Death of the lecture? An evolving potential casualty presented by Powerpoint

by Brian on February 25, 2011

Note. Now that I have your attention, let me add a few disclaimers. One, I still lecture. Two, I use Keynote, Mac’s version of PowerPoint, to present most of my lectures. So, now that we have those disclaimers out of the way, I hope you will hear me out without being too defensive.

William Hogarth's "Scholars at a Lecture" etching

William Hogarth's "Scholars at a Lecture" etching

The Latin origins of the word lecture mean “to read,” and the early manifestations of the lecture in college and university settings involved professors standing at the lectern reading from a chosen text. We’ve evolved from this particular manifestation of the practice. But, those who have sat through a particularly tedious modern-day lecture where the instructor reads from a PowerPoint would beg to differ about the extent of that evolution. The lecture is so firmly ingrained in our culture on college campuses that any discussion of its current demise is greatly overstated, as one need only to walk the halls of universities nationwide to see how pervasive Powerpoints and “chalk talks” remain.

Have thoughts and minds changed from a philosophical standpoint in viewing the lecture as a representation of passive learning on college campuses? I believe the answer is an emphatic, “Absolutely!” But, connecting philosophy to practice is a different story entirely.

When I began preparing to teach my very first college class almost eight years ago, I thought, “I want to be different. I want to engage students and create an exciting environment where learning will flourish.” So, what did I do? I developed a flashy PowerPoint with lots of images. I then conducted class exactly like I had seen it conducted time after time in undergraduate and graduate classrooms.

In addition to my lack of knowledge of active learning teaching strategies, my main barrier was “How can I possibly deliver the vast amount of content associated with an introductory course without utilizing a lecture?” Good question. And such is the age-old problem. Yet, the solution is a natural one, and one that should have been more organically solved through history.

Those early lectures in medieval and later colonial days were often a necessity. Books were a rarity, so in order to teach the masses, lectures were a viable solution to the problem. Yet, books are now commonplace and have been for some time. So, what is the current excuse for lecture as a primary or sole delivery method in college classrooms? Yes, the age-old problem of…”My students do not read the assigned reading prior to class!”

Time after time in my first semester of teaching, I felt like a daytime cable television station playing re-run after re-run. Finally, I said something to the extent of, “I apologize to those who did the reading; I know this seems like a regurgitation of the textbook.” Yet, I should have realized through my own experience as an undergraduate that most college students will only do the assigned reading if there’s a graded incentive to do so. The solution was so simple and so effective.

Shortly after being hired at Cal Poly, I took the WINGED series of workshops offered through the CTL and taught by Deborah Wilhelm (English). These intensive workshops (that I obviously highly recommend) were a fabulous resource in helping me improve as a teacher. I was empowered by the knowledge that content quizzes at the start of each class period not only works but also does not necessarily mean poor teaching evaluations and/or disgruntled students. I now start almost every class period with a quiz. I frame my reasoning for these quizzes in a positive light, explaining how it not only frees us up to engage in active learning in the classroom but also promotes lifelong learning (one of our University Learning Objectives). When framed successfully, my experience has been that students appreciate more than lament the approach.

By not taking measures designed to enhance their preparation prior to class, we have unfortunately set students and ourselves up for a passive learning environment in the classroom. After all, a faculty member who has been identified as an expert on my assigned topic was paid a paltry sum to write a textbook. And, I have required my students to buy said textbook. So, why not use this textbook for the purpose in which it was designed, to passively deliver content for us? Some might feel this practice feeds a system that will eventually make our chosen profession obsolete, but my retort is that we only make ourselves obsolete if we fail to back up that passive textbook delivery method with active learning in the classroom. Again, the problem continues with connecting philosophy to practice.

In my current role as program coordinator for the CTL (and full-time faculty in RPTA), I meet faculty weekly who are just like I was and believe in active learning but don’t know how best to employ it in the classroom. Through CTL workshops, the expertise of our staff and faculty associates, and other opportunities, we aim to help faculty connect philosophy to practice. Active learning is widely considered to be sound pedagogy, so we naturally feel a commitment to promote active learning. That does not mean that lectures do not have a place as a teaching method for delivering content in the college classroom, yet the lecture too often becomes the default or the sole mechanism for that delivery.

Will we ever see a day where lectures are no longer the norm or the default setting as a teaching method? I believe we will; philosophical shifts are a signal of an impending decline, and I see a day where lectures are used sparingly and always with intentionality rather than necessity. Whether that day is sooner rather than later is another question entirely; connect with us at the CTL, and we’ll help get you started on the path towards connecting an active learning philosophy with active learning teaching strategies.

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