Here at the Religious Studies blogging headquarters, we enjoy a good lecture. Admitting this in certain circles may seem a tad tone-deaf given the popularity of the “flipped classroom” and focus on student-centered learning. If you have been hiding in a cave for the past few years (or ignoring the pleas of the Chronical of Higher Education), the sage-on-the-stage format has been widely rejected in favor of the now-preferred guide-on-the-side.
Of course, over the past two decades good data has emerged from educational psychology announcing the successes of more “active learning” models of teaching, while the field of instructional design has tailored these theories to suit the needs of university environments. In preparation for a short seminar on the deficits of the classroom lecture for my colleagues, I wanted to take the stance of the apologetic – what was the best research-based defense of lectures I could muster? The motivation was slightly nefarious, I had long been a convert to active learning environments, but found many of my colleagues in the humanities hesitant (if not hostile) to modify their lecture format, thus I wanted to be equipped with the best possible argument for lecture, in order to defeat it. At least, so went my thinking.
In my reading, the two basic arguments against the lecture format can be boiled down to the efficacy of engendering “deep learning” and the ability to hold the attention of students for a sufficient period of time (typically, for the entire 50-55 minute lecture). Both of these actually require interesting caveats, which I will return to below (and in the next post).
Before we fully dive into this topic, I feel duty bound by my history training to cover some groundwork. The term “lecture” derives from Latin legere, “to read,” but more specifically here it means to read aloud, the dominant form of reading throughout the medieval period in Europe. Traditionally, the method of the lecture is more didactic than dialectical (or Socratic), a division stemming from ancient Greek distinctions in styles of argumentation. Aristotle is often presented as the champion of the didactic “lecture” style, where the straightforward presentation of information was paramount. Importantly for our brief analysis, Aristotle is also known for his interest in the artful use of rhetoric – for simplicity’s sake we can just call this “strategies of persuasion.” Thus Aristotle’s didactic style, suffused by artful presentation, became the origins of classic Roman oratory and even early ecclesiastical sermons.
Moreover, the material conditions of the medieval European university helped maintain the lecture as the primary means of pedagogy. Manuscripts and other text media were relatively scarce, thus the most efficient means of disseminating information was to read aloud the written material that was available. In this case, the act of lecturing and reading aloud were functionally equivalent.
Let us pause here. I do not think many would disagree that, given the widespread availability of textual materials, the bland and pedantic reading of a text retains little value in the modern university. I would also suggest in modern practice the lecture is more varied than simply reading text aloud. University lectures are often rife with multimodal media, incorporating image, audio, and video, in addition to text (via various presentation software, but also chalkboards and whiteboards).
Consequently, one concern I have with several arguments against lecture is that they offer only the most uncharitable and limited definition of what lecture is in modern practice (at least in my personal experience). To offer the full spectrum of definitions of lecture would bring me too far afield here, but I offer one characteristic gloss to situate my claims: “50-55 minutes of largely uninterrupted monologue from a lecturer with student activity being focused on listening and note-taking.” Again, in my experience, lecture is oftentimes punctuated by instructor or student questions (or even brief analytical activities, such as inviting comments on a video), allowing for a calibration of understanding on both sides. In a strict senses, these activities fall outside the purview of the “classic lecture.”
This is important for university instructors to note, by calling for student responses they are already moving towards a flipped classroom. A bedrock claim of student-centered learning advocates is that the more students are involved in the learning process, the more effective knowledge acquisition becomes. Of course, the quantity and quality of these student-centered moments vary greatly by teacher, and at a basic level, I would encourage non-conformists to expand and explore more of these techniques. Nevertheless, a diagram depicting an active learning environment may already look like what many others simply call lecturing [Figure 1].
Figure 1 (from Lumpkin et. al. 2015)
Common consensus “best practices” recommends that “classic lecturing” be divided frequently by student-centered exercises. Active learning does not replace lecturing, it complements it by structuring the learning experience with moments where students can reflect, analyze, evaluate or synthesize the material that was presented. This is, of course, not a full-throated defense of lecturing, but a qualified defense that it should be paired with other modalities of learning.
But for how long can a lecture captivate a student audience? How regularly do we need to incorporate student activities and what should be their purpose? We will return to these questions in out next post. To be continued…
*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.
 For those unfamiliar with this jargon, here’s a brief primer: student-centered learning is opposed to teacher-directed learning and refers to the primary mode of educational engagement. This maps imperfectly to, but is oftentimes used synonymously with, active and passive learning as well as deep and surface learning, respectively. Student-centered, active, deep learning is often theoretically grounded in constructivist theories of learning, while teacher-directed, passive, surface learning is typically aligned with a vessel theory of learning. The flipped classroom signals a shift from the latter forms of pedagogy to the former. As with any theorized dichotomy, however, these distinctions are blurred quite frequently in practice.
 Many of these points are notes in Sandry 2006 and Friesen 2014.
 Friesen 2014: 138-9.
 Points raised in Freisen 2014.
 It seems to me that the modern attack on the lecture has its beginnings in the early 1990’s, specifically with the publications of Charles Bonwell and James Eison’s Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991) and Diana Laurillard’s Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993).
 Wood, et. al. 2007
- Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.” Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
- Lumpkin, Angela; Achen, Rebecca M.; Dodd, Regan K. 2015. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning.” College Student Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 121-133.
- Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.
- Wood, Leigh Norma; Petocz, Peter; Joyce, Sadhbh; Rodd, Melissa. 2007. “Learning in Lectures: Multiple Representations.” International Journal of Mathematical Education, Vol. 38, No. 7, pp. 907-915.