Professors: What about lectures?

This piece by Craig Lambert, from Harvard Magazine, repeats a well-known meme — that lectures are on their way out and they are ineffective, but I wonder what the professors among us think.

Albert Camus: “Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep.”

What do you think? Is lecturing ineffective? Is this an either/or option or do we need different kinds of instruction for different dimensions of learning?

IN 1990, after seven years of teaching at Harvard, Eric Mazur, now Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics, was delivering clear, polished lectures and demonstrations and getting high student evaluations for his introductory Physics 11 course, populated mainly by premed and engineering students who were successfully solving complicated problems. Then he discovered that his success as a teacher “was a complete illusion, a house of cards.”…

Serendipity provided the breakthrough he needed. Reviewing the test of conceptual understanding, Mazur twice tried to explain one of its questions to the class, but the students remained obstinately confused. “Then I did something I had never done in my teaching career,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why don’t you discuss it with each other?’” Immediately, the lecture hall was abuzz as 150 students started talking to each other in one-on-one conversations about the puzzling question. “It was complete chaos,” says Mazur. “But within three minutes, they had figured it out. That was very surprising to me—I had just spent 10 minutes trying to explain this. But the class said, ‘OK, We’ve got it, let’s move on.’…

Interactive learning triples students’ gains in knowledge as measured by the kinds of conceptual tests that had once deflated Mazur’s spirits, and by many other assessments as well. It has other salutary effects, like erasing the gender gap between male and female undergraduates. “If you look at incoming scores for our male and female physics students at Harvard, there’s a gap,” Mazur explains. “If you teach a traditional course, the gap just translates up: men gain, women gain, but the gap remains the same. If you teach interactively, both gain more, but the women gain disproportionately more and close the gap.” Though there isn’t yet definitive research on what causes this, Mazur speculates that the verbal and collaborative/collegial nature of peer interactions may enhance the learning environment for women students.

There’s also better retention of knowledge. “In a traditional physics course, two months after taking the final exam, people are back to where they were before taking the course,” Mazur notes. “It’s shocking.” (Concentrators are an exception to this, as subsequent courses reinforce their knowledge base.) Peer-instructed students who’ve actively argued for and explained their understanding of scientific concepts hold onto their knowledge longer. Another benefit is cultivating more scientists. A comparison of intended and actual concentrators in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields indicates that those taught interactively are only half as likely to change to a non-STEM discipline as students in traditional courses….

I agree: student evaluations are useless but are liked by the edu-crats because they long for objective results; what these evaluations give is objective, but it is a false objectivity.

Such pedagogical invention isn’t just a trial-and-error endeavor. Rigorous evaluations using statistical analysis can help distinguish the most promising innovations. For his part, Mazur has collected reams of data on his students’ results. (He says most scholars, even scientists, rely on anecdotal evidence instead.) End-of-semester course evaluations he dismisses as nothing more than “popularity contests” that ought to be abolished. “There is zero correlation between course evaluations and the amount learned,” he says. “Award-winning teachers with the highest evaluations can produce the same results as teachers who are getting fired.” He asserts that he is “far more interested in learning than teaching,” and envisions a shift from “teaching” to “helping students learn.” The focus moves away from the lectern and toward the physical and imaginative activity of each student in class….

When Mazur speaks to audiences on pedagogy, he asks his listeners to think about something they are really good at—perhaps some skill they are proud of, especially one that advanced their career. “Now, think of how you became good at it,” he says next. Audience members, supplied with wireless clickers, can choose from several alternatives: trial and error, apprenticeship, lectures, family and friends, practicing. Data from thousands of subjects make “two things stand out,” Mazur says. “The first is that there is a huge spike at practicing—around 60 percent of the people select ‘practicing.’” The other thing is that for many audiences, which often number in the hundreds, “there is absolutely zero percent for lectures. Nobody cites lectures.”


"Steve, Scot hasn’t done a very brief overview of the whole issue that i have ..."

Great Cover To Blue Parakeet 2
"DaisyFlower Do egalitarians assume *their* interpretation of the Bible is fallible? If so, do they ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)
"ct,"In our household, we tend to dismiss any, and all allegation that are alleged to ..."

Thank You Rod Dreher, Shame On ..."
"This is the woman's story."

