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No More Lectures

In April 2005, then-President Schapiro spoke to the Boston Alumni Society. He was funny and engaging, honest and even inspiring. He is everything a college president should be. Williams is unlikely to have a better leader in my lifetime.

schapiroBut on one topic, he was jarringly wrong, inconsistent with the progress that Williams has made in the last 20 years and out of step with the future of elite education. Schapiro claimed that, while discussion sections and tutorials in fields like philosophy and English are wonderful, it would be “stupid” to have discussion-sized sections for introductory classes in economics and the like.

Nothing could be further from the spirit of Mark Hopkins. There are no lectures on the log.

First, lectures are inefficient for students. Anything that a professor says in a lecture, as opposed to a discussion, could just as easily be typed beforehand and read by students at their own convenience. Reading is much quicker than listening and, more importantly, allows different students to focus on the parts that they don’t understand and to skim the parts that they do.

Administrators sometimes believe that large classes save money (one professor teaches 100 students!) but the savings come in the form of less learning per student.

Second, the arguments in favor of lectures in economics at Williams are identical to the arguments for lectures in all subjects at Harvard. According to Schapiro (and many Williams faculty members), there is a minimal amount of knowledge that a student must have in order to be able to even discuss a topic like microeconomics. That may be true, but it is no less true for the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the philosophy of David Hume. At Harvard, they are at least consistent on this topic, lecturing to students on microeconomics and poetry and philosophy. If you believe that students, having done the assigned reading, learn best by discussing poetry and philosophy on the first day of class, then why wouldn’t the same be true of economics and chemistry?

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

davis“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.

Fifth, claims about the excessive expense involved in having small sections are overblown. A professor currently responsible for the education of 45 students in ECON 110 should organize the class in whatever way is best for her students, not most convenient for her. Better to have three sections of 15 students each, than one large lecture. This will take up more of the professor’s time, but, since so much of the work — planning the class, creating the exams, grading the papers — is a fixed cost (regardless of the number of class meetings), the marginal cost to the professor of having three sections instead of one is small. The very best professors, like Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97 in history, already split up their large classes. Everyone else should do the same.

Unsure that smaller classes are better? Randomly assign students in ECON 110 to either the traditional lecture or a small section. See which students learn more and enjoy learning more. See which version the professors prefer teaching and why. Measure how many students take more classes in the department and how well they do in those classes.

Six years ago, in his induction lecture, Adam Falk claimed that:

adam_f_023 [W]e have not just the opportunity but, because of the advantages afforded us, the responsibility to be a national leader – maybe the national leader – in innovative and effective teaching. We have all the elements in place: talented faculty; bright, committed students; and, most important, an academic culture that places teaching at its heart. Our faculty walk in the footsteps of Hopkins, Gaudino, and so many others. Innovation does not mean chasing every fad and every new technology, despite all the possibilities that technology affords; often it means embracing the familiar in new and creative ways.

Agreed! A churl might comment that, six years later, there is very little evidence of any teaching innovations, or even modest experiments, at Williams. But we are not churlish today! Instead, we urge Adam Falk to answer one simple question: Do lectures serve Williams students better or worse than small classes? This is, ultimately, an empirical question. A great Williams president would try to answer it.

A version of this article first appeared in the Record in 2006. We have returned to this discussion many times in the years that followed, e.g., here and here. Start here and here for a great back-and-forth. I miss the old EphBlog!
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#1 Comment By student On May 23, 2016 @ 11:32 am

Some psychology classes have over a hundred students, its completely ridiculous. If I wanted huge lecture classes I would have gone to Berkeley or Stanford, the weather is a lot better!