of all P-20 classes still relied primarily on the lecture method. According to Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011), which used CLAP tests as the basis for its analysis, half of all college graduates demonstrated no significant improvement in their critical thinking or writing skills during their higher education years. Students can’t build arguments well or write them either.

Finally, the student’s synthesizing the lecture into notes does not necessarily rely on the delivery of the information by lecture. More important is how the student studies. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s Make It Stick (2014) offers some good study habits to develop:

  • Practice retrieving from memory vs. rereading the text or other instructional material—e.g., lecture.
  • Space out the practice.
  • Switch between topics (e.g., English and psychology).
  • Make practice tests.
  • Do rewrite by hand, not on your computer.

A Solution

Finally, let’s stop looking at this issue in black and white terms—you must use either the lecture method or active learning. Why not try the mini-lecture? Information can still be provided in 12-minute chunks, especially if you follow some guidelines:

  • Lead the mini-lecture with a relevant story that both interests the audience and illustrates a key point.
  • Focus the mini-lecture on the most fundamental and powerful concepts of the session.
  • Intersperse the lecture, as Worthen suggests, with questions aimed at provoking discussion, and don’t ask for student participation—demand it.
  • Build your active learning components of group work and written reflections out of your key mini-lecture points.
  • Structure your pre or post-lecture instruction around the higher-order revised Bloom activities of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.
  • Try to develop a metacognitive awareness in your students of the best practices in effective learning.

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Author Charlie Sweet EKUCharlie Sweet is currently Co-Director of the Teaching & Learning Center (2007+) at Eastern Kentucky University. Before going over to the dark side of administration, for 37 years he taught American Lit and Creative Writing in EKU’s Department of English & Theatre, where he also served as chair (2003-2006). Collabo-writing with Hal Blythe, he has published well over 1000 items, including 15 books; of his 11 books with New Forums. Meet Charlie.