Thank You Rod Dreher, Shame On ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • There are implications for preaching as well 😉

    There is a learning style (the one that I suppose used to be the main one that went to college) that can take in more and take it in just fine through lecture. It just doesn’t seem to be the majority of students. I doubt that teaching using groups and problem solving can usually cover as much material as the lecture, but I do suspect that if such things are well designed, more students will learn more on average.

    I see this as relevant to online education as well. I think more students learn more on average, because everyone has to participate. But a few perhaps learn less, probably the ones who excelled before.

  • Not really the same, but my wife is an elementary teacher. She has taught K to 4th grade. She have no more than 10% of the day in all class teaching. And usually that is more about class room procedures than actually teaching. Instead she primarily teaches in small groups targeted to the needs of the students and their own learning styles. Then the students that are not in the small group are in a mix of peer learning, individual practice work, computer instruction and group projects.

    Students that are in greater need get more teacher time. Higher students do more peer instruction.

    It is an enormous amount of organization to make sure no one is being left behind and all the needs are being met and that the small groups are constantly changing to not stigmatize any of the students. But she is convinced that it is the best way to address the needs of the students (and not the ease of the teacher). This seems to be especially useful in her experience with lower income students and students with learning disabilities and classes with wide ranges of ability.

  • Our church launched a 2-year free seminary program. The classes demand that each student read critically in order to engage in socratic dialogue. I was concerned in seminary that future pastors whose job is primarily conversational spent 90% of their time listening passively to lectures or reading quietly in a library. Certainly, a pastor must learn to listen carefully and study well but we have found that dialogue works better because it forces the student to read more carefully, think on their feet and engage in challenging (but graceful) conversation.

  • Diane

    Two things: As someone who is now near the end of seminary after 20 years out, I have gained immeasurably by the shift to interactive learning. I was an excellent student under the lecture system, but I was frankly usually bored during the lectures. With small group learning and practice, the classes zip by.

    Second, I also reentered the classroom as an adjunct and in this world of I-phones etc, you might as well speak in Martian as lecture. You can become a cell phone fascist and let policing take up all your time or you can schedule group, pairs and individual projects in the classroom rather than lecture. The students like that better, they learn and practice, and you are not lecturing to a roomful of texters who aren’t hearing a word you say.

  • RJS

    I’ve read Mazur’s book – and tried with a colleague several years ago (2006-2007) to introduce some of these ideas into a class. Circumstances prevailed and in the intervening years as others taught the course it drifted back to lecture information dump mode. Next fall I intend to teach the course again and start over.

    Ken Schenck hits one of the key applications here for me as well. There are enormous implications for the effectiveness of preaching – not for obtaining decisions or for entertaining the masses, preaching does this quite well. But for real discipleship and education? We need to take education and discipleship seriously in the church and … general audience “lectures” and typical small groups, as valuable as they are (and I don’t see this as either or) cannot achieve the goal.

  • RJS

    Pastor Matt is on the right track with the 2-year seminary idea in many ways – but … but we cannot limit it to potential professionals. This kind of education program at a lower level (not so much expectation of out-of-class preparation) should be part of the emphasized program of every church for youth and adults of all ages.

    Within the church instead of improving our understanding of education to build deep Christians for the future we have abolished education in favor of even larger more entertaining lectures.

    I don’t want to trash small groups – but because they involve the not well trained or educated leading the not well educated or trained, I’ve encountered more “heresy” (or strange teaching) that passes as OK in this format than anywhere else in the church. Small groups serve a purpose – but not every purpose.

  • I reviewed almost all the academic literature on the worth of lectures for a book on preaching I’m writing just now. It is, I think it is fair to say, inconclusive – as many studies found lectures to be better than other forms as found them to be worse. That is, in terms of promoting student learning of material; if you factor in efficiency of academic time, lecturing probably beats any other mode of delivery other than sophisticated online self-directed learning modules).
    At the same time, there is a large body of communications literature that stresses the peerless superiority of the set-piece monologue – when done well – in selling vision (why did Steve Jobs launch his products at keynotes? why do politicians make speeches on the campaign trail? it’s not because they can’t be bothered to do something better…)
    Which raises the question – what are we trying to do when we lecture/preach? Tell people something they don’t know? Or inspire them to live out what they do know? In the case of preaching, I know the answer to that one…

  • Notice the setting – a group of obviously bright and highly motivated students who have paid attention to the professor and who are paying good money to learn from his expertise and his experience. That may translate into some other settings, but certainly not all.

