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No More Lectures

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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#1 Comment By frank uible On December 22, 2009 @ 8:05 am

Outlawing classes of greater than 19 students would have a financial cost – who pays? Another of David’s unfunded mandates! David, you ought to run for Congress.

#2 Comment By rory On December 22, 2009 @ 8:38 am

sadly, david, i have to disagree here: “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.”

The school I’m at has comparable students and far too many of them know how to read to regurgitate but not read to understand/challenge. That’s a subtle distinction, but a key one.

Whether or not a lecture is the proper means to learning that skill I’ll bracket for now (answer: possibly, but not how many/most lectures are presented), but the bulk of high school graduates–even elite schools, even top students from them–aren’t at an elite LAC seminar level of reading right out of high school. They may be at the “baseline” Kotsko lays out, but that baseline is a low base requisite.

Two things jump out to me, not necessarily related (warning: I haven’t had my coffee yet). First, my freshman seminar was a great way to learn what college reading really was…there were 30+ students in that class, so it wasn’t a discussion, but part of the class was discussion and the lectures were purposefully walking us through how to think as much as they were about the topics of the book. Students struggled (I got a C+ on my first paper) and some hid from talking during the discussion, but we learned a lot about how to think in a college class. In my small discussion class that semester (a 200 level course on urban politics with 10 people), I spoke a lot…but I’m not sure I contributed much in hindsight.

Second, discussion courses can allow those who aren’t at a certain level of comprehension to hide from engaging…especially first-years. It takes a much better pedagogue to build their skills and confidence than it does a pedagogue to do that in a lecture. the idea that lectures alone can engage those students is wrong, but the idea that discussion courses are a panacea is as well.

#3 Comment By Ronit On December 22, 2009 @ 9:59 am

ARTH 101-102 is a lecture, and it is quite possibly the best class at Williams. Your argument fails, David.

#4 Comment By David On December 22, 2009 @ 10:10 am

ARTH 101-102 with 19 students would be much better han ARTH 101-102 with 150 students.

Why not teach Phil 102 with 150 person lecture? That’s what they do at Harvard.

#5 Comment By Ronit On December 22, 2009 @ 10:18 am

No, it wouldn’t. The quality of a class is highly dependent on the quality of the professor. With a 150-person ARTH 101-102 lecture, you get the best possible professors for that course teaching all the students. With 8 sections of 19 students, you would have some sections taught by weaker teachers (since it’s hardly reasonable to expect one professor to teach 8 sections). Teaching quality matters more than class size.

Furthermore, ARTH 101-102 lectures are supplemented with small group-discussions sections, but there is no benefit whatsoever to breaking up the lecture itself into small sections.

#6 Comment By Ronit On December 22, 2009 @ 10:23 am

Also, I believe that there is value in encouraging students to actually listen attentively to what someone who knows the subject well has to say, instead of always contributing their own opinions on a topic they do not, as yet, understand. I like discussions for somewhat higher level major-oriented classes, but they are not, in my experience, very valuable for introductory courses where most students lack even basic familiarity with the subject.

You overestimate the quality of discussion in Phil 101 or 102, David. It’s a class taken by lots of people who have no previous acquaintance with philosophy, including many who don’t do the readings regularly: turning the class over entirely to discussion often leads to either very vacuous discussion, or awkward silence, or one or two people who do understand the material dominating the discussion. Phil 102 could work perfectly well as a lecture, and many of the students who hide during discussion because they lack confidence in their understanding of the subject matter could actually benefit from a lecture format for such an introductory class.

#7 Comment By hwc On December 22, 2009 @ 11:04 am

…including many who don’t do the readings regularly…

That’s too bad. Students who aren’t engaged enough to do the assignments probably has a negative impact on the classroom, lecture or discussion.

#8 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On December 22, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

I had both small (11 students in American Character and Culture) and large (250 students in Art 101) classes, and I think it’s important to offer both kinds of classes. I took Waite’s Modern Germany class and he was a superb lecturer–he indirectly taught that giving a lecture was an art form. Stoddard’s Art 101 was a standout as well.

I think the key is mapping the professor to the format. Professor Burns was outstanding in small, interactive classes. However, I had a friend–Michael Beschloss ’77, in fact–who took his American Political Parties lecture course and said it was dismal. Forcing professors who aren’t good lecturers to give lecture classes is not a good use of time. At the same time, there are professors who are good at lecturing and we shouldn’t force them to give only small, interactive classes.

While I think every student should go through several classes where he or she has to stake a position and defend it in class, I’m not convinced every class has to be the same format. Variety is good.

#9 Comment By Andrew Goldston ’09 On December 22, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

I fully agree with Ronit here, and can think of several other good counterexamples, like War in European History (Prof. Wood) and Introduction to the Feature Film (team-taught), that would gain nothing from a reduction in class size.

Sometimes small-group discussion is what you want/need in the classroom. And sometimes it just gets in the way.

#10 Comment By ’10 On December 22, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

There’s really no need for below-19 introductory science classes. I don’t think my Chem 15-, Math 10-, Physics 1–, Organic Chem, or Bio 10- classes would have been any better had they been smaller. The professors have this great new invention called either “lab” or “discussion,” which involves smaller sections of these larger classes meeting outside of regular lecture hours to go over concepts either more hands-on or more in-depth. But there’s no need for a smaller class to go over basic lecture material (which many students have already learned in high school).

That being said, I have always preferred my Div 1 and Div 2 classes to be below 20 students. I think it’s easier and more comfortable to engage with the material and generate discussion. There are a lot more (and more interesting) questions, at least in my opinion, to be asked about Hinduism than there are to be asked about a Claisen condensation.

