iTeach: The importance of lectures

When he was about 10, and we had collecting to do in the Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain National Park (yes, we had permits), we found a week-long local nature camp for our youngest son at Tremont. We worried a little about leaving Philip in a well-reviewed but personally unknown place. Would he be the outsider among bunkbeds containing lifelong friends? Would it be a miserable week?

We needn’t have worried. Our son was as deliriously happy as I had ever seen him when we picked him up. He was glad to see us, but could not stop chattering about all that he had seen and learned. He took us through the landscape at a near run, up and down muddy trails, first to this waterfall, then to that one. He know what to expect at each. He showed us the large black-and-yellow salamanders right out on the gleaming wet rock surface. He showed us dark ones that lurked in the pools at the bottom and which ones hid behind the fringing waterfall. Clearly the snakes and salamanders were a highlight, but he knew other things too. He knew who had lived in these hollows, from native Americans to the hardy Scots and others who replaced them. He knew what they feared too, in the form of ghost stories, told around the campfire. From those stories he might have learned what some of the worst of them actually did. He learned not only from exploring along the trails. He learned from all the stories the councillors told around the campfire and in the classroom.

He never did go back to that camp, but I see traces of what he learned there affected him in central ways, affirmed repeatedly in other field experiments, following experts, finding, and studying snakes and amphibians on countless jungle night walks. I think that week, lectures and field work combined, had the kind of lasting learning impact we want for our students.

Can a day of learning how to teach from lectures at iTeach have a similar impact? I’ve been mulling over the things we covered, wondering how my opinions have changed since I first wrote right after the euphoria of the day. I could rewrite that entry, but I won’t. The changes will be reflected here instead.

First, I pondered a lot the irony of being lectured at about how lecturing is not a good way to teach. Of course it is. If you have been struggling with a problem, have read about it, but it still is not coming together, get someone to explain it. It helps. These days, if you don’t follow the instructions that came with your new burr coffee grinder, you can find a YouTube video that explains how to put it together. Odds are, it will have one of those square codes you just photograph and go straight there.

So explaining helps and that is what a lecture is, an explanation. Is there anything better than a great talk? Doesn’t it tie to the earliest ways we humans learned, from Songlines, to long narratives, going back to before we humans could even write? Aren’t lectures the first abstract step we humans took past direct showing, which even many animals do? So why if we use them all the time, even in workshops about teaching, do we find they so often fail in teaching?

Is there another problem with lecturing? Yes, I think so. The other problem can be understood from the above examples. What if we don’t have an object to put together, but we are being told how to put it together anyway, and we will be tested on those instructions in words, not by actually assembling anything. What if we won’t be walking the Songlines and so don’t need to know when water will appear? What if the lectures our son heard on salamanders and where they occur were not accompanied by trips to waterfalls? True grit lets some people learn these things anyway, but most of us will find the overnight cram, the plug and chug, whatever solution puts it in for the test, and then lets it out rapidly. It is knowledge we do not want and will not keep.

So, lectures are great when you want and need the information. They are nearly pointless when you do not. This means our challenge is not to stop transmitting information by lecturing, but to entice our students to desperately want and need that information. Wanted information may tie to things you already know. It may let you build something you want to build. It may let you know something you need to know. I knew our credit cards would not work in the train station in Schiphol airport without that special European chip, because Rick Steves said so in an article I had read just for this purpose. Will I retain this information? Probably, but the information I really need to retain is to check on using money in whatever country I’m visiting right before going, if I haven’t been in awhile.

So, lectures are not the problem. Their context is. How can we change our teaching so students want and need the information we give them in lectures? Why would we even want to lecture them on information they do not need? That we are assigned to teach this class, need to fill 15 weeks and will be judged at the end is not a good answer. That we were taught irrelevant information, and it didn’t harm us is not a good answer. That it is not our place to decide what students do outside our classroom and so cannot make the lectures relevant is not a good answer. This is the hard question, and in iTeach we got some answers. Some others I already knew.

Some subjects are just naturally fascinating. Students will want to know about them because they tie to things they have experienced in everyday life easily. I teach behavior, and this is one of those areas of natural curiosity. I can teach central principles through examples like why hermaphrodite snails chew each other’s penises off after sex. It just gets a student’s attention. The trick is to not drone through the answer, but to make the students grapple with it first.

Sometimes meaning can come from across the curriculum. This can be very effective but tricky to work out. Say a student is taking both introductory chemistry and introductory technical writing and film. If the goal of the writing class were to produce a better lab manual for the chemistry class, or a series of YouTube videos on doing the lab procedures, both classes would be enriched. This would be most true if the products of the writing class were actually used in the chemistry class. Scale this up, and all our teaching could be a lovely network of meaningful actions.

But I’m not an advocate of extreme class networking because I fear it can dampen autonomous creativity of individual professors. It is easiest to make those lectures matter with things done for that same class. Exactly what those things are is the subject for another entry. Here, I’ll just say, that we should use the evidence-based tricks of repetition at intervals, recall on blank paper, or with tests, and group work to help with retention. But our biggest ace in the hole is that the students badly want the information we are transmitting at least partly by lecture because of what we are about to ask them to do with it. Stay tuned!

(P.S. This lecture-based workshop was effective because it was voluntary, because we will take what we learned and apply it to our own teaching, because we will discuss what we learned with our colleagues, because we will read the papers cited, because once you want the information, lectures, especially when interruption is encouraged as Gina Frey did, are very efficient ways of transmitting information. I suppose I’ll retain because of this, my blank sheet.)

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in The joy of teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to iTeach: The importance of lectures

  1. Pingback: More on good lecturing « Oikos Blog

  2. Pingback: Am I teaching well given the available research on teaching « Jabberwocky Ecology | Weecology's Blog

  3. Doug Mock says:

    Just a couple thoughts on this. I teach two principal undergraduate courses that seem to occupy opposite ends of the student-expectation spectrum. They arrive in Animal Behavior expecting it to be highly entertaining (and it is) and easy (which it is not); by contrast, they arrive in Quantitative Biology expecting a root canal sans novocaine (which it certainly can be, so the instructional challenge is to reverse this expectation). The Animal Behavior course turns out to be a lot more challenging than watching the Discovery Channel, but the mere fact that such a reference point exists also means that students will be very tolerant when stronger content it revealed. You have a margin of tolerance with which to work. In stats, by contrast, the challenge is to strip away the mathephobic terror and get them to some short-term rewards quickly.

    Both courses seem best approached through biology’s greatest pedagogical weapon, the stories. Nearly all of us were drawn to living organisms by the visceral fascination they offer and that hunger endures, easily used to bring students to the underlying conceptual meat-on-bone. Biology is very fortunate in this regard because the cool stories are RIGHT THERE to be enlisted. The same is true of a few other subjects like history and therein lies a lesson in opportunity costs. In my limited exposure to (high school) history, the emphasis was on dry recitation of ‘facts’, so we memorized strings of US presidents with their dates of office, wars with their dates of combat, etc. Events and dates…events and dates… Far too much of biology makes the same mistake (substitute “body parts and Latin names”).

    A few memorable instructors catch onto this, mixing facts with concepts in stories. In the spring of 1967 (45 years is too long ago for me to remember whether that was Upper or Lower Cretaceous!) my entomology professor told us that Hannibal’s elephant cavalry had been weakened by an arbovirus en route toward Rome. This was a lecture on why fleas are cool! I do not remember much else about fleas, except that they are more important than I’d realized and that knowing more about insects is cool. I also remember Edgar Raffensparger and what he taught me about pedagogy, viz. that the truly durable lesson is to make students want to learn more about a subject. An ounce of inspiration is worth a ton of facts. And stories can deliver the inspiration.

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