Telling is not teaching

Lecturing remains the staple of college classes despite evidence that it is the least effective method of instruction.   Recently, some professors have banned laptops, which has forced students to take notes the old -fashioned way by handwriting (“I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read my Notes,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 13). Professors see this as a victory for engagement.  I see it differently.

Students are complaining about the change – except for the wrong reasons.  What they should be doing instead is questioning lecturing itself.  I say that because lecturing confuses telling with teaching.  Lecturing essentially reduces students to stenographers.  Whether they do so by cursive or by laptop is beside the point.  Real learning requires active responses by students.  Students learn by doing. Lecturing does just the opposite, forcing them to be passive.

If the goal is to develop critical thinking skills, lecturing by its very nature undermines that objective.  How can students be expected to think about material being presented if they are focused exclusively on taking notes in one form or another?  The truth is that most professors are woefully ignorant about pedagogy.  They certainly know their subject matter because of their advanced degrees and numerous publications.  But they don’t know how to impart their expertise other than by lecturing.

All teachers have certain instructional objectives in mind.  These overwhelmingly incorporate the most important material that they want their students to learn.  But they have not given much – if any – thought to how their students will demonstrate mastery.  The usual way is by a mid-term and a final exam.  But these instruments come too late in the school semester to provide feedback to professors.  It would be far better if they designed their instruction to give students the opportunity to exhibit their learning on an on-going basis.  Yet I remain extremely pessimistic.  Professors see little to be gained by breaking with tradition.  Let’s not forget that exemplary teaching is given little weight when it comes to granting tenure.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



6 Replies to “Telling is not teaching”

  1. You are 200% correct. You are referencing college classes, but unfortunately it is also the majority of classrooms of secondary schools. I have found that teachers use this method because it is easier. As a former high school math coach, I saw some pathetic teaching methods. As a coach, I was not able to question their methods unless THEY asked me. Many years ago I was introduced to the Myers Briggs Test. It changed my whole way of teaching. In my simple terms, why teach using a process I understand but my students don’t? I was criticized by my fellow math teachers for not teaching the real MATH METHOD. I could go on for a long time on this topic.
    Two quick things:
    1. If someone is in these types of classes, I would suggest purchasing a LiveScribe pen.
    2. Teachers should have someone video tape their classes so they may see what students see. It can be a real eye opener.

    John Nygren


  2. John: You, I and countless other students have been subjected to lecturing under the guise of teaching. It’s a disaster. Students can hardly stay awake. You’re right that in secondary schools the impact is even worse because students there lack the discipline to stay even minimally engaged. If teachers ever viewed their own instruction, they would be appalled. Thanks for writing.


  3. Developing critical thinking skills and teaching subject matter are separate albeit overlapping objectives. Speaking from my personal recollections of college and law school classes (decades ago), note taking required critical thinking, at least for most classes. It was not physically possible to record everything the professor said. So — the students had to decide what was important. In order to decide what was important, the students had to actively analyze what the professor was saying and divine the underlying framework. Alternately, the students — in preparing for quizzes/tests — had to review their notes and at that point divine the underlying framework.

    Not sure how else a professor could develop both critical thinking skills and teach the underlying subject matter efficiently. Class discussions (in law school, the Socratic method) encourage students to pay attention and to come to class prepared (if being called on is random rather than voluntary), but those methods necessarily result in much of the class time being devoted to what students are thinking rather than to what the professor is thinking — helps a little with the critical thinking skills component but at a heavy price re the underlying subject matter component.

    One possible idea — that I saw in practice recently when I was on my college campus mid-semester — is for the professor to take advantage of digital applications whereby each student in the lecture hall has a digital device, the professor occasionally stops the lecture to ask a thought-provoking question requiring the students to apply the most recent lecture concept (not just regurgitate a fact), each student has one minute to register his/her multiple-choice answer on the digital device and the collective votes are displayed for all to see. Professors might give extra credit to students who participate or get the “right” answer or might penalize students who do not participate or get the “wrong” answer. Had I been a student in this class, this approach would have encouraged me to think critically about what the professor was saying during the lecture + minimal wasted lecture time listening to fellow students.


  4. LaborLawyer: If students know that they will be called upon at any time to answer a question posed by the teacher, then perhaps the worst aspects of lecturing can be eliminated. Unfortunately, teachers are obsessed with “covering” all the material. I think it’s more important to go deep than to go wide during instruction. But it’s hard to change teacher behavior. Perhaps if teachers made their instructional objectives clear at the outset, learning would be enhanced.


  5. Staying awake was just one of the problems in lectures. When I started lecturing at MIT on motion analysis lighting, I engaged the audience and had them participate in the lecture. I was the only one who did it and I came out on top as the best lecturer.


    1. Tom: I’ll bet your audience remembered what you said because you actively involved them in your presentation. The typical lecture, which is the staple of university instruction, should be an anachronism. Too bad it remains.


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