The Gutenberg Method
February 6, 2009 7:34 PM   Subscribe

The Lecture System in Teaching Science "Meanwhile, back at the classroom, the lecture is drawing to a close. Just as the bell rings, the lecturer, if he's a really smooth operator, comes to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a nice neat unit. He lays down his last piece of chalk — he knows exactly how many pieces the lecture will take — picks up his precious lecture notes, and goes out. The students, tired but happy, rise up and follow after him. Their heads are empty, but their notebooks are full. Their necks are a little tired; it's been like a sort of vertical tennis match: board, notebook, board, notebook. But other than that, everything is all right. Any student will tell you, "I never had any trouble with the course until the first examination."" [via]
posted by dhruva (63 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
The art of lecturing paces materials in ways which do assist understanding and retention, while often providing space for questions. Discussions are helpful, but I have been in enough discussions gone wrong to understand that they are not an unqualified better replacement for lectures.
posted by honest knave at 7:45 PM on February 6, 2009


A co-worker who is taking some graduate courses in biochem was trying to interest me in some EE type stuff. Hmmm, let me think, I can take a three hour course or with the same tuition money I could pretty much buy an osciloscope, logic tester, about 40 pounds of chips and components and a shelf load of books on the subject.

I need to send her this.

I knew I liked Morrison and Boyd, now I know why.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:50 PM on February 6, 2009


The problem here isn't the lecture system, it's the notebook system. I refused to take notes during class. I preferred to pay attention, listen and think. The details are in the textbook, if I need to refer to those later. I generally got As and Bs without even studying because the knowledge was in my head, not in my notebook.
posted by DU at 8:01 PM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


Knave: I think the idea isn't that discussion replaces lectures. It's that the book replaces lectures. And now that all that lecture material is taken care of you can do other things entirely through discussion.

That said, I am not an organic chemist, but I don't see how this would work for most courses. First, discussion is hard and you know though they've done it with a whole hundred students *snort* how would they do it in a big class?

Second, my students don't read textbooks, they read peer-reviewed journal articles. There are no textbooks. There's no market for a textbook and I can't think of any reason in the world to have them reading a textbook even if there were one. The real work of scholarship gets done in journals, not textbooks. If we hope to teach our students who scholarship works in our fields, they're going to learn that from journals, not textbooks. My students benefit more reading journal articles than they would from discussion so if it's either lecture or textbook, I'll keep the lecture.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:02 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


There are good and bad (and in-between) lecturers.

There are good and bad (and in-between) students.

A good lecturer should develop a lecture style that most students can understand and intrigue those who are upper-level learners.

A good student should be able to make the most out of poor lecturers and push the good lecturers to teach, even if it is beyond the capacities of their slower classmates.

A great lecturer should be able to stoke the imagination of the enthusiastic scholars and impart basic competency in the indifferent ones.

Now, which role is harder?
posted by porpoise at 8:05 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I forsee this thread being derailed between Lib Arts/Hard Sci (of various ilk; heh, behavioral neurosci with worms is going to be a lot dif than molecular neurosci with mice, vs. the same with humans).

Different courses are going to have different philosophies of what one expects someone to get out of that class. And what the student wants out of the class. Someone who wants to go to grad school? Philosophy. Someone who wants to go to med school? An "A."
posted by porpoise at 8:09 PM on February 6, 2009


my students don't read textbooks, they read peer-reviewed journal articles.

But articles these days are so specialized that they are often inaccessible to the naive reader. How do you compensate for that?
posted by dhruva at 8:10 PM on February 6, 2009


Am I missing something, or is this guy reinventing the tutorial? Don't you have them in America?
posted by jacalata at 8:15 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


"But articles these days are so specialized that they are often inaccessible to the naive reader. How do you compensate for that?"

Lectures.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:17 PM on February 6, 2009


I'm a mathematics graduate student working with a few colleagues on adapting Socratic teaching methods to mathematics. The idea is to engage the class as fully as possible, and make sure that almost everything that goes on the board comes initially from a student's mouth. A big part of it is creating in the students the expectation that they should participate, and to create a safe space for them to participate in. The final product (if it can be said to exist) isn't quite orthogonal to the lecture style, but I think it makes up for a number of its failings. I believe we're starting to get numbers that show that what we're working on is actually working; students taught with these types of methods in physics, for example, do demonstrably better on exams than those taught in lecture style.

A constant refrain in class is, 'Ok, everyone, no notes now - follow along for a bit and I promise there will be something to copy down in a few minutes.'
posted by kaibutsu at 8:27 PM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]


Heh. Must show that to one of my lecturers from last semester. While I couldn't fault the content of his lectures, and I sympathised with his not wanting to spoon-feed us students during lectures and deliver up the whole content on a platter in his handouts, he managed to achieve the same end result from the other direction...End result: I spent so much time flipping between reading his handouts, reading his slides, trying to keep an ear on his lecture, trying to remember bits from the assigned readings, and trying to decide which bits were in which gaps so I could take notes, that I had no time in his lectures to actually think about what he was getting across. His lectures & labs were such a mad rush trying to get everything down (and he had a well-deserved reputation for demanding interpretive discussion in all assessable work) that your note-taking for that session was quite literally fucked if you dropped your pencil.

Still, while my confidence both before and after the exams was shot, I somehow got a 6 (out of 7). I figure that must have been one hell of a curve the poor bugger had to grade on...
posted by Pinback at 8:29 PM on February 6, 2009


I was reading a while ago about how lectures are pretty much an anachronism. What's the difference between attending a large lecture and watching a video of one? I've never been much of a note-taker, but I've never been a very good student either, so I can't really speak to their efficacy. In fact, I hardly ever went to class unless there was a penalty for non-attendance.

Anyway, these days you could have online notes that synch up with the video pretty easily. Lots of recitation sections with lots of TAs would probably be better for the good students then large lectures.
posted by delmoi at 8:48 PM on February 6, 2009


At a very superficial level, I can contrast lectures I was given (via powerpoint), where we were expected to basically copy down the contents of the powerpoint slides, versus lectures we were given (via powerpoint), where we were also given hardcopies of the powerpoint slides, for us to doodle on as we wish.

The later was much more useful. I could write my own thoughts, my own understanding, rather than race to copy down everything on the screen (while trying to determine what may be important, and what may not be).

I can recall that my organic chemistry lecturer used the first method. My biology/ecology lectures, more often than not, used the second.

And now here I am, an academic, who taught the practical component of a "Global Ecosystems Change" subject last year. A student emailed me a few weeks ago, wanting to know the mark he had received for the practical, and my assessment of his work. I told him he got 96/100, and was top of the class.

"Shit...guess I did worse in the exam than I thought, then!"
posted by Jimbob at 8:57 PM on February 6, 2009


In my experience, a lot of instructors don't know how to facilitate productive discussions. "Discussion" time usually goes like:

Instuctor: Why do you think xyz totally unintuitive process occurs?
Students: Silence

or

Instructor: Please quote some specific fact from your text book
Assertive student who always participates: Oh pick me! I know everything!
All the other students: silence

Probably instructors just have less practice leading meaningful discussions than lecturing. But done well, I think discussion would be so much better than the freaking mindless recitation of the powerpoint which is in itself a simplified version of the textbook.

