Universities should consider the lecture one teaching style out of many rather than as a default
Lectures figure prominently in the public’s conception of a university education. This conception broadly matches the style of teaching at Memorial and other Canadian universities: students spend most of their class time in a lecture hall, taking notes rather than problem-solving, interacting, or receiving direct feedback. Although lectures have their place in undergraduate teaching, some subjects demand alternate pedagogical methods. As such, lectures should be considered one of a wide range of teaching methods rather than a default.
Lecturing is often a uniquely appropriate teaching style. Instructors who are experts in their fields of instruction are well placed to curate knowledge on a topic and provide insights to students that would be difficult to obtain through readings alone.
Additionally, student motivation suggests that lectures could be useful even if some texts could mirror good lectures with careful selection of topics, arguments, and references. After all, some students may find themselves falling behind without a formal lecture schedule that forces them to keep up with course materials.
The argument that lectures are superior to other materials with respect to their ability to motivate learning is subject to its own criticisms. It is unclear that lectures are generally more engaging than written texts; although some instructors are skilled entertainers and some books are dry and fail to command the reader’s attention, some texts are tremendously engaging and some instructors effectively sedate their students.
It seems clear that, for these reasons alone, investigation into alternate teaching formats is warranted. Fortunately, there are ways of motivating learning other than strongly encouraging student attendance at lectures. Regular assignments or online class discussions provide examples of activities that provide structure to learning and prevent students from procrastinating or losing interest in courses.
Perhaps better, though, office hours and labs provide ways to encourage learning that recognize the relative competencies of individual students. Many students have experiences of sitting through lectures in which material they find difficult is passed over quickly whereas seemingly trivial concepts are explored in depth. If students could read about these topics independently, they could choose how much time they spent on each topic based on their opinion of its relative difficulty. Additionally, if lecture time was curtailed in favour of expanded office hours, students would have more time to question their instructors on topics these students need the most assistance in understanding.
Labs—not necessary prototypical scientific labs, but sessions of people working on problems in a common area with one or more teaching assistant(s)—also provide a mode of instruction often more appropriate than lectures. Skills like writing, computing, and programming are often best learned by doing. Hence, providing structured sessions during which students can apply these skills while receiving guidance from faculty or assistants may better promote learning than lectures divorced from practice.
Both office hours and labs introduce the benefits of the tutorial system common in the United Kingdom. At universities using this system, small groups of undergraduate students meet with faculty tutors with whom they discuss their course progress and the projects that these students regularly submit for evaluation. This system forces students to keep up with their courses, as they know they will be forced to discuss course ideas at tutorials. The emphasis on discussion and submitted work also encourages active engagement with course material, which some consider encouraging of a deeper sort of understanding than the memorization of class notes often associated with lectures.
Although lectures are often desirable, they should be chosen as a given class’s primary method of instruction for a class based on their circumstantial appropriateness. Now, dissimilarly, Canadian universities use them without thought as a default even when subject matter demands more diversity in teaching formats. With increased awareness of different formats and bold action from student activists and university officials, this fact could change to the immense benefit of undergraduate education.