Adam Kotsko defends lectures at Insider Higher Ed.

One of the most entrenched opinions in discussions of pedagogy in higher ed is that classes should ideally be discussion-based, with lecturing kept to an absolute minimum. Lectures, we are told, fail to teach students in an enduring way, because they inculcate a passive learning style that results in information being stored only long enough to be “regurgitated” on an exam and forgotten soon after. By contrast, conventional wisdom holds, students are unlikely to forget what they learn in the context of a discussion, because they have to work hard to come up with their own answers. In this context, the consistent reports from students that they want more lectures are dismissed as laziness on their part, a reflection of a less-developed learning style that we need to challenge rather than coddle.

The goals of critical thinking are the only possible goals of a liberal arts education, and I support them without reservation. Yet you can’t jump straight to them, and I think that a lot of the ways people talk about pedagogy assume that you can — and what enables them to do that is to assume that the books can handle the data transmission just fine. We need to take seriously the fact that on many important levels, freshmen (and not just freshmen) don’t know how to read. It’s a fixable problem, but it’s a real one.

Not at a place like Williams. The only students who “don’t know how to read” are those, mostly caetgory X and category Y, who probably shouldn’t be at Williams in the first place. (I even doubt that this is a major problem among the weaker Williams students.) Lectures only work better, at most, for lazy students and arrogant professors. Since Williams should work toward making its students less lazy and its professors less arrogant, we should get rid of lectures. Full argument here. Highlights:

Third, the smaller the class, the more learning occurs. Consider Diana Davis’s ’07 description of her high school experience:

“I went to a high school where every single class – English, biology, history, math, economics, Greek – was a discussion class with 13 students or fewer. I have not taken a single class at Williams where I have learned as much, learned as deeply, or remembered as much a year later as I did in my classes in high school.”

Now, most of us did not have the good fortune of going to a high school like Diana’s. Yet no one makes the opposite claim; no one argues that students learn more in lecture than they do in discussion.

Fourth, there would be no better way for Williams to demonstrate to potential applicants that it is a different place, with different values, than by drawing a line at 15 students or so per class. If Williams had no lectures, then there would be less doubt about its educational superiority. The tutorial program already provides Williams with a leadership position in undergraduate education. Abolishing lectures would do even more.

Outlawing class sizes above 19 would be the single best thing that incoming President Adam Falk could do in his first two years at Williams. Will he take the chance?

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