A lecture is a process in which information passes from the notes of the lecturer into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.
Call me a radical, but I have a growing notion that a professor spewing forth information to dozens of students playing classroom stenographer is perhaps not the best way to educate the next generation. Here is my favorite idea for a better classroom experiences that I’ve pieced together from friends, my own experiences, and daydreaming in the shower.
Professor as Advisor
Parents stop reading stories to children sometime around age five or six, so why do professors continue to read textbooks and lecture notes to students until age 22? That’s a waste of both professor and student time. Instead, choose a topic each week, suggest some reading for students, and allow them to, by any means necessary, teach themselves. They might read a textbook, watch some video lectures, and/or gather in small groups to discuss. During this preparation time, students could keep track of questions that arise that they can’t work out between themselves. To further guide students, a professor might point out several subtopics that individual students might specialize in and summarize to the others. Once or twice a week, students would meet with a professor, discuss questions, present on their specialized subtopics and, depending on the type of course, do example problems (math/science) or brainstorm real-world examples (social sciences). During this “class”, professors would not play “sage on a stage”, but rather more of an advisory role. The professor might pose a problem and students would work together at the blackboard to solve it. The professor would be there to offer guidance, suggest alternative approaches, and point out interesting examples.
- more time for student questions
- more time spent solving problem together
- students get the chance to teach
- less time commitment for the professor
- requires motivated students
My personal experience is that I learn little from lectures and much more by doing and teaching. I’m currently taking a general relativity course that is a watered-down version of this model and I love it. Instead of dreading (or more realistically, simply skipping) a two-hour, twice-a-week course, I look forward to it. Each week, we go off on our own, read a book chapter, work on about five problems, and choose an interesting experiment or physical phenomena to present on. No homework to turn in whatsoever. And the result? Students in the class actually fight with one another over who gets to present on some examples because it’s fun to present interesting examples you’ve worked out for yourself. It’s not fun to work on a half-dozen problems on your own, hand them into a mysterious wooden box, never discuss them, and receive a crumpled version of your work, annotated with a cryptic number, several weeks later.
Summarizing, some key ideas that I’m suggesting need to be worked into the class experience are:
- student-to-student teaching
- live, collaborative problem solving
- student responsibilities outside of class
- no need for graded homework
Note that, at least in this post and the motivating conversations, I’m still holding on to the assumption that learning is a process that begins at age 4-6 and ends somewhere between 22 and 30, depending on your interests and levels of masochism. In other words, I’m assuming that learning is not a lifetime experiences interwoven into our daily lives. I’ll delve into that possibility in future posts, but let’s keep it simple for now. ↩