    I had a professor who referred to the average, “well, what do you think that Scripture means” classes as, “an accumulation of collected ignorance.” Once again, it may work in a setting where there has been previous reading and study, but there is very good reason that the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “How can I (understand) unless someone teaches me?”

    Just because a group comes to mutual agreement, does not mean they have agreed on the correct answer.

  • I’ve had some good success in putting the responsibility on students to read and process information on their own. I can then use class time to direct creative discussions where first smaller groups process the material through discussion and then the class as a whole processes it together.

    Doing that wasn’t natural for me. I was more comfortable lecturing–it felt like I was in control. But that doesn’t always connect and I can’t always anticipate where and how students aren’t grasping what I’m saying. Discussion raises great questions and if we’ve all already processed the material through pre-class reading, we can work together to answer questions and bring about clarity.

    In some ways it’s a step of humility — profs need to realize that students can very often effectively teach one another!

  • I’ve heard it said — and I think it’s true — that in our age where the information is at everyone’s fingertips already, the prof’s job is to help navigate and process the information, not necessarily to provide it.

  • jamie

    Are sermons lectures? I feel like there is little consideration for the sermon to change to be more interactive.

    Has anyone done this really, really well?

    Rjs….I don’t think there is a need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Small groups are great…if the ones that are leading the small groups are trained.

    I recently read a book called sticky church. The whole premise was to have sermon based Small groups. So the small groups material would be the.scripture that was from the sermon. I like that. Provides a place for engagement and deeper exploration from the sermon. Also puts the pressure on that the sermon need deep, scriptural basing.

  • RJS

    Steve (#6),

    In selling vision absolutely – it isn’t either or. I would hate to see us lose the sermon as a part of worship and church.

    In terms of information transfer and persistent understanding? Well that is quite debatable. Lectures alone have never worked. Even when I teach a lecture intensive course it is accompanied by large amounts of required reading and long and difficult problem sets. I know of no one who relies on lecture alone.

  • RJS

    Jamie (#11)

    I tried hard to intentionally state that I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think we need three levels of interaction – Sermons have an important place, but it isn’t really teaching, and small groups have an important place as well – but it also isn’t in teaching.

  • Fred

    “Is lecturing ineffective?” Yes, and so is preaching, but that doesn’t mean we should do away with it altogether. It should really be balanced with other activities and tools that involve the mind of the learner. I smile when people talk about coming to church to worship…and then spend half their time listening to someone else talk at them.

    My guess is that most professors (preachers) are not familiar with all the issues that go into good learning, and since we tend to teach like we were taught, we just perpetuate the system. They could benefit from better understanding the various levels of learning, setting educational goals, deciding on activities that will best reach those goals, time management in the classroom, dealing with know-it-alls and silent types etc. That’s not to say that the classroom should be a tightly controlled lab situation but there has to be some controls in place that will guide and provide structure.

    To learn more about what a teacher is really trying to do, read Genesis 1. To learn more about who teachers are dealing with, read Genesis 2 (and 3).

    The advantage that professors have over preachers is that they have our money. One ray of hope though. The Southern Baptists are now teaching their PhD students how to do good lesson planning.

  • Fred

    RJS – “but it also isn’t in teaching…”

    I’m curious, what would you say teaching is then? As someone who has wrestled with these issues before, I appreciate your insight.

    I did read one study that was done (within the last twenty years and I can’t remember where I read it) that claimed that most profs (80% or thereabouts) rely exclusively on lecture. Could it be that your discipline lends itself more easily to outside learning activities? I don’t know.

  • Phillip

    This issue keeps coming up, here and in our faculty meetings. I think that in many cases, the issue is who is lecturing and how they communicate in that way. Some are good at it. Some are not. I probably fool myself into thinking I am better at it than I am.

    In my grad classes there is a split between lecturing (the students have not and, in the time they have, cannot possibly read all I have on the topic nor can they all work in the original languages), and discussion in light of what the texts say.

    My undergrad classes are more tricky. Small majors’ and upper level courses have the space and flexibility for discussion groups and projects. My gen ed class this term, however, has about 50 students in a classroom with fixed, tiered seating (some gen ed classes here have 80+). In these classes, I have found that students in groups often talk about anything but the topic at hand, cannot easily talk with each other down the rows, and often simply ignore the text and just talk about what they think or feel (pooling of ignorance). Lecture seems more efficient and helpful in those large classes.

    One of the commenters on the article at the Harvard Magazine site also raised the difficulty that introverts have with collaborative learning. While these settings may force them to deal with how things will be once they start working, I think their situation also needs to be taken into account.

