Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Another Defense of Molly Worthen's Article on Lecturing
This comes from Daniel P. Franke, a visiting history instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Franke supports Worthen's defense of the lecture and add his own insights. Here is a taste of his post at The Winds of War blog:
That lectures have, and will continue to have, a role in college education is taken almost for granted by publications such as the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; the link should take you to the many articles that in some way or other deal with lecture. Many, such as Smith and Cardaciotto 2011, stress the need to find ways to work active learning methods into lecture classes, citing G. S. Gremmel’s wry 1995 statement that we are under such pressure to cram everything into an hour that we unload our “dumptruck” of pedagogy on our unfortunate students. Others, such as Sagayadevan and Jeyaraj 2012 examine the role that students’ emotional engagement plays in lecture classes. Brost and Bradley 2006, in a fascinating study, examine the reciprocal responsibility of teachers (lecturers) and students in assigning and reading assigned material, respectively (I’ve actually had a lot of success with some of the exact techniques that they recommend). Incidentally, it is quite clear that the lectures they describe embrace a wide variety of techniques, some more effective than others. Finally, Lawler, Chen, and Venso 2007 provide interesting data on what students themselves value in lecture: “showing enthusiasm for the subject, having good communication skills and explaining complex concepts clearly” being the top three. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there has been a lot of work done studying lectures, and whether or not they will ever equal that 10-student seminar (no, they won’t). They are here, and we’ve been working on making them darned effective.
But there were other reasons that Molly Worthen’s column on the lecture spoke to me. Above all, it is because, now that I’m back in regular civilian classrooms and teaching mostly freshmen for the first time in three years, lectures seem to be crucially important to my students’ success. The reasons for that are two-fold: a) a generally great lack of experience in historical analysis, and b) ditto for analytical thinking and questioning. This has nothing to do with aptitude–I’ve never had a student that wasn’t tip top, and my current bunch isn’t letting me down. But it does mean that college courses are often drastically different from high school courses, requiring a different kind of thinking, a different kind of engagement, and above all (because this is history), some basic familiarity with historical data (which at the same time is not mere regurgitation).
We actually just discussed this after my latest midterm. A few students stayed behind to ask about what the exam evaluated, and why I structured it the way I did (these weren’t complaints, just honest questions). One of my students questioned whether giving them terms requiring a short answer was the best teaching method, which was completely fair, and I said it wasn’t. But, it did accomplish several things. We wound up chatting for a while as I cleaned up the classroom and here’s the gist of what we came up with:
History is hard, because it deals in both concepts and data, not one or the other, and the relationship between them.
Shifting back and forth between the two is the essence of good college history writing and speaking. My favorite piece of advice to students: big concepts, small examples.
College history is also a lot like the game show Jeopardy–you have the data, the issue is what kind of question are you going to ask?
Unless you’ve had the blessing of a great HS history class, you’ve probably never been exposed to these kinds of methods.
You’re probably good with broad concepts, because in my experience most students are.
So, here’s the rub: if I have you write an essay, it will probably be vague concepts with no examples, because data is boring and hard, and I’ll grade you down for that. If I give you nothing but terms and word banks, what does that accomplish, except for you to regurgitate stuff?
So, I opted for the intermediate goal: short examples that help you develop your skills reasoning from specific terms, working on moving from data to its significance. This works with the skills you’re working on in your first paper, and will ultimately building blocks for the second paper and the final exam.