The End of the Lecture

When I started teaching college freshmen in 2000, we joked that while it was nice teaching twice a week instead of three times, students didn't have the attention span for an 80 minute class. A 50 minute class, and you had their attention from bell to bell. But an 80 minute class, you lost them between minutes 60 and 70, for sure. Oh, MTV, how you've shortened our attention spans!

Ten years later, and things have changed. My students are now capable of focusing on a lecture for about 15-20 minutes at best. After that, even the best most attentive students' eyes glaze over, and they begin to fidget. And by fidget, I don't mean "jiggle their legs." I mean they check out, move on, pull out a phone, pull out homework from another class and set to work with a graphing calculator. They fidget mentally. Their brains jerk and jog onto other things.


I tried all the usual counter-measures: strict prohibition of cell phones, calling out students who sit there doing math homework. I tried making the lectures more entertaining: peppering them with ribald expressions and examples, using zesty presentation slides with lots of colorful pictures and the occasional animation. I got a few compliments on my slideshows, but the problem persisted: most students just couldn't hang onto a topic for longer than 15-20 minutes.

Then about a year ago I read in the news that MIT had abandoned the large lecture class format for physics. They explained all the reasons--students haven't been absorbing the material, or coming to class--and since this is MIT we're talking about, brain science got involved:
In an article in the education journal Change last year, Dr. Wieman noted that the human brain “can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once.”

But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hourlong science lecture is vastly greater,” he continued. “So we should not be surprised to find that students are able to take away only a small fraction of what is presented to them in that format.”
(Italics mine.) So I thought that if the smarty-Charlies getting into MIT needed a new classroom structure, so might my working-class heros at FAU. In the Fall of 2009 I started a teaching experiment: Tuesdays they did group work (a sheet of interpretive questions that I directed each group of four to debate and come to a consensus on), Thursdays I lectured concepts and pointed out finer details in the writing. By the end of the semester, I would describe the pattern simply as, "Tuesdays my students are alive, Thursdays my students are driftwood." Same students, two days later, but the difference was astonishing (and, for me, torturous).

On Tuesday they would talk, laugh, have thoughts -- often somewhat deep ones! -- about the novel they'd read. They'd debate the best way to phrase their answers, and the best quote to offer as evidence. They would call me over to ask about terminology, and tentatively ask about alternate interpretations to get my feedback on their relative merits. That was Tuesday. On Thursday they would watch me talk for 20 minutes, then fall asleep.

So, results in, I restructured my class again. Starting this semester, Tuesdays and Thursdays have the same format: the first 15-20 minutes of class is an overview of concepts, the following 30-40 minutes is group work on interpretive questions, and the final 20 minutes is a discussion of their various answers that I try to spin into the other important details of the book. So far, it's worked brilliantly: my students are awake, engaged, and coming up with fantastic work.

There's just one problem.

They're complaining.

That's right: they're complaining. "Oh my Gawd, group work, again?" It seems they actually want to sit in the class and stare off into space while I say things they won't remember. (Students are also increasingly allergic to taking notes in class -- they expect anything "important" to be emailed to them or posted to a website or server. But that's a post for another day.)

There is the faintest suggestion in their complaints that I'm somehow dodging my responsibilities as their teacher by having them work in groups. In actuality, producing good questions for them, working with them as they answer them, and then grading the results is far more work than just showing up and talking.

There is also some naked laziness involved: during a lecture they can sit passively, ignoring every word, learning nothing, totally anonymous and unmoved by the teacher's irritation at their silence and lack of engagement. That's obviously much easier for them, and it seems that that's what some of them would prefer to do.

But the truth is, I've never heard such smart things come out of students' mouths (and pens) as I've heard this semester. I'm making them think, and learn, and interpret, and while some of them seem to resent it, it is having a good effect, the exact intended effect, so I'm going to keep doing it. I just hope they don't try to take something out on me come teacher-evaluation time.

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