I can imagine a class where the students were not only expected to come having pre-read the material, but also with 3 or 4 thoughtful questions for the class based on their reading, and then classmates were encouraged to answer those questions, with some sort of mechanism to ensure that loud students backed off a bit and shy students came forward. The instructor could be sure to bring up a few extra questions to push students to think about key issues that had been missed in the discussion and that would be pretty productive.
posted by serazin at 9:05 PM on February 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


One other thing on the pre-printed powerpoints: I have one instructor right now who hands out a sort of skeleton of her lecture outline before each class. It includes all the subjects she's going to cover but without the details about any of hte subjects. Instead there are blank spaces for students to write what they wish to about each topic. The upshot of this is that I spend more class time looking at her than I do in most classes, and also thinking critically enough to at least rate what seems important enough to fit in the blanks.

It's a much more engaging tool than having to copy everything and therefor miss absorbing most of what is being said.
posted by serazin at 9:09 PM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think the main point of the notes is so the kids focus on the lecture, but people are trying out new technology with the same capability, while requiring thought.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:23 PM on February 6, 2009


I did a year of math and found the lectures impenetrable, and got it all from the books.

After that I switched to Eng. Lit. I went to to one lecture and was so horrified I never went to another. I just read the books and made the rest up. Three years later I missed a first by one alpha. Hey ho.
posted by unSane at 9:34 PM on February 6, 2009


I forsee this thread being derailed between Lib Arts/Hard Sci

Yup. He can get away with this because, first, he's teaching at an elite university so he doesn't have to deal with students who are marginally capable of college-level work, and second because he's teaching organic, which is chock full of people who can't accept anything less than an A.

Let's see him try his no-lecture approach with a pack of 150 or 300 or 800 radically unprepared students in an introductory course that's not just a university requirement, it's required by state law.

Let's see him try his no-lecture approach with students who, as a measure of central tendency, are just trying to pass and who refuse to the do the reading if they think they can pull a D or C without it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:37 PM on February 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


Hmm. I took extensive notes as a student, always with at least two different colored pens, because that was the second best* way to get the course material into my brain. Instead of reading the book before class, I wrote the book in class. So I'm always confused by students who tell me they can't listen and take notes at the same time. (How on earth does anyone take notes without listening?)

*The best way, of course, is to do the actual work. Can't learn to dance without dancing.

posted by erniepan at 9:39 PM on February 6, 2009


The problem here isn't the lecture system, it's the notebook system. I refused to take notes during class. I preferred to pay attention, listen and think. The details are in the textbook, if I need to refer to those later. I generally got As and Bs without even studying because the knowledge was in my head, not in my notebook.

I did the same toward the end of my post-secondary career. My grades went up. Notetaking is just too damn distracting, and I found that if it didn't go in my head the first time, reading my notes sure as heck wasn't going to lodge it in there any better.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:40 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hate scientific, mathematical and technical lectures. I don't hear well and I had a really hard time at university because often poor acoustics and/or a lecturer with an accent meant that everything sounded like gibberish to me. The effort to hear what people were saying on top of trying to take notes and understand the concepts was incredibly frustrating. I preferred those that had handouts with all the relevant formulas, concepts or math on them so I could try to follow along and understand the concepts without becoming a human xerox machine.

I found that lectures in arts or social sciences were much easier to learn from than scientific or math ones as long as I did the reading beforehand.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:45 PM on February 6, 2009


The type of class that serazin talks about already exists in certain universities around the world. I was lucky to spend a semester in a university in Holland - University College Maastricht. (Click on Learning tab at the top to read more - can't see a way to link directly.)

All their classes have the approach that revolves around students finding questions AND answers - no exceptions. Classes are limited to fairly small classes, and there is a strong sense of community - so this works. No idea how it would work with larger classes. The approach is called Problem Based Learning.

It was a blast, although definitely puts a higher stress on the student throughout the course. The payoff is that there's pretty much no cramming, and it is very easy to remember everything you have learned. The exams were classical, and so were the assignments - only the classes were different.

They had very heavy penalty for missing classes (2 max classes could be missed, or you fail - my degree was principally done in University of Toronto, where classes can be massive, and attendance is rarely (like 2 courses in 25) taken. You really must read before the class - it is very obvious in a small group if someone isn't pulling their weight with questions.

A few points that were key for making this work:
-> At the start of each class a summary of the material read was done, and questions as prepared from the previous class are answered. The summary, done by all the students, ensures that nothing has been missed.
-> The students then discuss what questions the material has raised, and (with the assistance of the teacher) formalize those questions for the next class.
-> At the next class, after having read the material, the group discusses the summary + answers to the questions, and finds the next batch.

The attendance is critical because each class feeds into the next one.

It has been a blast, and I really wish that such approach was more recognized and used.

If you know of a student that is considering going on exchange, please strongly encourage them to pick UCM - the college, the campus, the city and the people are all lovely and they won't want to leave. (Please send my hellos to Ina, who manages the exchange students). An exchange is a unique experience, and UCM makes it absolutely and incomparably fantastic.

I have no professional relationship with UCM, just a very happy exchange-alumni.

posted by olya at 9:54 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, short side story. In the preparation to the semester we had a "test" class. One of the first year students who was going into UCM asked "how can you study physics with questions?" and one of the answers was "What if gravity is not pulling but pushing from the top?"

The point of these classes is to make you think about the material. You can pick up the formulas from the book; understanding the formulas is the discussion that takes place in class.
posted by olya at 9:56 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


My ideal lecture class would distribute an outline / notes 24 hours before class, so that I could read through them, get an idea of where my prerequisite knowledge was weakest and bone up (and look up terms I didn't understand). This outline would be double spaced with ample margins so that I could print it out and add my own notes to the page as they occurred to me during lecture.

Then, I wouldn't be racing to write things down and could fully engage the source material during class. I'd look at the prof.

This assumes that the class is full of people who are interested in the material. If a prof has to resort to some kind of trick to make sure people show up and pay attention, then let those folks stay home & get the grades they get. Fewer people probably make for a higher-quality experience for all concerned anyway.
posted by amtho at 10:05 PM on February 6, 2009


The vast majority of my math classes were either [somewhat] in the style that kaibutsu describes, the Socratic where the students are responsible for everything that ends up on the board, or at the least where we would see our prof derive their proof on the board in front of us, complete with false starts, transcription errors, etc. This meant we could write a lot faster than any prof, because the copying was quicker than the thinking, which would let us spend half of the time trying to guess his next step, finding his errors, etc. It worked well.

Also, don't just give everyone A's, you'll get fired.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:08 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think different people have different preferred learning styles. Personally. I do great with lectures. Sure, I could usually learn the material on my own, but it would take a lot longer and I'd be dependent on my own willpower, which isn't that great. And it helps immensely to be able to ask questions - otherwise, you'll tend to get hung up. Everyone always has a few concepts they have trouble with and being able to have someone explain them to you is invaluable.

