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A well-worn quip attributed to Mark Twain summarizes a lecture as the transfer of information from the professor’s lecture notes to the student’s notes without passing through the minds of either. Similarly, WH Auden and Camus have each been credited with defining a lecturer as a person who talks in someone else’s sleep. Despite such popular and discouraging sentiments about lectures and lecturers, they remain the most common instructional modes in contemporary undergraduate education. The familiar practice of a professor delivering knowledge to room full of students passively absorbing that information has not fundamentally changed for centuries.
Lectures originated as a necessary component of the oral tradition. Even when the printing press made it possible to collect information within bound volumes, these books were rare, precious, and expensive items well beyond the access of most students. When printing and copying techniques became more accessible and affordable in the 20th century, information rapidly became more accessible to students, yet was rarely sufficient without an instructor’s guidance. The deployment of the internet in the late 20th century dramatically expanded both the amount and types of information readily accessible to both students and faculty, effectively reducing the information divide between teacher and student.
Even with this evolution of information access, instructors continue to be necessary components of the learning process by organizing, explaining, and contextualizing relevant information. Technology has also undoubtedly increased a lecturer’s delivery options to make images, animations, and videos common in today’s lectures (though the pros and cons of PowerPoint lectures in contemporary classrooms are hotly debated (Craig and Amernic, 2006; Tufte, 2003). At some institutions lectures are routinely recorded and then subsequently made available as podcasts and/or videos so that students (and professors) have the opportunity to review the lecture (Owston et al., 2011; Vajoczki et al., 2011). Consequently, experiences that were traditionally ephemeral can now be recorded and stored in perpetuity. Not only has technology made information more available, but it also makes people more available. Now students in a lecture hall can interact with guests via videoconferencing, Skype, and other technologies (Barresi, 2012). Inviting an expert to class, interviewing a scholar, or collaborating with students at another institution, greatly expanding the walls of modern classrooms in exciting new ways.
For centuries, professors appropriately taught through traditional lectures because students could not practically obtain full access to content central to the course. Today information is rarely the limiting factor in a student’s education. Thus, modern pedagogy is gradually shifting the professor’s role from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” where helping students manage their information is critical to learning (King, 1993; Saulnier, 2009).
In addition to the evolution in information access and delivery, in recent years numerous studies have demonstrated that traditional lectures that rely on passive learning are not as effective as active, student-centered learning strategies (Tanner, 2009). With pedagogical evidence discouraging traditional lectures, a rapidly evolving technological landscape, and the trendiness of lecture bashing, then why do lectures persist at nearly all colleges and universities? One obvious explanation is that most faculty members teach the way they were taught. Most of us learned science through lectures, and consequently we teach that way. An alternative explanation is that lectures are not all bad. They can be particularly effective for setting contexts, disseminating common material, synthesizing information from multiple sources, clarifying complex concepts, and modeling professional practices (Bligh, 2000, Charlton, 2006; Woodring and Woodring, 2007; Adsit, 2012). A third explanation is that lectures remain economically effective delivery mechanisms. For the price of a single faculty member’s salary (and perhaps some graduate teaching assistants) institutions can enroll as many students in one lecture class as they have seats in a lecture hall. In a tight economic climate where tuition increases rapidly outpace inflation, colleges and universities simply cannot afford to reduce class sizes, even in the face of compelling evidence. Fourth, most colleges and universities are literally constructed on the foundation of the lecture. Because lectures have such a long tradition in the academy, campus buildings and weekly class schedules presume lectures as the primary educational activity. Reconfiguring classrooms or calendars to accommodate active, student-centered courses requires cultural and facility changes that are difficult, slow, and expensive. Thus, faculty members who chose to avoid or minimize traditional lectures for other pedagogies are often still limited to teaching in spaces designed for monologues rather than conversation. As well, most college faculty must teach in prescribed time blocks of two 75-minute or three 50-minute periods each week. These time periods are longer than most effective listening attention spans, yet too short for many alternative teaching methods where students take the helm of their learning.
Many creative instructors have transcended the limitations of traditional lecture hall architectures and time periods; they have designed smart (and often simple) ways to target “pops” of activity within their lectures much like a designer strategically places colorful pillows into an otherwise neutral decor. Some professors use their experience and intuition of what works in the classroom to guide their choices and others have designed educational research strategies to test the efficacy of active learning methods. Thus, there is a very large literature describing how faculty members can effectively deploy student-centered and active learning approaches within lecture courses (Bonwell, 1996; Mazur, 1996; McKeachie, 1999; Uno, 1999; Knight and Wood, 2005, Handelsman et al., 2007; Felder and Brent, 2009; Nilson, 2010). Active learning advocates contend that when students do something they learn it better than if they hear about it. Thus, the best way to learn about active teaching is by spending time in a classroom experiencing those techniques. For instructors who do not have local peers willing to let them sit in, many useful demonstrations of specific active learning strategies can be found online simply by searching the name of the technique and selecting the videos from the search engine’s results.
This article is by no means an exhaustive or original description of active learning in undergraduate lectures. Instead, its goal is to illustrate a few examples of active learning strategies that can be readily incorporated into traditional lectures with minimal needs for changes in technology, time, and/or architecture. The thoughtful incorporation of a few simple active learning strategies can go a remarkably long way to making the traditional lecture more engaging for students, more rewarding for instructors, and more effective to all.