#11 Comment By Aidan On December 22, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

This has somewhat been covered, but discussion classes depend on a good mix of personnel. Too many torsos or loudmouths, and you’re in for a long semester.

#12 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On December 22, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

Hmm, I’ll have to remember that phrase, “torsos or loudmouths.” How true.

#13 Comment By ce On December 23, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

I don’t actually totally agree with many of the posters here. While I do think Art 101-102 were some of the best classes at Williams, I thought that there was a very close correlation between my class quality and the class size otherwise. Of course there are exceptions (like Arth 101-102), but in the vast majority of cases, my sub-12 classes were better than my 12-20 classes, and my 12-20 classes were better than my 20-35 classes…etc.

That said, I don’t think it makes sense to have ever class be under 20. Shrinking class sizes for any class will get you diminishing returns. However, the returns don’t diminish evenly; you might be able to increase the quality of a philosophy class by 50% by shrinking it from 35 to 15, but a science class shrunk the same amount might only increase 10% in quality. David, I do think that most people would agree that Art 101-102 would be better if it were smaller, but I also think few people would argue that it would be that much better. In some cases it might make sense to devoting more resources to shrinking classes, but in many cases it’s simply not a good use of resources. Even assuming Williams invested in enough professors so that every class could be <20, I would argue that it would be far better for the school to keep some lecture classes (and some 30-50 classes) and have some 5-15 person classes, than to have every single class at 15-19.

Harvard's philosophy is to get the best lecturers/researchers, and expose them to the most possible students. Williams' philosophy is to get top (but maybe not THE best) scholars and maximize their interaction with individual students (going for quality of interaction over quantity). There's no doubt in my mind that the Williams "method" works better than Harvard's–and despite Ronit and other's expressions to the contrary, I doubt they disagree. The logical conclusion of this line of thought, however, is NOT "all <19 person classes" as David suggests, for the reasons described above.

#14 Comment By Parent ’12 On December 23, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

For the classes with smaller or even smallest class size, the tutorials,
I would think that a large part of what made the class better or best is the students.

I assume they were highly motivated with a strong inherent interest in the material.

#15 Comment By PSCImajor On December 23, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

Something one of my professors said this semester is relevant here, I think: “Lots of people who have taken this class before have complained about the class size in their course evaluations. There’s only one real response I can give them: make the course smaller, and you wouldn’t have gotten in.”

Williams doesn’t have the faculty at the moment to make all of its classes smaller, and arbitrarily enforcing 19 as the cut-off would either mean far fewer students got to take classes we wanted, or far more faculty would be necessary.

Furthermore, while many courses would indeed benefit from being smaller, this isn’t true for everything (for instance, intro classes, or some core major classes – Econ 255: Econometrics, for example, doesn’t need to be a ten-person class), and in some cases, it can be a great thing to hear a brilliant scholar lecture. While I love discussion, and truly value my tutorial/independent study/other small course experiences at Williams, I’m also a huge proponent of having the opportunity to sit down, shut up, and learn from some of the best academics in the country.

All that being said: there’s also value to the 20-35 person discussion/lecture classes. My best course (out of a set of 5 and the ARTH101 audit -which, mind you, was an extremely valuable experience, and wouldn’t have been possible in a 15 person course- including a 15-person core econ, a 20ish-person history discussion/lecture, a German tutorial, a 15-person PSCI/PHIL seminar, and the following) was a 35ish person PSCI/HIST course. Absolutely amazing. It was a mix of strong, well-led discussion and incredibly insightful lectures. Sometimes, I’ll admit, having the 35 people in the class could be frustrating. But most often, it was good – many times, people who’ve been silent for 3/4 of a semester will pop out with gems of comments.

Would lower class sizes be better? Yes, in many cases. But not in all. And there are significant costs associated with reducing class sizes. The lecture is a valuable form of teaching, just as the discussion is.

#16 Comment By Derek On December 24, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

I’ve defended lectures before and I’m going to do it again. The capacity to construct and present a good lecture should be an essential tool in a professor’s arsenal. It should not be the only tool. And at a school such as Williams, which can afford to have so many classes as seminars, maybe they should even be relatively rare. But much of teaching is still knowledge and content based, and professors have and should be able to share that knowledge and that content, sometimes through lectures if they think it is the best approach.

Lectures have come to be derided, oftentimes by people who talk about “student centered learning” or who disparage the idea “chalk and talk” or whatever. But this is silly. As one of my grad school colleagues, who is a fine, fine teacher at a California Community college, used to say about the fetish of discussion classes irrespective of context, “a bunch of ignorant people sitting in a circle giving their opinion does not create knowledge.” Williams students are sure to be up on the material going in to class, and to have done the background reading. But even then, there is ample room for a professor to talk and sometimes to lecture. Even the most brilliant Williams student does not have a fraction of the knowledge that even the least established junior professor has in their subject area.


#17 Comment By Alexander Woo On December 26, 2009 @ 2:42 am

If you want Williams to have 19 or fewer students in every class, you can come up with the money to cut the faculty-student ratio to 6.5-1.

#18 Comment By Ellen On December 27, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

There have been enough occasions when I’ve preferred hearing my professor present an eloquent argument over listening to my classmates’ arrogant self-boasting commentary. This applies to discussion based English, Soc, PoliSci classes, all humanities subjects that depend heavily on student participation.

Contrary to what you might think, Dave, even the brightest Williams students come to [a discussion] class at times woefully unprepared.

I think enforcing too strictly either of the two – the lectures, the minuscule class – is dangerous.