I think most people who dislike the style didn't give it a fair change. You have to put something into it - class size is very important, you have to actually show up and pay attention, it helps a lot to sit in the front, you have to ask questions... If that doesn't work for you, then you probably just have a different learning style, and have to set about trying to figure out what it is and how to use it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:30 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


My experience from math in undergrad was that I couldn't produce a proof in my class notes -- couldn't copy it down, really -- unless I understood how it worked. Maybe if I were a better stenographer I could have, but the pace, combined with strategic elisions meant that I had to get it to get it down. I had to know what the argumentative steps would be, and to know that I had to know what they should be, and to know that I had to understand the argument.

As a result, I found that the model of "prof works out proof on the board; students write it in their notes" worked very well for me. Now, granted, these were small classes, and there was some participation. But it was pretty lecture-y. Nonetheless I wound up feeling that my best-taught math classes were the best classes I had in school.
posted by grobstein at 10:42 PM on February 6, 2009


Mitrovarr, I think you're absolutely right. I learn best by reading. I had science classes that I very rarely attended but managed good grades in, just because I read the book. Hearing the lecture wasn't much help to me. To look at it another way, when I listen to music I can learn all the words, even to the point of being able to sing the song from memory when it's on the radio or whatever, but I often don't grok the deeper level metaphors until I read the lyrics.

Some people learn best kinesthetically, and for them writing down notes in a lecture is helpful. Others learn best when they hear their teacher speak. The idea that there's one single way for every person to learn just causes everyone to struggle at some point.

I'm currently in a program that uses all three learning styles. We often read out loud and write by hand in class, and read, I assume silently, outside the classroom. It's really interesting to be able to see the benefits of all the learning styles. I can read from a book and pick up completely different information than when I hear it read aloud.
posted by sugarfish at 11:33 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ah this is very interesting. When I took my first Masters in the late 90's (MSc Quantitative Finance) I had already been working on a trading desk for well over a decade. I was so hyper interested in the material (still am, for anything finance related) that I pestered all my professors for their reading lists the summer before my first term.

Actually managed to plow through a good chunk of the books before lectures started, and that head start (and my deep personal interest) gave me such a push I got exceptionally high grades in a notoriously dense subject. I won't say the high grades came with little effort, they took a lot of work, but it was front end loaded, before classes even started. So there is lots to be said for reading ahead.

Now I'm completing an Executive MBA (writing dissertation and a couple of case studies, plan to be finished by September 2009) and this University that shall go unnamed is a completely different kettle of fish.

"THERE IS NO WAY you're getting the reading lists before class, before the other students.".

Now I'm all for fairness, but, truth be told, if I want to spend a few weeks before class starts reading the material and the other students can't be bothered to ask why should I be penalised?

I'm still getting very good grades, will probably finish my MBA with distinction (UK University) but this one has been tougher. Not because the material is harder (it isn't, it is just different) but because the professors are butt headed. So we're back to first lecture then read. Backward, and much more work.


I also teach finance at two Universities part time here in London (Forecasting Financial Markets and Corporate Finance and Financial Markets), and try to focus most of the student experience away from my PowerPoint slides. I never put more than six bullet points on a slide, and strive to keep them exactly three points.

Each point on each slide gets read but never verbatim; I use market anecdotes to bring the material to life, provide relevancy and get the point across in different words.

Students take lots of notes in my class, because most of the material is delivered verbally.

My end of class handouts, the takeaways are completely different; case studies, historical market events, what have you. Again, bring the material to life.

I also assign reading, generally fifty or so pages a week tops, but never identify the chapters in the books. We've just talked about the material, at the Masters level they should be smart enough to find the table of contents and get through the topic themselves.

All in all we tend to have a pretty good time in my class. But unfortunately, I've never been asked for the reading list before the term starts.

It should be compulsory, in my view.
posted by Mutant at 11:41 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find I learn best on my own. With other students, well, I'm always very conscious of the need to hold myself back, to slow down, to not always be the one asking or answering questions.
posted by orthogonality at 11:56 PM on February 6, 2009


this is proposing an interesting, but not novel, approach to leading a lecture

there are many others -
for example, some physics lectures benefit from being very demonstration based
(electric circuits? magnetism?)

others, it is prudent to outline - and sometimes go through - the underlying derivations - but stress which results are important and how to use them
(stat mech? solid state?)

others, problems based lectures which tackle easily grasped scenarios and solve real numbers
(classical dynamics?)

yet again - some require a philosophical bent to introduce bizarre realities -
here in particular, fostering discussion is invaluable
(special relativity, intro QM)

it's nonsense to say the "standard lecture" approach dun work -
it is intimately connected to the professor, the subject, the specific content, the students...
given all these variables, an appropriate choice must be made to serve the students

And if you need a boogie man to hunt down for why most university/college levels do not succeed in teaching the students anything in an efficient manner, here it is:

Hiring practices (particularly tenure track) assume that a great researcher will be at least a passable lecturer - this is simply not true. Not only are the skills of performing original research and effectively disseminating established knowledge not guaranteed to go together, it seems they may be negatively correlated...

Hire professional lectures - tenure track - to focus on teaching - while the lab rats return to their dungeons :P

o and in regards to don't just give everyone A's, you'll get fired."

This story is so long and such a waste of so many people's energy ... but in the context of this discussion I'll say this - if you teach a course, teach the content ... regardless of whatever nutty marking scheme you want to bestow, at least cover the bloody material
posted by sloe at 12:16 AM on February 7, 2009


I found lectures very useful in many cases - but virtually every class I took that had large lectures alternated formats within the week between lecture and discussion based days (I don't remember the name used for the latter but it had one). It's hard to imagine learning nearly as well in a lecture -only environment, especially something like physics.

I learn well on my own, and by reading, but I never would've learned nearly as much on subjects that I don't have an easy application for, like physics and chemistry, with the lecture and subsequent discussions. Just talking through problems with people tends to help it set.

(I'm also with the people that took scant notes. Listening, thinking, and participating was more helpful to me. The book had things to refer to.)
posted by flaterik at 12:35 AM on February 7, 2009


What bothers me about this piece is that it seems to compare a worst-case implementation of class-room lecturing with a best-case implementation of the Gutenberg method. Turn that around, and you get:

The Gutenberg method gone wrong: of all the students who show up for the class, only 20% have done the required reading and only 10% have actually thought about what they've read. A classroom discussion ensues, dominated by the 90% who have no real understanding of the subject matter. Questions and comments from the remaining 10% are drowned out.

Classroom lecturing done right: the lecturer offers a unique perspective on the subject at hand. He or she doesn't reproduce the textbook material, but rather places it in context. During the lecture the lecturer maintains eye contact with the class and responds to any questions asked. Students come away not necessarily with more knowledge of the subject matter, but rather with a deeper understanding of it and a better ability and more motivation to pursue their own studies in the field.
posted by rjs at 2:23 AM on February 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


I love a good lecture. It's probably one of the most efficient ways to get information into my head. However, I can't see any reason why a good lecture series can't turn into a good podcast, or a series of videos (if there are visuals to go along with it). In the humanities, the vast majority of excellent content could be distilled into audio-only. Class discussion after a lecture is (usually) minimal in undergraduate classes; students haven't been taught how to interrupt and ask questions without feeling intimidated. Many lecturers in that setting don't want to be interrupted, or don't expect to be interrupted. So why does it need to be live?