    So many tell me how bad lecturing is. But I am still waiting to hear about effective practices in large gen ed classes.

  • Jeremy

    As a pastor’s kid, my dad always observed that no one remembers your sermons (and he’s a extremely good speaker). Something might sink in, but the expectations that many pastors have for their sermons are a bit overblown.

    As a recent graduate, I found that the best classes learning-wise were a solid mix of lecture and controlled discussion. The prof spent the first part of the class quickly hitting the key points of the material and maybe explaining an easily misunderstood concept followed by the students and the prof talking it over. As students, we taught each other and the prof was able to step in when someone was really off base, off topic or had something to add. It got us engaged but avoided the “collective ignorance” problem that Paul pointed out in #8.

  • Fred

    All good points, Phillip. Two things work against good learning: schedules and space. So, you are at a disadvantage right from the git-go. I am not a professor but my guess is that you are probably doing the best you can, under the circumstances.

  • Phillip

    Is there, or should there be, a distinction between lecturing in a class and preaching a sermon? Is a sermon merely educational, a lesson? My understanding of preaching is that it is proclamation (though with a teaching element), and that the Spirit of God works through that proclamation to transform the community. So I am not sure we can measure that transformation by simply asking whether it was remembered or what was remembered, especially over time.

  • RJS


    In my opinion teaching has as its goal to make peers out of students. Not immediately and not in all areas of course, but this is the end goal. So a variety of methods and techniques are used in different ways at different times. I certainly lecture – but I also facilitate discussion with a ground of expertise that can lead people to think about things in new ways. The students shouldn’t just acquire content, they should learn how to think critically within the context of that content.

    Most professors have used most classtime for lecture – but that doesn’t mean we rely exclusively on lecture. Much, perhaps most, learning happens outside of class. A well designed class facilitates (and ensures) learning. My students are motivated by grades of course, so I don’t have to be as creative as we need to be in church situations. But I do think that we need to facilitate learning through creative teaching in our churches.

    Small groups are great, but… but it is very hard to have enough leaders who have sufficient training to really teach. The ability to do this well requires not exposure to the material one week ahead so it can be discussed with an answer key in a small group, but deep and thorough familiarity. I think we need a step between facilitated peer led discussion in small groups and the inspirational sermon. Teaching well requires the kind of expertise that can handle questions from left field as well as those on topic along with the commitment, patience, and opportunity to meet the students where they are. I have taught on science and faith a handful of times – I don’t lecture, I present material for discussion and have the experience and expertise to handle pretty much any question that comes up … and I learn from the questions and other views in the process as well.

  • Art Balis

    I recently had a graduate course that relied extensively on dialogic or collaborate learning. More than half of our in class time was spent in groups of 2-5.

    @ Phillip #16 – You hit close to the mark with your comments regarding introverts. By the end of the day on Tuesday (class was a 5 day intensive) I felt like the fish who was swimming upstream and suddenly ‘helped’ by the monkey who took him to dry land. Lecture has a place in the process of learning, it’s important to remember that.

    Don’t get me wrong, small group work has it’s place. But my experience went too far. Knowing what I paid for tuition, I could only wonder one thing- “why am I being taught by my peers?”

  • Fred


    The H.S. and his role in learning is an area I wish I could articulate better my positions on. My questions are this: Are Bible facts all that important and what role does the Spirit play in our learning? E.g., is it important that we know that Abraham came 430 years before Moses? Paul apparently thought so. But the number 430 is a simple, brute fact. So, because we find it in the Bible, do we learn that any differently than, say, a fact from early American history. I think not.

    You are right that memory should not be our sole goal. But it is a necessary part of learning. Whereas I can’t know God by simply knowing facts about God, I won’t know him without knowing facts about Him. To that end, Deut. 6 and 11 and passages in the Psalms may have something to tell us. We are to remind ourselves (think) about these things everywhere we go and in everything we do. As we master the facts, we put them together into concepts and eventually they become part of our belief system. There is a kind of progression in the learning process.

    As to your point concerning the role of the H.S. in learning, I would direct your attention to Love Your God With All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland. He says it far better than I can.

    I suspect that a few of my comments have come across as slamming preachers and I don’t mean to do that. It’s just that I see people who hunger and thirst for righteousness in their thinking but are not given a lot of opportunity. I also think there is a relationship between the whole biblicism issue because we have failed to understand the Word in all its fullness.

