Last fall, about a month into his first semester of teaching, a graduate-student instructor I mentor came to see me in my office. Before the semester began, he had participated in an intensive workshop on teaching for new teaching assistants in our department. I taught the workshop with a heavy emphasis on active learning, and introduced them to research on its effectiveness and on the ineffectiveness of traditional lectures. This TA was a devout convert to the church of active learning, but was clearly now having a crisis of faith.
"I know I’m supposed to make them work to learn things themselves," he told me, "but is it OK to tell them anything? What if I know stuff that they want to know?"
- On the one hand, research on the matter is quite convincing: A 2014 meta-analysis of 228 studies of lectures and active-learning strategies showed that the results were decidedly one-sided in favor of active learning. So much so that the authors found it questionable ethically to make students attend lecture-based courses, given all that we know about how ineffective they are. As they wrote: If the studies had been medical experiments, they probably would have been "stopped for benefit — meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial."
- On the other hand, the vague way in which active-learning strategies are discussed means — as Josh Eyler, director of Rice University’s teaching center, wrote last year — that "it can create the illusion that the answers to teaching challenges are both monolithic and easily developed." Active learning, he noted, has become "an easy thing to prescribe as a cure but difficult to put into practice because it covers such a vast array of possibilities." Vague terminology does a poor job of communicating to instructors what, exactly, is wrong with lecturing. After all, just telling your students information seems to have worked pretty well for a very long time.
A November essay in The Chronicle, "Does High-Impact Teaching Cause High-Impact Fatigue?," argued that active learning and other "high-impact practices" in the classroom require so much extra work from an instructor that they can lead to faculty burnout. Whereas before, it seems, it was enough for professors just to know their subject, now it’s all a lot more complicated.
All of which leaves many newcomers to teaching — and some classroom veterans — wondering: Can’t instructors just lecture sometimes? Can’t we ever just tell students what we know?
Of course we can, but it’s important to know what telling is good for — and what it’s not. If we can better understand the problem with relying too much on lecturing — or "continuous exposition by the teacher," as Derek Bruff, director of Vanderbilt University’s teaching center, called it — then we can better situate lectures within a mix of teaching practices.
When to "tell," and when not to. Say a friend calls to ask how you make that risotto you’re famous for. What do you do in that moment? Start in on the Socratic method and make her work to discover the recipe by herself? Or just tell her how you make it?
Clearly, in that situation, telling is the appropriate response. Telling is an excellent method of communicating specific information, and there are plenty of occasions when our students need specific information. To communicate important facts, to illustrate a concept with a story of its application, to explain the historical origins of a conflict, you can take the easiest route from A to B and just tell (i.e., lecture) your students.
What telling is not good for: teaching students complex ideas, conceptual knowledge, or difficult skills. In his 2000 book, Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, Donald L. Finkel used the example of giving directions: "When I tell my friend how to get to my house, I allow him to solve a specific problem (how to get to my house), but I do not enrich his understanding of geography, transportation, navigation, or anything else. He doesn’t have to think differently after he has digested my instructions; he has neither deepened nor broadened his understanding of the world. He simply has gained some facts he needs for a specific purpose."
Active listening. For our students to gain more than specific information — to gain understanding, rather than just knowledge of a set of facts — we need to design learning experiences in which they gain that understanding for themselves. That is to say: actively.
But isn’t listening — what students are ostensibly doing when we lecture — an activity? Doesn’t an excellent professor lecture in a way that keeps students’ attention and prompts them to listen so that they integrate what they are hearing with what they already know? That is true. It’s also true that the best students — ones who have developed good note-taking skills — can learn quite a lot from a lecture. But to reach more than just the best students, we need to do more than just tell the class information and expect everyone to understand and put it to use.
On Twitter in November, Claire Major, a professor of higher-education administration at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, tweeted that "when students are listening to a lecture, they are ‘doing something.’ They are listening. How actively they listen is in part on us — their teachers." If we’re going to lecture, and we want students to retain what we say, we need to work to ensure that they will learn from our efforts. That means designing activities that prime students to listen actively.
Naïve tasks. Last summer, in The Chronicle’s Teaching newsletter, Beckie Supiano wroteabout "naïve tasks," a pedagogical concept championed by the University of Albany’s Kimberly Van Orman. In a naïve task, the instructor asks students to complete a challenge for which they don’t yet have enough knowledge. Often the challenge requires students to make predictions. For example, a physics professor might give students a puzzle: "A canary is inside a sealed bottle on top of a scale. What will happen to the reading on the scale if the canary takes flight inside the bottle?" Students work together to try to predict what will happen, but they won’t be able to explain it properly without the relevant knowledge of mass and force.
A short lecture on those very topics will be that much more effective after students first try to solve the puzzle on their own. Naïve tasks work well because they reveal to students the gaps in their knowledge — gaps that your lecture can fill. Having been primed by attempting to complete a task armed only with their own preconceptions, they will be more likely to connect the information you give them to larger concepts.
The role of testing. Another way to reveal those knowledge gaps to students is through testing. Mick Charney, an associate professor of architecture at Kansas State University, has written about what he calls "quizzes on the go." He hands out a 10-question, multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of class, and has students fill it out during the class period. All of the answers, he tells students, will be revealed at some point during that day’s lecture and discussion. All students have to do is pay attention.
Or take a page from the naïve-tasks concept and have students attempt the quiz before the lecture, thus revealing to them all that they don’t know. Then give students a chance to change their answers as they learn from your lecture.
Telling is a time-tested and efficient way to communicate information. Just try to keep the strengths and weaknesses of lecturing in mind. The most effective teaching involves looking to communicate information in inefficient ways — that is, in ways that make students work to understand the information, and not just listen passively. So when we lecture, we need to:
- Supplement periods of telling with activities in which students can then put to use the information we tell them.
- Design activities that allow students to integrate the new information into their prior knowledge and make new concepts.
- Think about how to prime students to receive a lecture, by creating activities that reveal to them the gaps in their own knowledge.
A big benefit of engaging students in active learning is that it reveals — to us and to them — what they don’t yet understand. With lecturing, we can tell them all we want, but whether they’re listening is anyone’s guess.