by Sara Sanchez Alonso
One of the most challenging aspects as we prepare to become effective teachers is to understand the variety of instructional methods that we can implement in the classroom. If we think about the most recent classes we have attended as students, we might have been exposed to very different formats: lectures, group discussions, presentations and class projects are among the most frequent ones. The instructional method is crucial in the classroom: it ultimately determines the roles of both the student and the teacher and thus how the information is presented and received by the student. Intuitively, the teacher in a traditional lecture format is typically regarded as the “producer” of knowledge, whereas a group discussion expects more input from the student. In this post, I would like to reflect on this particular aspect of instructional formats: how the format we implement in the classroom determines the interaction between the teacher and the student and the implications it has for learning.
Betsy Barre, Assistant Director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, provides a description of two different roles the teacher may play in a recent article titled What is the Point of a Teacher? (Barre, 2015). The author describes the responsibilities of the teacher with respect to a scale that has two poles: the teacher as author and the teacher as tutor. This is how she characterizes the differences between the two views:
- The Teacher-as-author view defines the pedagogical value of the teacher with respect to three main roles: 1) a producer of knowledge, 2) an organizer of knowledge and 3) a role model of scholarly production. Under this view, engaging students in the classroom is not one of the responsibilities of the teacher.
- The Teacher-as-tutor perspective considers that the main role of the teacher is to pay active attention to the development of the students. Thus, teachers should know the background of their students, how they change during the semester and what their final stage is. In this way, teachers are aware of the needs of the students and are able to respond to them.
How the student perceives the teacher, as either author or tutor, will have an impact on how the student engages with the material. If the teacher is seen as the provider of information, students might still be able to critically think and become involved with the material. However, the expectations on the students are different because they are not prompted to become participants in building their own knowledge. They are not required to express their opinions or argue in favor or against a particular aspect, as it would be expected in a group discussion. They are also not asked to explain the materials to their peers or explicitly establish relations with previous lectures, as in a class presentation. The level of engagement is different because the expectations are different. We can capture the interrelation between the roles of the teacher and the student as in the following figure:
This figure shows that the closer the teacher acts as an author, the more passive the student will be. On the other hand, a teacher that regards himself as a tutor will aim to have more interaction with the student. How does this impact the instructional method we implement? For example, a traditional lecture format typically leads to a more passive role on behalf of the student, but actively engaging student improves the process and retention of information (Freeman et al., 2014). Thus one might ask, should we still be lecturing? The answer to this question is very much still under debate and there are opinions that reflect both sides of the debate. For example, The New York Times recently published an article by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor in the History Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, arguing in favor of the lecture format of teaching humanities as an “exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout” (Worthen, 2015). For Worthen, lectures are not passive learning experiences, but instead they are an opportunity for students to synthesize and structure information, as well as to react to this information. On the other extreme, Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist, commented that “it is almost unethical to be lecturing” (Bajak, 2014) in response to a recent study on STEM instructional methods (Freeman et al., 2014). This study demonstrated that teaching formats, which promoted student engagement with the material and activity in the classroom, increased student exam performance and reduced the risk of failure by almost one-half standard deviation.
There are certainly benefits to lecturing. Lectures provide focus on important points or ideas and help clarify difficulties in the course materials. Since the teacher is seen as the “producer” of information, s/he can present an overview of the topic and provide depth with new examples. Clearly, such a format requires a more passive role on behalf of the student. However, certain topics might be more amenable to such a format and work well in combination with other techniques that require more active engagement with the material, such as group discussions or think-pair share activities. Perhaps the most ethical thing instructors can do is to build awareness of the strengths and limitations of the instructional methods we use.
Overall, what seems clear is that the instructional method (or combination of formats) that we choose to implement in the classroom will have an impact on the kind of relationship we establish with our students. Ultimately, it will also influence the level of engagement of the students with the material. Choosing an instructional method then requires the instructor to consider at least three main aspects: 1) the learning objectives, to make sure the method is appropriate, 2) the nature of the materials and 3) how we want students to interact with this information. It might be that one instructional method is not enough to meet our needs and we need to combine different formats to make sure students engage with the materials at different levels and practice skills that meet our learning objectives.
1. Bajak, A. (12th May, 2014). Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds. Science. Retrieved from: http://news.sciencemag.org/education/2014/05/lectures-arent-just-boring-theyre-ineffective-too-study-finds
2. Barre, B. (23rd October, 2015). What is he point of a teacher? Blog: Principled Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://www.elizabethbarre.com/blog/thepointofateacher
3. Freeman, S., Edith, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., Wenderoth (2014), M. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS 111(23), 8410–8415.
4. Worthen, M. (17th October, 2015). Lecture me. Really. New York Times, Sunday Review. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/lecture-me-really.html?_r=0
Sara, this is a very interesting post. I could imagine a scenario (which probably already exists but doesn’t seem very common) where multiple sections of the same course are taught simultaneously but the instructors use very different instructional techniques (e.g. only lecturing vs mostly small group discussion). Is it ethical to let the student choose which format s/he prefers (which may or may not be the format they would learn the most from) while presenting the available data on the student learning from those two formats? A related question is this. Is it enough to have varied instructional methods in different sections of the same class or are varied methods needed in the same section to maximize student learning?