It is also important to note that none of the active learning techniques described here are in any way specific to neuroscience. These strategies can be applied to lecture courses in all disciplines. In fact, one of the best ways to examine new teaching strategies is to visit the classrooms of colleagues outside your discipline or look for situations where you are not an expert. To this point I offer a personal example of how an experience far outside my discipline became a powerfully simple catalyst for transforming my own teaching and helping me think more about my lectures from student perspectives. Several years ago I attended a reading by the famous writer Joyce Carol Oates, who is also a professor of literature. Not equipped with literary analysis skills, I was uncertain how to learn from her guest lecture. She quickly put me at ease by briefly describing each poem before she read it. Her preview of a poem as, “four lines long,” prepared me for a short, intense period of attention akin to a 100-yard dash. I knew almost nothing about poetry, but I did know that in a poem that short, every word was essential. She told us that the next poem was longer, so I knew to listen with a more sustainable pace, akin to a 5K. Finally, one poem she told us was on the page in the shape of a kite, and while I could not see the words on the page, recreating shape in my mind was an exciting challenge that augmented my listening to the poem. On the surface, Ms. Oates gave a traditional monologue lecture in a large performance hall, yet these small strategic cues helped me engage powerfully with material in which I had limited experience or interest. The next day in my Developmental Biology course I showed videos of various embryos. I had viewed these sequences many times before, often just saying “here is the zebrafish” or “let’s look at C. elegans now.” I found myself setting up the time-lapse videos with similar cues such as, “the sea urchin moves quickly, so don’t blink” or “the time scale on the tadpole is slower, so settle in for a few minutes here.” I use this example to argue that seemingly negligible cues by a lecturer can create significant engagement and learning gains for students. Moreover, I also use this example to make the important point that inspiration for improving lectures can come from unexpected places, often when the instructor is well outside her/his discipline and has little expertise in the subject. I recall a teaching advice column that suggested all faculty members should make an effort to learn something new or attempt something well out of our comfort zones every year or two because we ask our students to learn very new things in which they might not be naturally good. When I take a painting class or sign up for a triathlon, it is not because I imagine a career in art or a podium finish. Similarly, many of my students will never become developmental neuroscientists, but they have other reasons for taking my course. I may never be able to use a paintbrush effectively, I might not perform up to my abilities on a given day, and I will never set an athletic record, but I will want to be as good as I can be and I will get frustrated somewhere in the process. Again, most of my students will not be naturals and will experience frustrations in learning neuroscience that I may not have experienced. Being a learner means struggling with new knowledge when guided by an expert who likely found the topic more accessible and interesting. Thus, any opportunity for an instructor to understand a learner’s perspective is helpful. Such empathy for the challenges of learning combined with strategic classroom activities that focus on the learner can transform a traditional lecture into a more effective learning experience for students without sacrificing time or content.
The instructor selects text relevant to the day’s topic and assigns students in the class to read the text out loud. The text may be a short story, a passage, or a collection of statements. Depending on the length of the selected text and the size of the class all students may be assigned reading responsibilities or only a small fraction of the students may read out loud. If appropriate, the student readers may be encouraged to add drama, flair, or humor to their readings. This technique is particularly helpful for starting discussions, introducing new topics, or shifting gears during a long class period.
The Reader’s Theatre technique is frequently used in elementary schools as an activity that encourages new readers to improve reading confidence, fluency, and comprehension (Martinez et al., 1998). This flexible teaching technique is also used in high schools to develop performance skills and enhance literary studies (Coger and White, 1973).
In an undergraduate science lecture, Reader’s Theatre is an efficient way to get many students voices in the classroom and shift speaking responsibilities from the professor to the students. The technique can be useful for getting a variety of viewpoints onto the floor for discussion in a safe and/or efficient manner. For some topics a traditional discussion of volunteers might be difficult to cultivate and/or not reveal the full spectrum of viewpoints because of limited student experiences, lack of knowledge in the field, the controversial nature of the topic, and/or homogeneous demographics. Reader’s Theater is efficient because the professor can construct a script with statements that illustrate the full spectrum of viewpoints, without requiring the class to spend the time to identify the spectrum. Similarly, for controversial topics Reader’s Theater can be a particularly safe method because it is obvious that the reader was assigned the task and is therefore not personally advocating or representing a controversial viewpoint.
It is also important to note that Reader’s Theatre is an effective method for encouraging participation, particularly from quiet students who may be shy and/or lack confidence in their own knowledge. Reading a short segment or statement is a relatively low-stakes activity where a quiet student’s voice can be heard and/or a student who lacks confidence can make a valuable contribution to the class.
Reader’s Theatre has benefits for its readers, but also promotes active listening by the non-readers. The instructor might preface the reading by giving specific instructions that require the non-readers to take notes, identify a stronger/weaker argument, identify an inaccuracy, categorize statements, etc. Given the many distractions inherent in today’s classrooms where students are easily lured away from learning by text messages and social media, Reader’s Theatre is a small way to encourage and demonstrate why focusing, note taking, and/or careful listening are critical skills for success.
Reader’s Theater can be a particularly effective technique on the first day of class to demonstrate the expectation that most of the talking will be done by students. The statements selected might model suitable contributions as questions, evidence-based statements, etc. Alternately, the statements read during Reader’s Theater could exemplify a variety of strong and weak discussion contributions and students could then analyze which types of statements facilitated class discussion, which statements were less helpful, and/or how weak statements might be improved with the addition of logic, evidence, etc.
The instructor might also choose to shift responsibility for selecting the material read toward the students. For example, in a course focusing on clinical neuroscience, the instructor could assign some or all students to find a quote (or video) from a patient with a specific clinical condition that describes the symptoms from the patient’s perspective. The students who find the quotes might even ask their classmates to do the reading out loud at the next class.