  • Phillip

    Fred, I am not knocking the need to learn the facts or story of Scripture. Far from it. Some of that can take place in the sermon, but I think the place for that is more through teaching within the homes and community. That is, I see a distinction in the teaching and preaching ministries, though there is overlap. And I also see the role of teaching the story as not simply located in a minister but in the family and the whole community of faith. I often use Deuteronomy as a model for how the community of faith passes on the faith. (I have a manuscript for a book on Deuteronomy that highlights much of this, and someday I hope it will see the light of day).

  • Jim

    Steve (#7),

    I’m curious what resources you used for your research. I’m an educator and have read somewhat extensively on the lecture/non-lecture issue and the overwhelming evidence I’ve seen is that lecture is the least effective educational technique. Can you point me in the direction of the resources you have seen?

  • Leland Vickers

    There is another aspect of learning that I did not see in the comments thus far, unless I read too quickly and missed it. That is, the amount that the teacher learns during the process. From personal experience, I can state that I did not really understand much of thermodynamics until I had taught it the third or fourth time at the college level. (I know this is an academic area that is a bit afield of the discussion, but…..) Teaching and writing are very effective learning methods, and part of the success of interactive classroom situations is probably due to the students having to struggle with how they can explain something to a fellow student.

  • @ RJS #20 –

    While I recognize that there are different media types that more effectively reach different people (audible, visual, etc.), I think the key point is how engaged the student is. The reason the interactive styles are more effective is that they kind of force the student to engage, whereas in a lecture, they can more easily just zone out. The problem, as you identified is resources. Having a small group just sit and discuss is equally ineffective if there isn’t a good teacher involved.

    If I note my own educational background, the classes I got the most out of, where the topics I was really interested in (motivation to learn), or seminar classes where they were small and, though I was interested, sitting back wasn’t an option as we had to present papers and engage by design.

    I know J. Werner “Jim” Wallace of talks about working with youth, and the most effective tactic was to 1) bring in someone to challenge the kids (ex: an atheist or someone pretending to be, so it really shocked the kids into reality over how unprepared they were), and 2) to setup a trip to, say, Berkeley to talk to atheists, so the kids realized they were going to have to engage the topics or feel foolish. While we might not all be able to do this, one could apply those points more generally to increase the level of motivation of the students.

    Ultimately though, especially in churches, I think we need to change the model from numbers to depth. We’ve made much of our education to be lowest-common-denominator to try and bring the attendance up, and are starving the people who really want to go deep. I’d rather focus on those who want to go deep and help them become teachers (disciples) and, in the end, get the numbers that way. The small group and interactive is certainly more effective with the right mentorship in place, otherwise it is just a group of people sharing their thoughts and not really learning much.

  • In seminary, the best lectures were more conversational and dialogical rather than monological speech. While the Professor(s) maintained control of the discussion so that the objectives of that class period were achieved, there was always a give and take between the teacher and students that allowed for questions and comments to be addressed. That’s a benefit of also attending a smaller seminary, I suppose.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  • RJS


    I am not questioning the place for proclamation and the sermon. And I agree that there is a distinction between teaching and preaching ministries.

    I would like to know more, however, about where you see the role for teaching. I work in a secular university with colleagues, graduate students, scholars, faculty, many of whom grew up within some form of religious community, often Christian. Most of them now, especially scholars and faculty, view religion as something they have outgrown. I am passionate about the need for teaching in the church because I think most of these people have no real clue about what they have supposedly “outgrown.” The church failed them, and I fear that we are continuing on that same pattern – even accelerating it.

  • Jim

    Paul (#8),

    I think what you are describing is not what Mazur is advocating. I think what you are correctly concerned about (the blind leading the blind) is different than an interactive approach to learning. In the interactive approach, there certainly may be a “what do you think about this” kind of question, but it’s followed up by interaction with the teacher. And a good teacher will design a series of questions (or other engagement activities) that in and of themselves provide direction and lead students towards deeper understanding/engagement with truth. Bottom line is that I completely understand your concern but don’t think that’s what is happening with Mazur at all.

  • Fred


    I’m with you all the way. And, I would love to read that book.

    I especially like Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together…” If there is a better statement in the Bible on teaching and learning, I don’t know where it is.

  • Phillip


    Good question. We are struggling with this issue some in our church now, esp. with respect to our children who leave. This is a bit off the cuff, but I think the role of teaching in the church is formation and not simply information. But the information of the story is important because otherwise the story that forms us becomes corrupted.

