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Professor Wilson’s Gift Of The Lecture

January 29, 2014

Dr. John “Jack” Wilson was, without question, my favorite teacher during my years at DePauw University.  With his Wayfarer glasses and buzzed flat top, this brilliant and kind* professor was the master of the lecture. He was such a skilled orator that I was willing to drag myself out of bed at 7:45 am so I didn’t miss a moment of his 8:00 am class on the Russian Revolution.  His lectures were captivating, packed with gory yet engrossing details that made history come alive.  I took every class he offered before he died of a heart attack during my junior year (see page 2 for story).  I have never seen the auditorium more packed than during his memorial service, which points to the quality of the man and his teaching when you consider that Margaret Thatcher, Colin Powell, and Ken Burns also spoke at DePauw during my time there.

Professor Wilson inspired me to become a teacher and taught me the value of a good lecture.  I learned a lot in his class, so I know they can be useful tools when teaching.  I realize lectures have fallen out of favor these days, but there are many reasons why they should be a part of your teacher tool box. Lectures are the most efficient method of transmitting large amounts of information to your  students.  Plus, writing your own helps control the pace and the sequence of essential details without the confusion that can accompany peer instruction and project based learning.  Presentations also display a teacher’s passion for the subject matter, and when given in the right way (more on that later), they can ignite a student’s interest in the topic.  Finally, they provide an opportunity to teach middle school students how to take notes, which is a necessary skill for success in high school and especially in college where class sizes often make lecturing necessary.

There are educators who would argue that being the “guide on the side” is more constructive than being the “sage on the stage”, yet research points to the value of a well-given lecture.  A recent Harvard study argues that “traditional lecture style teaching is associated with significantly higher student achievement” (Schwerdt and Wuppermanny, 2010, p.2).   Donald Bligh cited in his classic book What’s the Use Of Lectures a summary of 91 studies which compared different teaching methods and found that there was “not that much difference in the effectiveness of lectures and other methods” of teaching (Blight, 1971, p.7).  However, many of the studies on lecturing don’t factor in the effectiveness of the lecturer.  For those of you that know me, I love to talk and in order to learn, I need to verbalize my thinking in order to thoroughly understand something.  Yet, I learned and retained much that Professor Wilson taught me despite never having the opportunity to say a word in his classes except to ask a clarifying question.  I believe the reason why I learned as much as I did is due to the fact that Wilson was an amazingly gifted speaker.  So, if expatiating is a strength of yours, by all means use it as one of the tools in your tool belt.

While Wilson was a master teacher at the college level, his lecture-only approach needs to be adapted to fit the needs and learning styles of middle school students.  When thinking about utilizing the lecture in your own classroom, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Finding the sweet spot: Let your skill determine how often you lecture.  If you can articulate your understanding in ways that capture the students’ attention and help them learn, then make lecturing a regular part of your teaching.  With that said, don’t over use the lecture either.  Students get bored easily, so be sure to incorporate other methodologies to keep your lectures fresh and engaging.

  • Keep your lectures brief: As David Vawter points out in his excellent article “Mining The Middle School Mind”, the average attention span of a middle schooler is ten to twelve minutes.  Keep your lectures short so they stay interested.

  • Lecture about your passions: Since lectures are largely passive, you need to grab and hold your students’ attention.  If you lecture on topics that bore you, don’t be surprised if you put a few students to sleep.

  • Type your lecture notes: Not only will a script keep you focused on the key points, but providing typed notes will help students with poor receptive language or note taking skills fill in the gaps.  Be sure to post the notes where students can access them in case they lose them or miss a class.

  • Lectures need to be multimodal: Be sure to provide visuals to accompany your lectures.  Powerpoints and Prezi’s are great ways of providing visuals and written notes at the same time.

  • Teach students how to listen actively to a lecture:  This is a skill just like writing or reading, and it has to be taught.  Plus, you need to remember that until students get good at taking notes – you shouldn’t expect them to really master the material because they are putting so much effort and attention into note taking.

  • Give students an opportunity to process: Break your lecture into sections and pose questions to students to not only gauge their understanding but to help them solidify their grasp of the material.   Breaking students up into small response groups will make it possible for all students to participate.

  • Consider the Flipped Classroom model: Creating engaging lectures for students to watch at home will give you more time to “teach” them in school.

  • Use lectures as the starting point:  Lecturing can provide students with an overview of the content material so they can understand the basics.  Then utilize other techniques to increase and deepen their understanding.

* Kind yes – but he was imposing as well.  I once called him on the phone to ask for an extension, and he answered with a curt “Wilson”.  I never asked again.

PS – After publishing the above post, a fellow (Teach Like A) Pirate Andrew Rowe (@amcrowe5) was kind enough to send me a great article written by Todd Finley (@finleyt) that focuses on how to improve the quality of lectures.  Check it out on Edutopia: http://edut.to/1f9IWPh 

Other thoughts:

Abigail Walthausen points out in a recent Atlantic article, Don’t Give Up The Lecture,  “There is immense value in lecture, and it must not be written off as boring and ineffective teaching.”

Mary Burgan, in her article for the Carnegie Foundation’s Change, has defended lectures writing that ‘teachers are irreplaceable as models of knowledgeable adults grappling with first principles in order to open their students’ understanding,’ but also that a ‘passionate display of erudition [is] valuable itself–regardless of the rewards of approval or popularity.'”

Perhaps most importantly, what are your thoughts?  I’d love to get a discussion going.

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