Should We Abandon Active Learning for Lecturing?

A Sunday New York Times op-ed about teaching style—currently one of the most-emailed articles on the newspaper’s website—issues a call for more lectures and less active learning, at least in the humanities. Molly Worthen, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that lectures teach students comprehension and reasoning. “Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen,” she writes.

It’s a provocative argument, given the movement toward active learning in recent years, and given what we know about the advantages of actively engaging students in a variety of ways (see the recent post by my colleague, WAC Fellow Claire Hoogendoorn, for more on that research). But it’s also a false dichotomy. Lecturing and active learning don’t have to be opposites; in fact, Worthen herself emphasizes the importance of one form of active learning during lectures: note-taking. She writes:

But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking…. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

Indeed, research indicates that taking notes helps not just with retention of information, but also with conceptual understandings. (And, as Worthen points out, writing notes by hand seems to do an even better job of it than using a laptop.) Many students have never been taught how to take notes, though; they need to be taught. WAC Fellows can help you do that yourself, and we also offer a student note-taking workshop in the spring.

There are other ways to incorporate active learning through writing into the lecture format. Below are just a few, drawn from Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (2011).

  • Develop Exploratory Writing Tasks Keyed to Your Lectures. These assignments, which could be in-class or out-of-class, cannot be completed without paying attention to the lecture. Example: At the end of class, ask students to take five minutes to argue for or against an important idea from the lecture.
  • Break the Pace of a Lecture Using “Minute Papers.” Stop in the midst of a lecture and ask students to write for five minutes in response to a question connected to that point in the lecture. This gives you feedback and refocuses student attention.
  • Ask Students to Write Summaries of One or More of Your Lectures. These should be short and can be done either in class or out of class, and help student understanding as well as giving you feedback.

These don’t have to create more work for you. Most could be ungraded, or graded for completion only; you could also grade only a fraction of them each time. And by bringing low-stakes writing like this into the lecture format, you can help ensure that your lectures are being heard and understood.