    My students in my Bible classes at the university and some within my Sunday school classes can easily assert what God will or will not do or what his nature is. But their views are often based not on the Bible itself but a smattering of topical biblical lessons or selective biblical readings, pop culture takes on the Bible, and a sense of who God ought to be in their opinion.

    As a Bible teacher in the church and in a Christian university, I see it as my role to introduce them and guide them through the whole counsel of Scripture, even the parts that make us uncomfortable or that leave us with more questions than answers. We become immersed in the biblical stories, poems, etc., and hopefully encounter God. My classes in church (and at school) are not straight lecture, and there is space given for a lot of back and forth, and for questions (though I reserve the right to say “I don’t know.”).

    With my ministry students and at church, I try to stress the role of the family and the whole community in forming our children. And insist that we don’t simply talk about it but are called to live out the story. We don’t simply learn facts about God/Christ, we imitate his character.

    I mentioned Deuteronomy, and I am amazed at the many ways that it shows how to pass on the faith and keep the story alive within the community: direct teaching, conversation, song, recitation, symbols, feasts, caring for the weak, etc.

    I think where we may have failed our children is acting like faith was a part of life and God has a place, rather than our whole lives are subsumed under and brought into the life and purposes of God. We have also become serious about multigenerational interaction so that our children can draw on the spiritual wisdom and example of those who are farther along in the faith, and so that they feel deeply a part of the life of church. My own children are young, and I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so I do not know where this will lead in their lives. Thus, I constantly lift them up to the Father in prayer.

    Is this making any sense? I taught until 10:00 last night and had to be up and back by 7:30 this morning. I’m beat.

  • RJS


    It does make sense. When I teach as well it is almost always with space for a lot of back and forth, not straight lecture (the only exception is the 150+ student lectures).

    So you say you teach Sunday School in your church – who do you teach? At this point it seems to me that the most popular model for church has eliminated this kind of teaching for everyone except young children. This is really where I think the church is failing – adults know next to nothing about the faith they are passing on to their children. People can grow deeply in faith without formal teaching, or place to learn from those who have learned before them, but it is hard and I think many stagnate.

  • Phillip

    We do topical studies on occasion. The most recent was on living a missional life. However, more often than not with the adults and young adults we work through a biblical book (right now my Sunday morning class is studying Psalms). The Wednesday night Bible study (different teacher) is working through Revelation.

  • Excellent thoughts (though I don’t have time to read all of the comments!).

    I’m a current seminary student, but I’m also working full-time as a distance education coordinator at a Christian university and seminary. Part of my job involves convincing old school professors to teach online courses; another part involves building a rubric for quality online courses that utilize the best practices and the latest technology.

    Traditionally, our online courses have been a carbon-copy of the in-class version, but without interaction: we record the lectures, provide a syllabus, and for our Seminary courses there are message boards for student interaction. Our university courses function as independent studies with recorded lectures. The more time I spend on this project, the more I realize how insufficient our system of recorded lectures are – and through that realization, how insufficient lectures in general are.

    After all, if a lecture is boring online, what makes it interesting in person? Eye contact can only take us so far, and even fascinating content isn’t a silver bullet. It struck me last Sunday, while drifting off in the middle of an otherwise excellent sermon (by my pastor who is also a seminary professor), that I am less and less able to focus on something that is not interactive. I am someone who has traditionally excelled in lecture-based formats, but listening to a lecture is generally a passive activity, while everything else in my life is increasingly active and interactive. My mind is trained, inside and most especially outside the classroom (by twitter, video games, and even news sites and shows), to think and make connections faster than a lecturer can speak, and if it isn’t actively engaged by what you’re saying, it will be actively engaged with something else.

    Some of the courses we’re providing online now do not have lectures at all; others have taken the in-class material the course is based on and cut it down to 10-15 minute lectures. In both cases what we lose in lectures is made up with interactive elements, embedded media, personal research projects, and student collaboration. I’m currently working to bring these interactive elements to our older, lecture-based courses – because there’s no reason we can’t have both. If we can have elements in our courses that cater to all types of learners, there’s nothing saying that our online students can’t pick and choose which elements they interact with, so long as we’re careful to communicate all of the content in some way or another.