I'd love to see this done as an experiment: with a large class where the teaching is lecture-based, record each one as they're presented. Then the following year, link the audio files and use the time in class to do something different, something collaborative and/or discussion-based. The students wouldn't know how to deal with it, not having been asked to be that engaged before, but I think they would pick it up pretty fast if they started being penalized for not being prepared.

From reading this thread, it's become apparent to me that students have no bloody clue how to take notes. If you feel like a "human xerox machine", you're doing it wrong. Who's job is it to teach students how to take effective notes, anyway? I guess we have our work cut out for us.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:35 AM on February 7, 2009


Am I missing something, or is this guy reinventing the tutorial? Don't you have them in America?

Apparently, the American model of tutorials has 100 students in each tutorial group!

My own personal bugbear is conferences. Why on earth would somebody spend £500 to listen to people giving a quick precis of material then answering a (generally dumb) question or two, when you could read the actual paper in a fraction of the time?

The only answer I can come up with is that conferences are really holidays at someone else's expense. There's a reason so many of them are held in places like Vegas...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:53 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Huh.

I'm puzzled at why this guy is presenting his arguments as if he's rocking the world of post-secondary education. In all of the universities where I've been and/or taught, most upper-level undergrad courses and nearly all grad-level courses are "discussion" or "seminar" courses, which involve assigning a couple of peer-reviewed articles and maybe some material for analysis in advance, and then holding a discussion in class. If it's a seminar, this often involves having a rotating cast of students take responsibility for presenting the material and guiding discussion. These classes usually aren't any larger than 20 or 25, often much smaller.

On the other hand, introductory undergrad classes are often taught in lecture form, especially if you have 60+ students to teach. But even then, the point of the lectures isn't to review the readings, but to develop some of the concepts mentioned in the readings and add a layer of context or detail.

So, for example, I taught a Music in Western Civ class to 65 students where they read short excerpts from a music history textbook and short excerpts from primary sources (e.g., Bach's work contracts, critical reviews from contemporaries of Beethoven, liturgical policy by 13th-century priests). Then, during lecture, I provide the historical context that brings their readings together (e.g., how Schubert's "music nights" reflected the Biedermeier period's efforts to push people out of the public sphere and back into the domestic sphere).

But, as another example, I also taught an Intro to World Music class to about 20 students where I had them read relatively accessible peer-reviewed articles or book excerpts, and then we had an in-class discussion where I placed an emphasis on critical reading (e.g., what is the main claim of the author? how is s/he supporting his/her arguments? what assuptions is s/he making?).

Anyway, all of this is to say that this feels as if someone came on here with an essay that said, "OMG I've got a great idea: let's use concrete examples to explain abstract concepts!"
posted by LMGM at 4:11 AM on February 7, 2009


As a teacher trainer for EFL/ESL teachers there is a lot here I'd like to say.

Obviously teaching English is very different from teaching organic chem, and the teaching methods I train my charges in are much more like the "Gutenburg Method" than the lecture style.

What I find a little shocking is the extent to which, outside of the Western world, people are still taught languages in this way. In Kyrgyzstan, in Bulgaria, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I've watched teachers spend an hour filling blackboards and demonstrating to the students how wonderfully the teacher can speak English.

Speaking a language is a skill, so I would say helping a student to learn it is more like working with a carpentry apprentice or a new cook in a kitchen than teaching something like organic chemistry. No matter how much the apprentice memorizes densities of wood, sizes of nails, standard board lengths, and the names and purposes of all the tools, he's not going to be able to build a house until he starts swinging a hammer. The job of the master carpenter is to watch and guide, critique, demonstrate.

But then, how much is lecturing in organic chemistry really allowing the student to demonstrate their learning of it? Isn't being an organic chemist a skill too? I don't know anything about it, but I imagine that doing things like solving problems, working out the best way to create certain compounds, and identify useful areas of research are the kinds of things they need to do. So why train them to be stenographers and regurgitators of facts and formulas? Isn't that why we have computers, so we can attend to the higher level thinking?

A few people here have commented on learning styles. Part of a teacher's role is helping students learn how to learn effectively. Why is it that young kids are tactile and kinesthetic learners, while adults develop a more visual and auditory learning stye? Well duh, it is because kids need to learn how to read and to understand complex spoken discourse.

So in the context of teaching someone to speak a language, you really need to help push the visual learners to be better with the auditory modality. Unless they are planning to be readers and translators only, most people need to be able to speak a language, and to understand what is said to them.

The point about putting down the pencils and making students listen also connects to this idea. Of course it is in some way "easier" to rely on your visual modality because when the information is written down, then it doesn't need to be in your brain. Listening and trying to understand, because it is difficult and takes effort, is what in the end is making those neurons grow. Alle Arbeit ist schwer.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:54 AM on February 7, 2009


"The only answer I can come up with is that conferences are really holidays at someone else's expense. There's a reason so many of them are held in places like Vegas..."

Well, in my field conference participants present work that hasn't been published. It's a good way for them to get useful feed back on a project. Conferences also, often, are a good source of ideas for future research.

And of course conferences give you a chance to make contacts and have extended conversations with experts in your field outside of the formal presentations. Frankly, if you're doing nothing but attending talks, you're doing it wrong.
posted by oddman at 6:24 AM on February 7, 2009


The author of this article is a chemistry prof. Chemistry as a discipline is like a few others on the college campus (math, English, maybe physics) where most of the students are there because they have to be, not because they want to be. They need to know what's covered in the class because it will be useful somewhere down the line.

However, with chemistry more than the other previously mentioned disciplines, they students have less "buy in". They generally have less understanding about *why* they need to know it and so are more grudging about involvement. ("Why do I need to know about electron configuration/pKa/organic synthesis if I'm going to be a doctor?")

Fact is, students *do* need to get those things, to retain some of the facts and, importantly, to develop the kinds of linear thinking that the field requires. There is a lot of "OH! That's why I needed to know that!" further along the curriculum. You can try to convince beginning students of this at the outset but this context-setting rarely sticks as far as I've seen. So, the perennial problem is trying to teach people stuff that they need to know, that they will eventually appeciate, but at the time you're covering the material they just don't grok the need and so don't engage.

(This is why profs hate teaching premeds, and always will. The premeds turn into fine people down the line, but oy, what ignorant little babies in class. I digress.)

Chemistry teachers have known about this problem for a long time and have tried lots of different ways to get students to engage. There is a lot of navel-gazing in the field and people have been trying to find the magic method for decades, apparently. Lately there is a fad like Olya's Problem-Based Learning, called Process-Oriented Guided-Inquiry Learning, or POGIL for short, which is supposed to involve reading outside of class and doing problems in class. The idea is like the authors': reading is the easy part, problems are where the rubber hits the road and are the harder part, better to use your time with the teacher getting help with the problems.

In my observation this actually does work better than lectures with upperclass students, who are better at taking responsibility for their own learning and are more willing to engage with their scary profs. But freshmen and sophomores by and large just aren't mature enough to realize that yes, you're really serious about this, they really do need to do the heavy lifting (because, of course, you can't make the connections and the understanding for them, you can only try to make it easier).

