Having taught for 33 years at small nationally-ranked liberal arts colleges (Vassar, Knox, and Occidental) where teaching is a priority over research, I’ve seen pedagogical fads come and go. It seems like every 2-3 years the college brings in some pedagogical “expert” to tell us experienced professors that we were doing it all wrong for years, despite the excellent responses and teaching evaluations that we receive. I’ve sat through endless committee meetings and workshops where they try to get us to follow their “one size fits all” approaches to pedagogy. In some fields where discussion of everyday experience is the norm, they insist that we should make every class a discussion section, and let students “discover for themselves” what the field is about. I’m all in favor of “active learning,” as the current fad is called, but there are limits to where it is applicable. Some subjects, such as most of the natural sciences, are “content-heavy” and require that the students be exposed to a certain minimum amount of material, or they cannot take the next course in our highly structured and sequential curriculum. We try to make up for it by giving students all the “active learning” we can in lab sections, where they handle the materials and do the experiments themselves. But even in a small liberal arts college where the largest lecture section is limited to 32 students, it’s a severe challenge to “cover the material” and expect the student to also take an active role in every lecture. When some humanities professor tell us science faculty that we should turn Intro Chemistry into a non-stop discussion section, we all just laugh at their cluelessness. Not only do we have the constraints of a large amount of material to cover so the student can take the next course in the sequence, but in the case of chemistry and biology, there are MCAT and GRE exams that also have an expectation of a certain amount of “content” mastered by the students’ third year. Nonetheless, the reality is that the content-driven lecture is an essential element of at least some college courses. You may be able to get away from them in some subjects in the humanities and social sciences where every person has at least some valid expertise or ability to form an opinion, but it won’t work with a lot of the material we cover in the natural sciences, since so much of it is alien to one’s everyday experience and few students could have a meaningful debate about the merits of some reaction in organic chemistry.
This is not to say that I don’t integrate “active learning” techniques in my lecture whenever I can. They can range from simple things like passing a specimen of a rock or fossil around and make sure they are all see or feel what I’m describing; or getting them to all stand up in their seats, and then having the men and women sit down in 2:1 ratios as if they were atoms paired up into crystals and settling out of a magma chamber. I frequently pose questions to the class and wait patiently til someone comes up with the answer, giving them a few hints along the way if necessary. I’ve got amusing cartoons that make the point interspersed here and there through my slides; I try to make sly references to cultural phenomena or things the students can relate to, or poke fun at familiar movie plot devices that are geologically impossible. I try to pose realistic scenarios (especially on exam questions, which are all essay style) so that they can show they understand how their knowledge applies to the real world, and not just how well they can memorize and regurgitate a list of facts.
Many big universities are forced by the necessity of their big enrollments to schedule lecture sections with hundreds of students. They have all sorts of new gimmicks and toys to keep the students showing up and paying attention. The latest is the “clicker”, a small remote-control unit that electronically gives each student a chance to select answers to a question posed by the lecturer (while also taking roll at the same time). I’m aware of the difficulties in teaching huge sections where you can’t even see their faces, but fortunately I’ve been spared that most of my career. My largest lecture sections ever were about 80 students, but the room was small and shallow so I could see the back row easily. I made a point of watching the students’ faces as I lectured (I’ve taught for so long I no longer need notes) to spot whether my bellwether students are looking puzzled. If so, this is my cue to stop, back up, and make sure they understand. Even in my largest classes, I tried to know all their names in the first few weeks, and in small classes, I can immediately spot who’s absent. Most of my students really appreciate it that I know who they are and keep up with how they’re doing in class, and whether they show up. And I have 33 years of excellent student course evaluations to back me up.
The key, as I learned early in my teaching career, to making a lecture effective is making it interesting and—dare I say?—entertaining. We’ve all had experiences with boring, poorly presented lectures, where it is a struggle just to stay awake, let alone to follow what the lecturer is saying. But there’s a big difference between a decent lecturer and the truly gifted communicator as well. One year, I was visiting a friend in Salt Lake City, and she had me tag along and sit in on a lecture by her favorite professor, Dr. Laurence Lattman at the University of Utah. He started the lecture by asking the students to close their notebooks! He wanted their undivided attention to follow the amazing story he was about to tell, and he didn’t want them distracted by writing things down. Then he launched into a truly spellbinding lecture, weaving in themes of history and culture into a simple geology topic—and the class was mesmerized. I’d never seen a performance like it, despite all the years I’ve witnessed lecturers of every caliber, including some amazing speakers we bring to the Skeptic Society lecture series.
But there is more to it than that. Early in my career, before I had tenure, we untenured faculty all agonized about the student evaluations and how just a few disgruntled students had the power to destroy your career, even if you had done a great job. Then my colleagues and I ran into a series of famous papers about the “Dr. Fox effect” (Naftulin et al., 1973; Williams and Ware, 1975, 1976). These studies, done in the early 1970s, decided to see how much the entertainment value (“seductiveness”) of the lecture affected student evaluations and retention of material. They coached a good actor (in this case, veteran character actor Michael Fox—NOT the much younger Michael J. Fox, whose screen name added the fake “J.” because he couldn’t use the same name as the older actor) with no formal training in a subject to give a convincing, exciting lecture that was pure gibberish! They disguised him and named his character “Dr. Myron L. Fox”. They then ran several different experiments on different groups, both students and faculty. In some trials, “Dr. Fox” gave a relatively bland formal presentation, while others when he pulled out all the stops to be entertaining, engaging, and charming. The results were clear. First, no matter which delivery he used, no one spotted that the lecture made no sense! But when course evaluations were turned in, the audience made it clear that they felt they had learned a lot more from the engaging lecture rather than the more conventional one. In both cases, the audience did very well in answering questions afterwards about the content of the course—without noticing that it was gibberish! Not surprisingly, they had much better “retention” of the material in the engaging lecture than they did in a conventional one.
Of course, to a terrified junior faculty member struggling to get good student course evaluations, this is discouraging. All that seems to count is being a good actor—even if you don’t know the material! But it does raise a larger point: human learning is a complex process, but it’s clear that you have to engage and get their attention and even amuse them or they’ll tune you out—no matter how solid the technical side of your lecture is.
This makes the idea of “distance learning” and teaching all courses on-line so that the student and the professor never even have to be in the same room seem even more absurd to me. Lots of universities are adopting “distance learning” modes more and more, because they are cheap and allow them to serve a potentially infinite number of students with a pre-packaged, pre-recorded series of lectures. But as someone with decades of college education experience under my belt, I can see it’s just a scam to cut costs. Most of the subjects we teach require that you learn by discussion with your peers as well as the professor, nearly impossible when you’re not even in the room. Even in the lecture setting, the main job of education is interaction and communication, which are virtually impossible if you’re just flipping through Powerpoint slides on your laptop in your pajamas in your bedroom.
Naftulin, D., J.E. Ware, Jr., and F.A. Donnelly, 1973. “The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction”, Journal of Medical Education 48: 630-635.
Williams, R., and J. Ware, 1975, “The Dr. Fox effect: a study of lecturer effectiveness and ratings of instruction,” Journal of Medical Education 50: 149-156.
Williams, R., and J. Ware, 1976, “Validity of student ratings of instruction under different incentive conditions: A further study of the Dr. Fox effect”, Journal of Educational Psychology 68: 48–56.
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