    Finally, an area I’m starting to examine for our distance education is a way to integrate all of our seminary distance courses with the life and ministry of the local church. One of the weaknesses of a lecture is that it doesn’t allow for practical application, even if it allows for verbal interaction (which it obviously can’t do if it’s a recording). One of the commenters here talked about how in elementary education sometimes older students help teach the younger students; this was my experience in grade 2, and I’ve since learned that teaching others is one of the primary ways that I learn. In a traditional classroom that depends on lectures, there is little room for this. Just as we’re asking whether lectures are still effective, it might be worth asking if classrooms themselves are still effective. As someone commented earlier, in an age of information our role as teachers is changing into that of guiding the student in their own knowledge acquisition. Weekly lectures cannot compete with the constant information flow of digital media – should we even try? Or should we embrace that information flow, and become a rudder to navigate it?

  • Mark E. Smith

    One of the best classes I took was a mixture of lecture, student presentation, and discussion.

  • #17 Jeremy

    Nice comment. Good insights. We redesigned our Sunday mornings to incorporate what you experienced in grad school. We worship with music, Scripture reading and prayer for twenty minutes, I preach for twenty minutes (similar to your prof laying out some key points), and then we take a ten minute break where kids and youth go to Sunday School, adults get a coffee break, and then the adults regather in the Sanctuary for what we call SermonSequel. I lead a big group discussion based on the Sermon, people get to talk out loud, sharing insights, asking tough questions, telling provoking stories. It helps people personally digest the message and walk away with some kind of application or decision that they’ve had time to form in their mind. It’s been very effective. I think people really like the twenty minute sermon, and they like the thirty minute discussion. The time flies by and people reveal fascinating insights. We learn from each other and it’s a very rich experience.

  • Ron Schooler

    One factor that Professor Mazur emphasizes is using student feedback about the learning. The teacher then uses this information to tweak the learning experience. For instance, Professor Mazur asks a question that would show whether or not students understand a conceptual aspect of the lesson. This means that the students can go beyond the repetition of what they have heard or read to get to understanding. He uses “clickers” to do this. If students understand, he goes on, but if they don’t here is where he uses peer teaching. After the peer group work where each tries to defend his/her understanding, Mazur asks the question again. Usually there is a dramatic jump in understanding correctly. The girl who understood had to explain it in such a way to the others that they got it. That is learning for her. The fellow who tried to explain but had faulty conceptions got caught in them and he learned also. It IS about learning. If we are all learning well from lectures, then keep them up.

    Additionally, poor teaching using any method will give poor results. The beauty of Mazur’s contribution is that it requires checking for understanding frequently and then varying the approach based on what you discover. I am becoming a believer in the expert use of “clickers” to accomplish this task.

  • Sam Matteson

    What Mazur experienced has been replicated by many other educators with a variety of student types, many as controlled experiments.

    I have found in instructing thousands of students at our large university in both small (400 student) physics classes over the last twenty-five years that variations on “Peer Instruction” and other classroom assessment techniques are indeed effective, and students respond well to an active classroom or lecture hall.

    Unfortunately, my fellow university professors are well prepared in their discipline but rarely have training in instruction. We are often like the amateur Blue Grass Band leader said to me, “We practice and practice and hope to get better.”

  • John

    This is the latest bandwagon that academics, who are as susceptible to groupthink as anyone, as supposed to jump on. But I’m skeptical for several reasons:

    1) Claims about “rigorous” studies of supporting data are specious at best. Much of the educational literature is based surveys asking “did you feel like you learned more in x or y?” Even in the article above, which recognizes course evaluations are at best flawed, then claims as evidence against lectures that his audience armed with their little wireless clickers didn’t select lectures as valuable ways to learn. What’s the difference? None.

    2) Pedagogy isn’t one sizes fits all. Some things are learned by practice, but not everything. Working math problems or playing a musical instrument are done by imitation and practice. But one doesn’t learn literature the same way one learns engineering.

    3) I’ve experienced both methods, and given the choice of paying tuition to hear an expert lecture or sitting in a small group while some ignorant student yammers on and on, I’ll take the lecture, thank you.

  • kerry

    Jeff@34, I have been studying online but more recently on campus. We had forums, study tasks etc, but I found them to be a very poor substitute for face to face interaction. I found it easy to listen to lectures. I got excellent grades. But the single greatest benefit in being physically present in class has been interacting with my fellow students (and being able to ask questions of the lecturers).

    I am learning how to speak what I have learned, rather than to write it, and to do so on my feet. Given that I am doing ministry studies as preparation for the pastorate, where the bulk of my time will be spent in conversation off the cuff, it is probably about time!