In the end I think that chemistry is always going to end up acting as a weeder class. This is true for both the general series and the organic series, usually offered the year after general, since the kinds of thinking required for each are necessarily quite different.

Makes it a darn hard subject to teach.
posted by Sublimity at 6:29 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Start this way. You can learn anything you want to learn, at home, from a book or some other way (Net, TV etc)...so why bother to spend lots of money to go to a college? Answer that first and then move on.
posted by Postroad at 6:58 AM on February 7, 2009


jeffburges: oh God, no. If clickers actually improve a class, the professor was doing something terribly wrong. See, they're good for two things: taking attendance or for taking a poll of the class and seeing if the students understand things. The former should honestly not be a component of one's grade in a college class, and the latter can just as easily be replaced by asking the students to raise their hands in reponse to the potential answers in a poll. Clickers add a technological barrier, where you have to worry about whether yours is working (particularly in a class where your click-ins count towards attendance in your grade), and after any given question, you have to worry about whether your vote registered correctly. Pointless, a pain in the ass, and often an expensive one for the students, who are forced in many places to buy or rent the damn things.

Unless my experience was waaay unlike the average, PeterMcDermott's wrong: recitations/tutorials/etc. are generally more like 15-20 students, and those provide a counterpoint to the lecture. Discussion, actively working out problems, dissecting mistakes in homework/exams, etc. were always the mainstays of my recitations. Upper level courses often had 15-20 students per class, and so obviously there was a great deal of reading the literature, answering questions, etc.

My large lectures themselves fell into two main categories: the sort where you have to take down notes of Everything (usually written on a chalkboard), and the sort where you're provided with handouts (often printouts of the presentation) with room to take more notes. I do prefer the latter, particularly for classes that have a lot of complicated diagrams or equations. Using organic chemistry as an example, I'd rather be able to make notes to myself about pKa values and electron withdrawing groups that help me understand why the reaction works than spend all that time frantically trying to write the reaction down.

Meatbomb asks: "why train [organic chemists] to be stenographers and regurgitators of facts and formulas?" Well, we don't. There's a huge jump from "having all of the standard methods of methylation of a secondary amine memorized" and being able to creatively apply those methods to come up with complex syntheses, and the former is nowhere near enough to do well at orgo. However, for subjects like orgo, there's a lot of basic knowledge you need to get to the point where you can apply things creatively. Being familiar not just with the concepts but with the standard reactions themselves will make it easier to design syntheses and to understand why a given set of reactions were chosen to get the product. Lectures allow for explanations of all of these basic principles (explanations that are tailored to the class, based on their responses in recitations, homework, and exams, and that are not just regurgitated pages from the textbook). Recitations and homework are where students use those mountains of knowledge to "[solve] problems, [work] out the best way to create certain compounds, and identify useful areas of research."

A lot of subjects have a division between activities focused on absorbing huge amounts of background knowledge and applying that knowledge; the division isn't always lectures vs. discussion. To use Meatbomb's example, vocabulary is necessary basic background info for students studying a foreign language. However, a lecture focusing on listing word after word would be deadly dull. Thus, vocabulary acquisition is more frequently paired with reading, etc. Basic rules (conjugation, word order, etc.), on the other hand, are more often explained in the book and on the board.

No subject should be taught via lectures, and lectures only. However, I think that very few are. I think the big thing that would help students is to make sure that recitations are well-taught and that the professor is very involved in the class. My professors often taught a recitation section themselves or wandered through lab classes (after lecture) giving advice and asking question. Every lecture was given by a professor, and the TAs were generally mid-level grad students (no first years.) My understanding is that this is not the case for many larger American universities and colleges, and that's a damn shame.
posted by ubersturm at 6:58 AM on February 7, 2009


Postroad: It's pretty simple. When there's something I don't get (and there have been a lot of those somethings for me in, say, quantum mechanics or bioinorganic chemistry), having access to an expert in the subject who can explain things, give me more problems to work on, point me towards publications that show the principle in use, etc. is invaluable. There is a lot that I do learn simply by reading, of course, but I know that (much as I love it!) OpenCourseWare and its peers often wouldn't be enough for me to understand subjects deeply and thoroughly. The same, I believe, goes for many people: it's easy to read a book and think you've got it, but it's much harder to apply what you think you've learned to solve problems, and it's harder yet to build upon those principles and come up with something new and worthwhile. Expert teachers really do help.
posted by ubersturm at 7:09 AM on February 7, 2009


Am I missing something, or is this guy reinventing the tutorial? Don't you have them in America?

Seriously. This is already how my whole undergraduate education went. We only ever went to the lectures by the really extraordinary lecturers.

Meatbomb, dude, I feel your pain from the student side. I am learning Arabic at the moment and the quality of instruction and textbooks I have been able to find are absolutely dire. Of course the diglossia of Arabic doesn't help either, but the resources are just awful. I actually had a textbook recomended to me that 'teaches' the alphabet by listing the four forms of each letter in a table and... that's it, it's like they expect people to sit there and memorise it.
posted by atrazine at 7:15 AM on February 7, 2009


I've been in stats lectures (kind of like chemistry, for the symbols, etc), and in history lectures (where there are rarely textbooks, and you will be tested on names and dates said only in lecture) - and in both I took as complete notes of what the professor was saying as possible, and probably could have reproduced the points of the lecture. I have also done comprehensive exams where I had to read dozens of books and then be able to discuss them intelligently. I learned more in my lectures.

I learned more in my lectures for several reasons. First, though I take very full notes, I don't *just* take notes. I am listening to every bit of the lecture, and I'm thinking about it, and I'm trying to connect the concepts in my head. I've put paraphrases that explain what the prof just said in my own words, if that makes more sense. My history, for example, is full of kings dissing parliaments, and my stats notes made reference to Settlers of Cataan. (Didn't finish the stats class - thesis writing interfeered - but my Settlers game is much better.)

The other is simply learning style. Some people learn best by reading, and they do well out of books. Some learn best by hearing; my husband actually recorded a tape of himself reading his biology textbook in highschool, and played it on his walkman to study. And some learn best by talking/writing - I take very full notes when listening to conference papers, not because I ever expect to need them (sometimes I throw them out right after, if it's not something I would use for my research), but because the act of writing helps me comprehend the paper in a way that just listening wouldn't.

The current lecture & textbook system is trying to balance different learning methods. For those who learn by reading, there is often a textbook, or reference books. For those who learn by listening, lectures are very valuable. But for those who learn by doing/writing, lectures are also very valuable, if they do what they are expected to do.

And for the wet/active sciences you also have labs, and for the mental/dry sciences or humanities you have discussion sections - they both provide a place to ask questions, but really their purpose is to get the students practicing the kind of study and thinking that has produced the lectures they have been hearing. For sciences, that means learning experimental methods, reproducing and designing your own experiments. For humanities/social sciences, that means reading the material and thinking and talking critically about it in the same way that scholars are expected to. Ideally, all students should be having discussion section style discussions in their head with themselves while listening to lectures, but maybe I'm just weird that way - and that's why I'm a grad student.
posted by jb at 7:18 AM on February 7, 2009


I love a good lecture. It's probably one of the most efficient ways to get information into my head. However, I can't see any reason why a good lecture series can't turn into a good podcast, or a series of videos (if there are visuals to go along with it).

