February 19, 2016 – Orlando, FL


Dale McGinnis, Instructor, Environmental Sciences, Palm Bay Campus


Take a moment to reflect on the following pedagogies: experiential instruction, inquiry-based learning, lecturing, peer instruction, and the flipped classroom.  As an educator, what value do you place on these methods and how might you rank them in terms of their efficacy?  What’s on the top of your list?  What’s at the bottom?  The real question is, where exactly did you rank lecturing?


Thanks to EFSC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, this semester two of my colleagues and I were afforded an opportunity to travel to Orlando, FL to attend a day-long workshop called “Dynamic Lecturing,” presented by Dr. Christine Harrington of The Scholarly Teaching Institute (www.scholarlyteaching.org). Because my colleagues and I all teach different subjects, have vastly different backgrounds, and have been teaching for differing amounts of time, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the three of us left with some very different impressions of what we experienced that day.


At least two of us, generally speaking, are not particularly fond of educational workshops. The reason for this aversion isn’t a perception that workshops lack relevant information. On the contrary, discovering what strategies work best, and learning how to employ those strategies in our own classrooms, is one of the most important goals we have as educators and workshops certainly can be conducive to achieving that goal.


The reason for the aforementioned disdain of educational workshops is probably best expressed through that oft-mutated rendering of George Bernard Shaw’s infamous, and woefully derogatory, aphorism: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”  Whomever so egregiously appended Shaw’s aphorism simply had not met our teacher, Dr. Harrington.   We all found Dr. Harrington to be an engaging, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and personable facilitator.  She hooked us from the start.  As one of us would describe it later:


When I entered the room she handed me a folder with the day’s material along with a friendly admonition of, “Don’t peek!” I noted that statement only makes a student want to look at it more.  She winked and said, “Exactly!”


Dr. Harrington emphasized this point later in the morning. “Prediction is a really powerful teaching tool,” she said. “If you make students guess, they’re eager to learn if they’re right.”


With respect to the informational content of the workshop, the three of us did not enjoy the same consensus we did for our facilitator. One of us found the workshop’s content to be “resuscitating, stabilizing, and revitalizing,” while another described it as “neither ground-breaking nor enlightening.” There is truth in both characterizations since the information we receive is always interpreted through our own personal lens of experience and frame of reference.


The workshop was structured around Dr. Harrington’s “Seven Strategies for Maximizing Learning via Lecturing.” The essential key to lecturing dynamically, we were taught, is to ensure that all of our lectures incorporate all of the following seven strategies:


  1. Activate Prior Knowledge
  2. Capture Attention and Emphasize Important Points
  3. Use Multi-Media Effectively
  4. Elaborate via Examples
  5. Reflect Briefly
  6. Use Practice Retrieval Techniques
  7. Question for Critical Thinking


We spent the day exploring these topics in depth through Dr. Harrington’s lecture, group discussions, and also through reflective activities performed both individually and in groups. It’s worth underscoring here that even a workshop on lecturing employed more than just the traditional pedagogy of the lecture!  And that’s the point. Dynamic lecturing breaks with the antiquated paradigm in which students are viewed as a tabula rasa on to which information is passively transcribed, the paradigm that, as one of my colleagues described it, is seen as “the boring old way to teach; the one all the dinosaurs use.”


“It is useful to remember that the lecture system evolved largely because of the scarcity of hand-copied books in medieval universities, prior to Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the fifteenth century. The few books in existence were usually in possession of the masters and doctors who taught in those institutions. It was natural under such conditions for the teacher who controlled the source of knowledge to fall into the habit of lecturing to his students. These lectures often consisted of nothing more than the doctor reading from his book while his students took notes. The strength of this pattern of academic culture is reflected in the fact that the Latin word legere (past participle, lectus), meaning “to read,” became synonymous with teaching” (Pulliam, 1963).


This is how many of us regard the pedagogy of the lecture today, a professor reading at his or her students   Perhaps this is why many have claimed that the lecture does not inspire the “creative thinking, investigative, and collaborative problem-solving,” skills critical to the success of new graduates (Wood and Gentile, 2003).  But if that is true, if lectures truly do not inspire, then we must ask ourselves the same question that Dr. Harrington posed to us that day:  “Why do TED talks work?”  Have you been inspired by a TED talk?  I have!


For my own part, there was clear and inarguable value in at least one major aspect of the workshop: all of the information we received was rooted in and supported by peer-reviewed academic literature.  I suppose that is what puts the “Scholarly” in “The Scholarly Teaching Institute.”  Some of the literature we reviewed in the course of the workshop was not exclusively focused on lecturing but it is certainly worth sharing.


