TITLE: A Quick Thought on Lecture
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: November 25, 2007 10:55 AM
Yesterday I ran into two thoughts on teaching and learning
that may end up being longer pieces later. This entry is
me thinking out loud about the first, and next I'll think
out loud about the second.
Yesterday I was filling some time before a wedding in a
geeky way by reading Carl Wieman's Why Not Try a
Scientific Approach to Science Education? from the
September/October 2007 issue
of Change magazine,
on the recommendation of a fellow department head in my
won the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics and has also spent a
lot of time thinking about teaching physics to general
population. The article nicely summarizes many of the
ways we can improve of general science education, most
of which won't be new to anyone who has read in this area
Wieman explains why lecture is not an effective instructional
strategy, even in situations where you think it might be
(for example, when the audience consists of other experts
in the field). The thought that occupied me for much of
the afternoon was, okay, so, what is lecture good
for? Or should we just retire it from our repertoires
Two customized forms of lecture can be quite useful. A short
lecture -- 10 to 15 minutes max -- can set up another activity.
A lecture that includes heavy doses of solving problems can
illustrate a technique that students must do, or have done and
now have questions about.
Straight lecture is, as Wieman says, a distillation of
understanding: "First I thought very hard about the topic and
got it clear in my own mind. Then I explained it to my students
so that they would understand it with the same clarity I had."
This is exposition which is well-suited to be read by the
student. This is why so many instructors end up turning their
awesome lecture notes into a book. So a third use of lecture
is to fine-tune material that will become a book. That may be
good for the lecturer/author and even future readers, but it
doesn't do as much for the students sitting in the classroom.
I think that the fourth use of lecture is motivation. A great
lecture can fire up the troops, rousing their passions to leave
class -- and work hard. That's how learning really happens,
through hard work outside of class. Time in class can help
streamline the process, heading off potential deadends and
guiding students down more fruitful paths. What a lecture
during in class time can do is to excite students about the
material and prepare them for the work they need to do on
So: I don't think we should retire lecture from our repertoires
entirely. We should use it in a target, limited fashion to
prepare other activities in class and occasionally we should
use it as a motivational speaker would, to excite students
about what is possible and why the hard work is worth the
I really wish I were a little better at this sort of lecturing.
I think my students this semester could use a spiritual revival
as they enter the last two weeks writing their compilers.