They have - I've been listening to geography and historical economics lectures from Berkeley to grow as a historian. That said, they are a little too slow for my liking - I would rather more content and less stopping off for questions, etc. Also, econ formulas written on the board don't work well in a audio only podcast.

If clickers actually improve a class, the professor was doing something terribly wrong.

Have you been a student using a clicker? I have - and it was a great experience. It was like a mini-pop quiz, and I suddenly realized which concepts I was completely guessing at, and which I knew solidly. The clickers improved my class.
posted by jb at 7:39 AM on February 7, 2009


I'm reading a biography of Kant, and it seems he had an interesting teaching style.

Before dropping his first Critique Bomb at age 57, he had mainly drawn notice for his vigorous lecture style, which was on whatever topic the University assigned, not just philosophy.

He drew overflow crowds, and one description has him introducing new material as if it had just occurred to him that very moment as the result of considering the previous material.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:02 AM on February 7, 2009


Start this way. You can learn anything you want to learn, at home, from a book or some other way (Net, TV etc)...so why bother to spend lots of money to go to a college? Answer that first and then move on.
posted by Postroad at 9:58 AM on February 7 [+] [!]


The net, tv, and most popularly available books are years behind the research. And lots of books are just wrong. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, for example, has been assigned as a textbook in the class I am currently a discussion leader in because it has great maps, but the lecturers have stopped off in lecture to explain all the factual/interpretive problems that are in it because it was not written by a scholar of early medieval Scandinavia, but a professional writer/artist working from old secondary sources.

That's not to say you can't teach yourself stuff at home. I've been teaching myself Scottish dynastic history via Wikipedia, because it's not like there is that much debate over names and dates (though I plan to move onto the scholarly material once I have mastered this). But have you ever tried to study Chinese history? There is so much questionable stuff out there - you have politically motivated texts from the PRC or Taiwan, you have racist older Western academic texts - you have to be really careful.

What I learned in university - and I've been doing it for 11 years now - wasn't mainly from the books, though I've read a lot of them, but from the lectures and conversations with the faculty who are expected to keep up with their fields (not all do - and that was to my detriment as a student, which I found out later). And most of all - I learned the most from my own papers. To this day, 7 years later, I can discuss the effect of Norman French on the English language, or engage in a debate as to whether Canadian English constitutes its own dialect or is just a subdialect of American English. And I haven't studied linguistics/history of language since. I also haven't studied the New Model Army or social mobililty into the aristocracy in the eighteenth century in 8-9 years, but I remember those.

Now, if you have the discipline to sit down and write a 10-20 page paper addressing the major scholarly literature or even conducting your own research on your own - then I am in awe. I can't - I needed the structure. I needed people to help me learn how to write in a clear and effective way, I needed to discuss my ideas with them, to ask them questions about the parts of the books I didn't understand.

And I think that I am the better for it. Not because I paid a lot of money or went to an elite university - I didn't. I went to a middle-tier state university where I was one of 35,000 undergraduate students; my lecture classes were often 100-500 people, and I wasn't in the more crowded lectures. I didn't sit around having deep discussions with the other students. But I emerged from the university with a toolbox of skills for learning and thinking and knowledge about our world that have made me both a better employee, and a better citizen. (And yes, I have worked non-academic jobs since - and I'm better than before I went to university.)

I don't think university is the only way to gain these kinds of skills, and I don't think that everyone should go, and I am a strong advocate of getting rid of the social distinction between training methods (university, community college, apprenticeships, etc). Though I also want to see basic critical thinking skills taught in high school, so that everyone has the chance to gain them. But that doesn't mean that my university education was not valuable - much of what I learned could not easily, for me, be learned in any other way. I am in awe of people who are capable of such self-education, but I am not - I want to learn in groups, with people who are ahead of me, and I enjoy teaching people what I have learned. And, in retrospect, I especially value that I was forced to write papers and assignments, to put what I was learning into practice.
posted by jb at 8:07 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some background that might help: when Morrison (the author) and Boyd published their Orgo textbook, it was pretty much the first text that really aimed to help the students understand the material from a mechanistic approach, rather than memorize and regurgitate a thousand reactions. It's considered a bit old-fashioned these days, but I have a copy of the 6th ed on my shelf that I refer to more often than even a lot of texts targeted at more advanced levels. The newer sophomore orgo texts are all based off of his, though they're all prettied up and have stupid sidebars to try to attract student interest. So yeah, maybe his ideas aren't shiny new now, but that's only because--at least in his field--he's been trying to institutionalize them for 50 years, with mixed success.

I teach orgo to premeds and prevets and assorted biology, psych, and biochem majors. The lecturing method is so incredibly ingrained in the field that even in discussion sections when I ask for questions during the time alloted for, well, discussion, they sit and stare in silence. Then they show up to my office hours (sometimes only an hour later) with a list of topics covering the entire semester that they don't understand. Since the chem majors are in a different course, most of the students come in just wanting to memorize a bunch of reactions and get an A for their med school applications; they don't want to do the hard (but fun and instructive) part of orgo that's learning to problem solve and see patterns in seemingly unrelated data. In a good year, you'll get five or ten in a class of 200 really interested, and a few more at least appreciative.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:40 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Start this way. You can learn anything you want to learn, at home, from a book or some other way (Net, TV etc)...so why bother to spend lots of money to go to a college? Answer that first and then move on.

It's ironic that you should say this, given that you apparently didn't read - or didn't learn anything from - the numerous and excellent comments above that thoughtfully discuss how different learning styles work for different people and subject areas.

You can learn anything you want to learn...

I never would have taken that class on the Golden Age of Spain if it hadn't been for the reputation of the prof teaching it. I didn't think I was interested in Spanish history at all, but the prof was acknowledged to be one of the best teachers on campus. There was a waitlist every term he taught the class, and it was known to be anything but a gut (easy): there was a shitload of reading, multiple short papers and...two, I think, long papers, and you were expected to participate in class. I worked my ass off just for a B. I looked forward to each class and stayed caught up on the reading because it was so interesting. And I never would have known that I was interested in this subject if it hadn't been for the teacher.
posted by rtha at 9:28 AM on February 7, 2009


As a soon-to-be professor (should the fates allow), this is the sort of thing I think about all the time. I try to incorporate the discussion based techniques I learned in college into science classes. Sometimes it works really well. It does require more buy-in from the students, and many of them aren't used to it. And trying to set-up high expectations as a grad student TA is pretty impossible. I'm hoping that writing my own syllabi and saying from the beginning that 1)students will do their readings before class and 2)students are expected to participate in class will work.

You can learn anything you want to learn, at home, from a book or some other way (Net, TV etc)...so why bother to spend lots of money to go to a college?

Do you have a lab in your house? I know people who have taken Intro Bio online from accredited universities and they use a sort of kitchen-based curriculum that is pretty cool for what it is. And growing up we did have a cheapo compound microscope at home and a small box of prepared slides.

But for safety and legal reasons you could not do Organic Chem lab (i.e., the subject of the FPP) in your home. Similarly with any upper level chemistry or bio class. Yes, you can do a lot with computer simulations. But if you want to be a working scientist at some point you have to learn lab skills.

And as someone who spends a lot of time teaching lab skills to people who will never be scientists, I think it's good for any human being to understand how science works and why it is different from other forms of figuring things out. A lot of that can be learned from a book. But nothing compares to actually doing the experiments yourself and understanding which conclusions are valid from your results.

(This is not even getting to the point that other people are bringing up, that higher education forces you to take classes you love that you never would "wanted" to take because you didn't know enough to make that decision.)
posted by hydropsyche at 10:17 AM on February 7, 2009


Just about all the discussion above is related to the university. A word from the lower grade levels: as pointed out above, the lecture method has its roots in the pre-Gutenberg era (as does the Socratic method, but never mind), and is often denigrated in secondary ed workshops as "the sage on the stage" approach, as opposed to more student-centered learning.

The lecture method is probably still the predominant paradigm for teaching even at the elementary school level. Thus, even at the AP level, I have a lot of students who are not used to being actively engaged in classroom "discussion." (I put discussion in quotes because it simplifies and trivializes what can be the most intellectually challenging educational method, leading to the most cognitive breakthroughs.)

I went to a small college for three years, where small classes, seminars, research and papers were the norm. I went to a big university a few years later where lectures and tests were standard (until grad school). The first approach was by far more intellectually challenging. My favorite professors, looking back on it, were not the master lecturers; they were the ones who actively listened to the students and did not pretend to know it all.

As you may have guessed, I am not a science teacher, so my mileage may vary. I once took a class in the big university called "Biochemistry for Non-Majors," stupidly thinking it included non-science majors. I was lost after the first week. I don't know how I got a C in the course. I just remember two things about the class. One: the professor never stopped complaining about how he had never gotten a Nobel, and Two: the first week he recounted a practical joke students had played on him where the upper sliding board slid down to reveal a massive nude pinup. Predictably enough, that occurred during his last lecture. The asshole looked at it impassively for a few seconds and said, "Huh. Looks like my wife."
posted by kozad at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2009


My tips on giving a lecture that students will retain:

- Practice. You should have given the lecture to yourself at least one or twice before giving it to others. This lets you know how to adjust for time, which areas that you thought you knew you could talk about but didn't, what needs to be reordered and other "in the moment" ideas.

- Write a lesson plan. All your information should be in there, in order, with questions as well. This will take you a long time to prepare, two or three times the length of the lecture is a good estimate, but you can reuse them with minor adjustments next year. You can also you use them to print out notes for students.

- Before the students arrive (or as they are arriving if you are really stuck for time) itemize on the board the sections of your lecture before the students arrive. (e.g. Lecture Title, section 1, section 2, section 3part 1, part 2, part 3) Should be no more than a half dozen items. This lets students know what they'll be absorbing, where they are in the lecture without needing to look at their watch, and how to break down their notes.

- Begin the class by asking a question or two about your previous lecture. This creates continuity, engages the audience, and helps to highlight key elements.

- Have questions ready before and after each topic. This allows you to keep the audience engaged, allows you to highlight and repeat key facts and gives hints to those doing your tests as to what might show up on them. It also allows the students to change gears mentally between each section.

- Use acronyms or mnemonics , e.g. ABC Airway, Breathing, Circulation or "in the house and up the stairs when using a roamer on a map".

Your job is to make your students retain the information necessary to pass the test. Use the tricks and tips that make it easier besides bombarding them with facts, trivia and hard data. Ask students to repeat the acronyms.

- Use props and diagrams. Use back stories. Avoid personal stories unless they are very specific to the context or if necessary to show the importance of something.

- If using a projector, OHP or similar, only turn it on when using it, have the lights dimmed when using it (assign diff student each time if necessary). Worst case have black slides between elements so as not to distract students from yourself. In my lectures I'd turn on/off the projector several dozens times. BTW, unless you've got some fancy draw on the screen computer projector setup, I still think the most potent A/V tool is the overhead projector, it lets you put text or image in big on the screen, lets you point out and draw on that too.

- When identifying physical components (e.g. a part on a machine) Use a pointer or a pen...don't use your finger!

- Include quotes, humour and the odd image that will elicit a response from the audience, waking them up collectively.

- If you have printed notes, only give them out at the end, so that students have something to review. Be sure to ask questions about them at the next lecture. Make sure they complement but do not replace what you said in the lecture or you will promote complacency. This is tricky and works best if you mix up your routine.

- Walk around on stage, don't be a fixed point. Don't be afraid to walk up to students but don't try getting behind them. Don't be afraid to throw a piece of chalk at a sleeping student if you don't know their name.

- Seating plans are an awesome tool when trying to engage students, if this isn't feasible (usually isn't) then at least have a list of names with you so you can call from that list.

- Be available for questions and discussion immediately after the lecture.
posted by furtive at 11:24 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


PeterMcDermott's wrong: recitations/tutorials/etc. are generally more like 15-20 students

I wasn't really suggesting that you have 100 student tutorials. Someone was making the point that this guy is doing tutorials rather than lectures. I was pointing out that if that were the case, they were tutorials with 100 students attending.

And of course conferences give you a chance to make contacts and have extended conversations with experts in your field outside of the formal presentations.

That's what email is for. It allows you to do that stuff without travelling half way around the world at the taxpayer's/students expense.

Frankly, if you're doing nothing but attending talks, you're doing it wrong.

Yeah, because everyone else is in the pub or doing a spot of sightseeing.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:04 PM on February 7, 2009


In defense of lecturing
posted by lalochezia at 12:55 PM on February 7, 2009


That was me. What I meant was: the guy seems to be describing the wonders of interactivity in the learning process. At my university, this is a normal and expected part of each course, in a session known as a 'tutorial'. To quote

"The students have read the material, they have thought about it, and they have questions to ask about it. You answer these questions, or, better still, try to get them to answer their own questions, or get other students to give the answers. You ask questions. You have a discussion. If they're slow to come alive, you take up points that you know give students trouble. You lead them through difficult problems. The entire class hour becomes like those few golden moments at the end of an old-fashioned lecture when a few students manage to rise above the system and gather around your desk."

except we have a reasonable number of people, such as 20. If he does this with 100 students, he's short-changing them all. If he does it with 20 - what is so groundbreaking? Been there done that for years and years.

We also have lectures, where the professor presents the material. This helps all those above who say 'I can't really learn just by reading', or helps those who've already read the textbook by showing which bits need to be emphasised, presenting stuff in different words, etc.
posted by jacalata at 1:05 PM on February 7, 2009


In my field, lecturers are supposed to use powerpoint, with movies, pictures, and sound. The problem is that any words you put on the powerpoint the students immediately try to write down. Hence they can't actually listen to what you say, or think about it, or formulate a question. I like being able to use the multimedia stuff: I can show things rather than just talk about them. But use as few words on the slide as possible.
posted by cogneuro at 1:12 PM on February 7, 2009


The only answer I can come up with is that conferences are really holidays at someone else's expense. There's a reason so many of them are held in places like Vegas...

Yes, there is a reason: that's where the big convention centers are. We're talking about 10,000+ scientists when the ACS holds a national meeting, not the local knitting circle.