    The best part of being on campus by far, has been spending time outside lectures with my fellow students arguing the content of our classes, and reflecting about the implications of the theology that we are learning for all of life. I think that is where “learning by heart” occurs. The online forums did not even come close to this level of engagement, for many reasons, but primarily because they are being graded.

    The highlight of the week for many of us was gathering on a Tuesday night at a cafe between lectures. Our conversations ranged far and wide and often involved disagreement. It was wonderful!

    Ultimately good learning means that we “own” content for ourselves and this is a time consuming process that requires both exposure to the breadth of the subject, and reflection upon the implications for life. For the reflection component we need fellow learners.

  • I think a good mix between lecture monologues and peer interaction helps. Lectures can be so effective when done by an engaging professor that relates information as well as application.

    Like one post above, we can ask this same question about preaching. I hope that since a student needs a “teacher”, a congregation will always use a preacher.

    I think sticking to how we can improve lectures is more appropriate than to ask if we should get rid of lectures.

    Great question that makes you think about the future of education as well as church.

  • @ RJS #28 –

    “I am passionate about the need for teaching in the church because I think most of these people have no real clue about what they have supposedly “outgrown.” The church failed them, and I fear that we are continuing on that same pattern – even accelerating it.”

    Wow, that needs to be yelled from the rooftops and repeated here so it doesn’t get missed! We may disagree on a number of issues, but we’re sure on the same page here. 🙂

    @ Phillip #31, RJS #32 –

    In my studies of the sociological data (ie: Christian Smith, Reginald Bibby, etc) it is the parents & family who have the biggest impact on the kids. This isn’t surprising, really. Yet, we’ve all but segmented the youth from toddlers to young adults from the rest of the church (family) much of the time (until they ‘graduate’ from church). For example, our family had to do a LOT of searching to find a church where children were even warmly welcomed in worship, let along not having ‘Sunday school’ during the service. While I’d not, for a moment, suggest less focus on the youth, the church really needs to get serious about the adults (many of whom are the parents, or certainly at least church-family, should the child ever interact with them). Without that, a few hours in Sunday school and youth group just isn’t going to cut it, even if the program is world-class.

    Also, I’ve often run into the attitude from parents about letting the children make their own decision on religion, so not pushing them too much into their own. Once while at a party, we were talking to the mother of a 10 or 11-year old who was saying they took this strategy with their daughter. But when they were in a jewelry store, the daughter asked who that person on the crucifix was. They decided to make some changes. We were polite, but I was thinking; duh! I realize some of this came as a reaction to the ‘just learn it and don’t question’ attitude, but talk about falling in the opposite ditch!

  • Your post inspired a whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    Mazur’s question is rigged. Having a person name something they are really good at would lead one to answer with an action. You don’t learn actions in a lecture. A lecture would not be the best place to teach someone how to file records in an office, program a computer, or fix a car. But if the question was to name a belief, where you learned it, and how it influences your life, then you would encounter the power of the lecture. And that belief might cause one to file records as quickly as possible because they value honest pay for honest work. Another belief might cause a programmer to try some experimental code because she values creativity. And belief can cause a car mechanic to be excellent in what he does because he values the importance of doing things right. Beliefs operate on a different level than practical applications. If being a follower of Christ was only practical applications, then we should get rid of the sermon. But it’s so much more.

    You can

  • Jim (#24),
    Bligh, ‘What’s the Use of Lectures?’ is a good place to start – he reviews nearly a thousand studies performed up to 2000 (last ed. of the book); the large majority tested student retention of facts from a lecture vs another learning method, and the results are very inconclusive.
    I have two reflections on this: one is that it is to be expected: we can’t test ‘The Lecture’ (platonic form thereof) vs ‘The Seminar’; we can only ever test Prof. X’s lecture vs Dr Y’s seminar, and so there are lots of random factors thrown in – some people lecture well, and others give seminars poorly.
    My second reflection is that factual recall is a stunningly uninteresting thing to be testing when it comes to higher education, where the essence of the learning that should be taking place is the ability to engage critically. But that’s a whole other story…

  • David P

    I think you need both. I am back in school now after 3 years teaching high school. 2 hour long lectures are terrible. Especially when they are from 5-7 PM. However, you do need some direct instruction. I used to do things like think-pair-share in my classroom all the time and it made me a much more effective teacher. This book has some really simple techniques that I found very helpful: