The case against lectures

Credit: Leanne Phillips/ Credit: Leanne Phillips/
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Like at most schools, traditional college lecturing is a widely-used teaching method at Carnegie Mellon University. I’ve personally taken many courses where all or most of the in-class time is spent listening to the professor lecture. This has been true across a range of subjects, from environmental history to multivariable calculus.

While I have had the privilege of listening to a few great lecturers, I am often bored by passively sitting in class while the instructor drones on about a topic. It’s difficult to focus, I’m not engaged, and while this (fortunately) has not happened to me yet, I've seen students fall asleep in lectures on many occasions. Sadly, even when a lecturer is well-prepared and has clearly put effort into their PowerPoint slides, I often don’t enjoy the lectures.

You might think that the boredom often accompanying lectures is a necessary price to pay in order to learn the subject material, but this is not the case. In fact, evidence from education research including meta-analyses has shown that lecturing is a less effective teaching method than more active approaches to education. This is especially true for education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

So why is lecturing so widespread given its unpleasantness for students and the mountain of evidence against it? I can think of a number of reasons.

Professors are incentivized to focus more on research than teaching, and therefore might not give as much thought to the effectiveness of their pedagogical methods. It may appear that students are learning things in lectures, when really they are learning from the homework and other active learning components of the courses. There could be a bias toward the status quo, how things were when professors were students, what the professor in the classroom next door is doing, or what our peer institutions are doing. As bad as lecturing is, the people in charge of university accreditation evidently don't mind.

Lecturing feels good for the lecturer, and people might even be interested in becoming a professor in part because they want to lecture. After all, it’s how most professors teach. On the student side, while listening to lectures may be boring, it’s relatively easy and takes little effort. Students may feel like they are learning a lot from lectures, even if they won’t remember the content for long. And lectures can occasionally be entertaining or even inspiring, despite not being good for learning.

Regardless of the reason for its persistence, lecturing needs to be replaced with better teaching methods. But how can this change be enacted? Since the primary way that students communicate feedback about their educational experiences at Carnegie Mellon is through the Faculty/Course Evaluations (FCEs), I propose using this medium to ask for more active learning.

For the past few semesters, I have based my ratings primarily on the extent to which the courses I took avoided traditional lectures. Professors who lecture get 1 or 2 stars, those who use class discussions or other active learning approaches get 4 or 5 stars, and those who use a mix of both get somewhere in between.

In addition, I have made sure to mention my opinion on lecturing vs. active learning in the comments section of the evaluations, citing my desire for the use of more effective, enjoyable, and evidence-based teaching methods in the classroom. A few professors request that students fill out mid-semester feedback forms, and I’ve used those to promote my ideas as well.

Some Carnegie Mellon classes, both in the humanities and in STEM subjects, use active learning to great success. For example, last year I took International Development: Theory & Praxis, taught by former Carnegie Mellon post-doctoral fellow Dr. Takiyah Harper-Shipman. It was one of the most transformative and fascinating classes I’ve taken in college. It featured little lecturing, but lots of class participation and active discussion about the readings assigned for homework. It is a model of how readings-based courses should use in-class time.

I’m currently taking Statistical Computing with Professor Ryan Tibshirani. He devotes two out of three classes per week to hands-on R programming labs. The instructor and teaching assistants walk around the classroom while students actively work on the assignments, offering assistance when students are struggling in an unproductive way. Aside from the Monday lectures, the Wednesday and Friday labs are a good approach that can be imitated by any of the numerous Carnegie Mellon courses requiring work on STEM problem sets.

There should be far more active learning at Carnegie Mellon, and far less lecturing. And if enough students express the desire for this in FCEs, maybe there will be.