Between this and the bailout thread, what the heck is with the resentment towards scientists? Where do people get the idea that we're just sitting around sucking at the public tit? I literally make less than $8 an hour doing a job that takes years of highly specialized training and does a hell of a lot more good than flipping burgers; in a few years, I can expect a bump to $12 or $15, assuming there's even a job to had in my field (the way things are going...). Most of the time, you have to cover your own travel/lodging if you're not actively presenting. If you are presenting, you are increasing the standing, visibility, and prestige of the university, so they sometimes cover your economy-class flight and crappy lodging, as an investment in themselves. What a horrible waste...
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:51 PM on February 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


See Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the banking concept of education.

The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power. "Four times four is sixteen; the capital of Para is Belem." The student records, memorizes, and repeats these phrases without perceiving what four times four really means, or realizing the true significance of "capital" in the affirmation "the capital of Para is Belem," that is, what Belem means for Para and what Para means for Brazil.

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into "containers," into "receptacles" to be "filled" by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teachers she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking' concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

posted by mecran01 at 1:59 PM on February 7, 2009


From the first day you find yourself in a classroom, from that day onward, never ever ever take notes. Listen and concentrate and focus and think and remember, and in doing so exercise your brain to digest and retain information as it comes in. Ask questions if necessary, but strive to answer them on the fly in your head if possible. I.e., think. Taking notes is the ultimate pointless exercise. You're having the information presented to you, and instead you waste that couple of hours because you're busy trying to write everything down. Then later you spend more time trying to re-present the material to yourself from the notes. Bah.

Of course, if the lecturer is complete s**t, you're on your own. :)
posted by madmethods at 3:25 PM on February 7, 2009


And of course conferences give you a chance to make contacts and have extended conversations with experts in your field outside of the formal presentations.

That's what email is for. It allows you to do that stuff without travelling half way around the world at the taxpayer's/students expense.


Yeah, I really can just up an email someone I've never met, or maybe have never even heard of. At the last conference I went to, I found out there was someone who had written his PhD on a topic very similar to mine, and who had done some amazing stuff - but whom I would never have met or heard of, because he lives in the UK and I live in the US. He hadn't published anything yet, and he's not in the same network of scholars I'm in, so we don't have any mutual aquaintences - that conference brought us together.

Now, maybe conferences will go electronic, especially with the rising cost of travel. But face to face contact still is something humans want to strengthen their bonds - it's in person that friendships develop between academics which can be personally as well as professionally satisfying. I have a friend who is an amazing networker, and choses to attend many conferences - he now has contacts with scholars all over the world, and always has a couch to sleep on or people to help him with a question.

Taking notes is the ultimate pointless exercise. You're having the information presented to you, and instead you waste that couple of hours because you're busy trying to write everything down.

Did you read the previous comments? Some people learn by the act of note-taking - I am one of them. Your advice ("never take notes") is also a recipe for disaster for most students - guarenteed way to have bothing to study from for the exam. I'm really glad you're not my teacher.

Students - or anyone trying to learn something - need to discover for themselves what is the most effective note taking system. Me, I take lots of notes - as I said above, that is part of my learning process. I find it very difficult to do so from films, which is why I disliked teachers showing documentaries; I preferred lectures in high school. Other people, like my husband who is a very aural learner, spend most of the time listening, but if they are good students they still take some notes, to jolt their memory later. I would never trust my husband's notes to replace a lecture (whereas mine might), but he still takes them.

Some students may take too many notes for their own understanding of the material, but it's not really that big of a problem. Sitting at the back of the lecture hall in the class I'm TAing right now, I'd say that students not taking any notes is a far more serious problem. But they are going to have an unpleasant surprise on the final exam.
posted by jb at 5:58 PM on February 7, 2009


He also comments on the interesting use of the word "cover" — as in "What did you cover in lecture today?" Presumably teaching should involve, not covering, but uncovering.

Ahh... *bong*
posted by Eideteker at 7:41 PM on February 7, 2009


Also, don't just give everyone A's, you'll get fired.

Stanley Fish wrote about this in his blog today.
posted by grouse at 11:34 PM on February 8, 2009


"Many lecturers in that setting don't want to be interrupted, or don't expect to be interrupted. So why does it need to be live?"

Because only shitty lecturers want to deliver content without being interrupted. I expect to be interrupted, and I want to be interrupted. When I am teaching, my job isn't to "cover content", it is to teach. If my students don't understand I need to know. If I am not paying enough attention to see that they don't get it - and believe me, any decent instructor ought to be able to tell by looking at the class that people are completely lost - then I sure as heck want someone to raise a hand and say "uh... what?" A practiced, rehearsed lecture isn't really effective. I make detailed notes for myself to lay out what I hope to discuss, and to help me get back on track when I inevitably get off on a tangent due to a question, but the second I start talking I drop the notes. They're there as a backup, not as a script. You can't do this unless you do it live. The difference between a book and an instructor is that you can't ask the book for a different explanation, or another example, if what is there isn't helping you.

Also, RE: notes. My personal preference is to NEVER hand out notes to students. Some feel that having a pile of notes ready-made means they don't have to take their own. Having handouts of the slides means they can ignore what's on-screen. The truth is that anything in the handouts is going to be in the book (if the book is decent) and 90% of the pictures are going to be from the book and extra content as well. I like Powerpoint for some things, but prefer to use slides that essentially have nothing on them except images and big-picture concepts, plus the vocab words that are hard to spell. Everything else is delivered verbally, and for the most part I use an overhead or board to draw images and diagrams one bit at a time, as I explain it, before switching to the from-the-book image. Many times I feel this works better, because it helps people make sense of the often-complicated diagrams thrown at them in the text. I explain that all notes and slides will be available after class, more as a service to anyone who missed something than anything else, but the less I have written the more they pay attention to what I have to say. (Also, taking time to write things out when I discuss important concepts helps me pace myself - I can surely talk a lot faster than I can write, so slowing down for important bits is a good thing.)

"My own personal bugbear is conferences. Why on earth would somebody spend £500 to listen to people giving a quick precis of material then answering a (generally dumb) question or two, when you could read the actual paper in a fraction of the time?"

Schmoozing. The discussions at the talks and poster sessions are good, but it's the less-formal talks at the social gatherings afterwards that turn into job offers and collaborations. Knowing someone does good work is one thing, but knowing that they are a decent person and not an arrogant asshole you'd never be comfortable working with is something that can't really be judged over email. That, and the fun of having people come up to you and talk to you about your own work. Can't tell you how good it made me feel the first time one of the big-name guys in my field asked me about my own little experiment, "what does it all mean?" My initial thought was "what the hell do you mean, asking me? I've been reading your stuff to find out what it means!" It was intensely satisfying and a major boost to my confidence as a young researcher to realize that I was able to add to the field by what I was doing. (At the next conference he accused my study subjects of being "fucking insane" and suggested that my work was "meaningless shit" which really amused me, because I knew that I had totally caught him by surprise - he hadn't ever considered any of the ideas my work suggested, but in the end he contacted my adviser and did some collaborative work on our subjects. He apologized to my PI, telling her that he liked what I was doing and that his comments were meant in a good way.)
posted by caution live frogs at 7:07 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


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