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Teaching Thursday: The Changing Meaning of the Large Lecture

For the first time since I’ve been at the University of North Dakota, I have decided to devote the majority of my classroom time in History 101: Western Civilization class to prepared lectures.  The class is large 80-150 students, is in an auditorium style room with theater seating, and runs from 7-9:20 pm at night.  The course does not have discussion sections or recitations, but I do have a teaching assistant for grading.  The majority of students (albeit just) are freshmen.

In the past I have used a variety of in-class discussions, group work, and in-class writing to break out of the “sage on the stage” mode of instruction.  This year, however, I have transitioned the class to a simplified lecture format that emphasizes the delivery of content and demonstrations of the historical method.  As for writing, group work, and opportunities for collective learning, I have moved that almost entirely to the class’s Blackboard page where my TA and I run weekly discussion groups geared toward more careful reading of the primary sources and a class wiki designed to produce weekly class notes.

Moving away from the unpredictable routine of in-class discussions and the chaotic logistics of group work has opened up time in class to talk in more detail about writing, to respond more fully to questions students might have about the course material.  I make every effort to keep my lectures open to interruptions and digressions driven by student questions and comments.  The class that I have this semester has shown a remarkable willingness to interrupt my presentations to ask for clarifications and (more promisingly) to ask that I expand on a particular point or idea. 

The willingness of students in a large class to interrupt my relatively well-crafted lectures was unexpected and very much welcomed.  It made me think whether my previous efforts at perhaps overly contrived in-class discussions (, “Socratic” interludes, and sometimes painfully awkward “group work” actually served to mark off the lecture as a particular moment when the instructor is delivering information and therefore specifically not an opportunity for interactivity.  With my more purely lecture style this semester, however, the boundaries between “lecture” and “discussion” time are not defined by neatly arranged shifts in my pedagogy, but rather student interest in a particular topic and their willingness to engage me (and my willingness to be interrupted!).  This is to say, since we don’t have much discussion qua discussion in class, they do not realize that lectures could represent the opposite of discussion.

This all suggests that the traditional lecture, even in a large classroom, during a long, night class, may, in fact, be a thing of past. Students today simply do not have the experience of sitting passively listening to a “sage on the stage”.  They expect their classes to be interactive (and rightly so).  Lectures only become passive experiences when we introduce moments of “active learning” to the classroom through such tactics as in-class discussions and group work.  Unless otherwise informed, students expect all learning to be active.

For more Teaching Thursdays see:

Teaching Thursday: The Modern Graduate Student
Teaching Thursday: Reading the Digital Palimpsest for Traces of an Analog World
Teaching Thursday: Who Are My Students? (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday: Another View on High Tech Teaching
Teaching Thursday: Transmedia Teaching
Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday

Categories: Teaching
  1. Dallas
    September 26, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Bill,
    I found this post pretty interesting. I’ve dealt with the same problems you outline here (most have)–overly contrived “active” learning vs. the sage lecturer–with the same results. I’ll be teaching a solo 111 next quarter, and I’ve been thinking of ways to format it that use discussion, lecture, group work and an online component. I have to admit, though, I hadn’t considered the format here–or its effects. I think I may try it. Let me know how the online primary source discussion goes (I’ve done this a lot for Tim’s classes–bit of a mixed bag) and how it all pans out as the semester goes along.

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