For example, how many times have your students, or even you, found yourselves in the following quandary on an exam: “Should I change my answer or stick with my first choice?”  You may be surprised to learn that decades of educational research demonstrates that, more often than not, the best strategy is to change the answer if in doubt (Benjamin, Cavell, and Shallenberger, 1987).  Yet the opposite view persists among students and is still widely held by many.  We learned that there is a very good reason this view is still extant.  Kruger, Wirtz, and Miller (2005) found that students simply tend to remember better the times when changing an answer hurt them compared to times when changing an answer helped them.  As Dr. Harrington summarized the issue, “When you make the wrong choice, you remember it forever.  But when you make the right choice you don’t celebrate it forever.”


What about students’ use of laptop computers while in class? Should you permit it?  Perhaps, but there are important repercussions to consider.  Sana, Weston, and Cepelda (2013) conducted a quasi-experimental study wherein they found that even though both teacher and student believed there was active engagement during the class period (i.e., using the computer to follow the slides on a presentation or taking notes), students who multi-tasked with a laptop during class had a clear and negative impact on their learning.  What’s really interesting is that the neighbors of those students were also negatively impacted by their classmates’ use of laptops and they didn’t even realize they were being distracted!


As for the research on lecturing, there is a solid body of evidence demonstrating that lecturing really is one of the most valuable tools we educators have. Simply put, lecturing can be reliable, efficient, and effective.


First, lecturing is reliable. With the pedagogy of the lecture, we can be sure that the information, rationale, reasoning, or methodology being imparted to our students is coming from an authoritative source, something not always true for pedagogies such as peer instruction.  To support this claim, Dr. Harrington reviewed with us the findings of Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller (2012) who conducted a meta-analysis that revealed teaching a class via lecture produced more reliable results for novice learners when compared to teaching the class by having students work together analyzing case studies.


Second, lecturing is efficient. Often we have precious little time in the course of a single class, or even a single semester, to teach what we must to our students.  While we at EFSC are typically fortunate enough to enjoy reasonably sized classes, many of our colleagues in academia teach dozens if not hundreds of students in a single class making some alternative pedagogies almost impossible to implement efficiently, if at all.  In fact, Lee and Anderson (2013) found that not only is the lecture the most efficient means of conveying quantities of information, but lecturing “reduces cognitive load” on the student and, consequently, also reduces the student’s anxiety.


Finally, the efficacy of lecturing is well supported in the literature. For example, Khlar and Nigam (2004) found in their study of elementary school students that lecturing was far more effective than a discovery-based approach.  Baeten, Dochy, and Struyen (2013) found in their study of freshmen college students that among the choices of “all lecture,” “all case study-based,” “alternating lecture with case study,” or, “lecture for the first half of the semester, review case-studies the second half of the semester,” the latter was clearly the most effective choice.


Though it can be a powerful tool for educators, there is much to consider in designing an effective lecture. For example, the attention span of our students is simply not of sufficient length to match the duration of our class periods.  Risko, Anderson, Sarwal, Engelhardt, and Kingstone (2013) found, perhaps not surprisingly, that the second half of a lecture is when students’ minds begin to wander.  Perhaps more interesting than that is the recent finding of Farley, Risko, and Kingstone (2013) who discovered that students tend to lose focus every five minutes.


Still, the evidence is clear: lecturing is an efficient, reliable, and effective pedagogy, especially if we take care to adhere to Dr. Harrington’s “Seven Strategies.”  Yet lecturing is maligned so frequently it almost makes one wonder how humanity ever achieved a Renaissance or Enlightenment without such modern pedagogies as flipped classrooms or inquiry-based learning!  As Dr. Harrington advised us, “We can’t throw out the technique because some do it poorly.”


Literature Cited


Baeten, M., Dochy, F., & Struyven, K. (2013). “The effects of different learning environments on Student’s motivation for learning and their achievement.” British Journal of EducationalPsychology, 83(3), 484-501.


Benjamin, L. T., Cavell, T. A., & Shallenberger, W. R. (1987). “Staying with initial answers on objective tests: Is it a myth.” Handbook on student development: Advising, career development, and field placement, 45-53.


Clark, R. E., Kircshner, P. A., & Sweller, J. (2012). “Putting students on the path to learning: The case for fully guided instruction.” American Educator. 6-11.


Farley, J., Risko, E. F., & Kingstone, A. (2013). “Everyday attention and lecture retention: The effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-9.


Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004). “The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning.” Psychological Science, 15(10), 661-667.


Kruger, J., Wirtz, D., & Miller, D. T. (2005). “Counterfactual thinking and the first instinct fallacy.” Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(5), 725.


Lee, H. S., & Anderson J. R. (2013). “Student learning: What’s instruction got to do with it?” Annual Review Psychology, 64, 445-469.


Pulliam, L. (1963). “The Lecture: Are We Reviving Discredited Teaching Methods?” The Phi Delta Kappan. 44:382-385.


Risko, E. F., Anderson, N., Sarwal, A., Engelhardt, M., & Kingstone, A. (2012). “Everyday attention: Variation in mind wandering and memory in a lecture.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(2), 234-242.


Wood, W.B. and Gentile, J.M. (2003). “Teaching in a Research Context.” Science. 302(5650):1510.