Should Professors Stop Lecturing in Class?

Should Professors Stop Lecturing in Class? July 20, 2016

This is a question Christine Gross-Loh of The Atlantic raises in a story about the decline of lecturing in college classes. The article provokes thought and includes some defense of the traditional lecture. I especially appreciated that aspect of the piece and found Molly Worthen’s comments commendatory.

Here’s one snippet from the story that caught my eye:

Today, the shape of the lecture is evolving, due in part due to decades of research showing that students tune out after around 15 minutes. (No longer than 45 minutes, and often shorter, is generally a good span of time to aim for, says Engell, though “attention spans are like muscles and you can exercise them.”) Many instructors report doing a hybrid sort of lecture: mini-lectures interspersed with discussion (or “change-ups”) and the liberal use of multimedia and online resources.

I always enjoy seeing this kind of perspective represented, in part because it seems so lightweight. There is tremendous plasticity in this area, it seems to me. We are told that young people today can’t tune in for longer than 15 minutes, or 25, or 30, or 45. There’s always a number given, and it’s always cited like Scripture. Of course, it is not Scripture; it is usually dependent on a study, or perhaps several.

The problem with such argumentation is this: young people–people of all ages–regularly tune in to media of varying kinds for hours at a time, held spellbound by what they encounter. Think of your average superhero movie, of which there are approximately 19 per month these days, and most all with the same stilted, rote, grind-out-the-same-plot-points feel. They often clock in at 2-3 hours, and the very same students who are said to be categorically–ontologically–unable to listen to an hourlong lecture are near pulverized, they’re so tuned into the film.

The same can be said of any number of other forums: presidential debates, 4-hour sporting events (which require near-elite athletic stamina to watch), concerts, and more.

Someone will say, “Yes, but those events are multi-sensory,” and that’s true. But a good lecture can engage people just as much as a game, match, or concert. The key is that little adjective: good. If lectures are boring, yes, they can kill attention. If they are engrossing, and offer stimulating content delivered with some dynamism, and do not flood the hearer in one sitting (breaks are good), they can be nothing short of transformative. (Of course, this relates closely to preaching, as you can see. In defending lectures, we are in some sense defending preaching. Christians have a big stake in this discussion.)

It’s now taught that students should teach students, and that we should use all sorts of different means to reach students. There is a place for such methods; seminars featuring open and informed exchange of views can be grand intellectual affairs, bazaars of the mind, if done well. But in my experience, I have learned best and most when sitting at the feet of gifted and learned lecturers. The lecture is unparalleled in its ability to transfer information, provoke questions, and shape minds. It may be challenged today, but my own prediction is that it will long outlive the many au courant methods taught to us today (many of them by lecture, interestingly).

This subject has special relevance to those who preach to, parent, and train youth in some way. The challenge before the church today, it seems to me, is not to find the brand-new means by which to grab the ears of pre-adults, but to engage them with really, really interesting content. This the Bible provides on every page. Our culture encourages us to reduce expectations with youth; I think we should drive the opposite way, and raise expectations on them.

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