TITLE: A Quick Thought on Lecture AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 25, 2007 10:55 AM DESC: ----- BODY: 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 college. Wieman 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 before. 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 entirely? 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 their own. 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 effort. 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. -----