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What about students who learn better in a lecture environment?

Short answer:

Learn what better? If you think this is about how to convey technical content more efficiently, then you have completely missed my point. The whole point of having students research on their own and express their comprehension in a constructively critical environment is to foster independent learning and thinking skills: something non-interactive learning environments do not achieve.

Long answer:

On occasion students tell me they learn better from a lecture than they do through research and discussion. Not only have I heard this from my own students, but student complaints are common in other classes where traditional lecture is not the dominant mode of instruction. It is easy to assume that instructors insisting on non-lecture modes of teaching are ignoring student needs. This is an emotionally loaded issue, especially for the student, and so it deserves thoughtful attention.

If the purpose of education is to transfer knowledge from instructor to student, it makes sense to use whatever mode of instruction best meets that goal. If students apprehend and retain information on a certain subject best in a lecture environment, then lecturing would seem the best way to teach that subject in accordance with the goal of optimized knowledge transfer. Educational psychologists have written a great deal about different perception and learning modes (visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, and so on) as well as how instructors are supposed to cater to these individual strengths, all for the purpose of optimizing the transfer of information into students' minds.

Now at this point you probably expect me to cite some scientific research on the (in)-effectiveness of lecture as a way to transfer knowledge, and how Socratic dialogue is blatantly superior. Sorry to disappoint, but this is not what I will do. What I will do instead is expose a hidden assumption made by every person asking this question, then tear that assumption to shreds. So sit back and enjoy the ride!

Long before we try to identify the best instructional technique for students, we must ask ourselves what knowledge and skills we intend these students to gain. Most people assume my job as an electronics instructor is to transfer the knowledge and skills of electronic circuit theory and practice to the students under my tutelage. This is only partially correct. If you believe that the job of an English professor is to teach English, you are once again only partially correct. If you think the task of a History teacher is to teach history to students . . . you guessed it -- you are only partially correct.

``But what else is there to teach?'' you might ask. Is it not obvious that the teaching of electronics is the first priority of the electronics instructor, that teaching English is the first priority for the English professor, and that teaching history is the first priority of the History teacher? Obvious, perhaps, but wrong nonetheless. Behold the following facts:

Clearly, people must adapt to an ever-changing landscape of knowledge if they are to comprehend the world around them and make intelligent decisions in it. Learning cannot and does not end at graduation.

In order to prepare students for success in this reality, school must do more than merely transfer subject-specific knowledge and skills. They must empower students to think and learn on their own. This is where all passive forms of instruction fail. To independently ponder and explore new knowledge requires personal action. One does not become an independent thinker by observing other people thinking. One does not become a self-directed learner by relying on others to direct their learning. Independence is not a product of dependence, any more than light is a product of darkness. This is precisely why active, student-centered, engaging forms of education are necessary. It is not a question of how to teach electronics, English, or history better. It is a question of how to best empower students as thinking, learning, ever-growing individuals no matter what their area of study.

For the sake of argument, lecture may very well be the optimum way to teach a particular concept to a particular student. But a passive learning enviornment will never teach that student how to learn on their own, or how to approach the many new and different types of problems they will encounter outside that passive classroom. When asked, "What about students who learn better in a lecture environment?", my first response is to reply with another question: "learn what better?" The issue at stake here is not technique, but domain. It is not a dispute over the best way to do something, but rather what that something is we're supposed to do.

Such is the radical nature of Socratic seminars, team-based learning, project- and problem-based learning, and other active learning strategies that a great many people (students and some educators alike!) completely misunderstand the concept. To think that active instructional techniques are about how to teach a student Ohm's Law quicker, or how to get students to master the quadratic formula with less frustration, or even how to reduce the number of hours teachers spend in preparation for class, is to utterly miss the point. This is about expanding the vision of education from being merely a delivery vehicle for specific knowledge and information to an institution that empowers students as individuals. It is about treating students fully as human beings and not just repositories of data. It is about making the classroom as rich and dynamic as the rest of life. And yes, it is also about increasing student competence in their chosen areas of study, because competence encompasses far more than the ability to follow another's lead.

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