The unfortunate truth is, for most undergraduates, the majority of their time spent “learning” at Princeton is occupied by lectures. Last spring, I argued that professors should stop lecturing us; in other words, Princeton should get rid of lectures completely. Sadly, though unsurprisingly, the University has not ended lectures since the publication of my article. While I wait for the administration to follow my “moderate” and sensible reform for the sake of its students, I will offer a series of moderate and sensible reforms in an (ultimately vain) attempt to make lectures better.
My position has not changed in the past year. I still argue that lectures are the most inefficient possible way to teach. Research supports this. The Peak Performance Center shows that lecture allows for 5 percent retention of presented material. Another paper notes that, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” and it found that students in classes with traditional learning were 50 percent more likely to fail than peers in classes with active learning. There are more intuitive reasons why lectures are inefficient besides pure research. It is hard to focus on someone talking for 50 minutes straight. It’s easy to nod as if you understand without actually understanding.
Despite all of this, lectures have one saving grace: They give condensed versions of otherwise difficult material, prepared and summarized by experts in the relevant field. I argue that if we are to have lectures at all, this single positive aspect of lectures must be accentuated. Professors should acknowledge that lectures are generally going to be inefficient and do everything in their power to alleviate the inefficient educational model foisted on them by the University. As I argued in my previous piece, the University should at the very least put as many lectures into video as possible and limit the time of lectures to 50 minutes (80-minute lectures are too long).
A good place to start is that professors should, in every case, provide comprehensive lecture outlines for two reasons: firstly, in order to allow students to make up for the deficiencies of the lecture format later one, and secondly, in order to allow students to afford to miss lectures so that they do not waste their time attending. Because lectures are such a poor way of learning, it is generally inadvisable to force students to go to lectures; while Princeton cannot remove lectures formally, we can informally limit their influence.
As part of this, professors should never make attendance in lectures mandatory. Because lecture notes should be provided and lectures are not efficient, professors should not consider our actual presence in lectures to be necessary. Instead, students should go to lectures if they think they will benefit from attending. It should be up to professors to ensure that their lecturing style is compelling or necessary enough to actually provoke attendance.
Moreover, professors ought to insist on the most interesting presentation formats possible. I do not expect a song or dance. I do not expect a TED Talk. But is it really unfair to expect professors to be good lecturers? I don’t think so. The University is prestigious and is supposed to be the best at its job: research and undergraduate education. The University can afford to reject people whose scholarship is merely “very good” if their teaching is not to a high standard. I do think professors should attempt a certain standard of lecturing: not reading off their slides, utilizing diagrams and pictures whenever relevant, and varying their tone. These are just the basic standards of presentation that we are taught as students. Moreover, I expect professors and the University to consistently refine their pedagogies to maximize the benefit we get from our education here. It is insufficient to expect that just because we are taught by experts, we receive the best education possible. University students are some of the best students available; we would succeed in any circumstances. I want teachers that take advantage of our abilities and raise us to a higher level.
Given that students will be at some lectures, professors should maximize the benefit of being physically present in lectures. Foremost in this category is the removal of laptops and phones from the classroom. Some students genuinely do take notes on their laptops. Electronic notes are convenient and transferable. As many professors argue, however, writing is far superior in notetaking than typing. In addition, laptops and phones have negative externalities for other students. Typing is annoying; screens are distracting. Perhaps this will result in diligent students attending lecture and less diligent students staying in their dorm rooms. At the same time, remember that lectures are not remarkably effective even if we do diligently show up and take notes, so the difference between going to lecture and missing lecture is not as large as it may at first appear.
Professors should be more discerning in what they ask us to read, and they should provide the appropriate priming for lectures in the form of a couple of questions for us to keep in mind while reading. Such questions should be directly relevant to lecture. It is totally unreasonable to suggest to students that they should read 250 pages and somehow be able to recall that material on top of anything else they must read. What is further insulting is when we are asked to do a large amount of reading and the professor spends 90 percent of their lecture on a handful of sentences. If professors do insist on large quantities of reading, they should at least provide prompting reading questions. Not a barrage of them, but a few to guide reading in preparation for the lecture.
Finally, most importantly — but admittedly most controversially — professors should, as much as possible, remove questions from their lectures. That is to say that professors should not invite questions nor address any that may come up in lecture. This is an extreme position, but I make it on principled grounds. Consider that I am at a lecture to learn from an expert, not to listen to questions fielded by other undergraduates. When a single person asks a question in a crowded lecture, that person is essentially holding everyone else hostage by focusing on what they want to know the answer to. Many undergraduates ask questions that are going to be addressed later, have already been addressed, or are off-topic. It is a rare question indeed that is actually “good,” by which I mean interesting and relevant for the rest of the class. Is the rare appearance of these questions worth it? No. Office hours, precepts, and emails exist for a reason; people are capable of writing down their questions and asking them later. If the professor thinks that a question is legitimately important, they are free to address it in an email to the class or in their lecture. But lecture itself should be a pure distillation of whatever the professor wants us to learn about. Lecture is not the time for anyone to entertain the attempts of their classmates to look smart.
One might argue that, in arguing against professors interacting verbally with students via questions, I am underselling the very active learning that I argue is better than lectures. There’s even an article that suggests one bad sign of a professor is an unwillingness to interact with students. My intention is merely to point out that there are other spaces for active learning that are not lectures, and that if lectures are to have any benefit at all, they must be focused on the one good thing about them.
Is there anyway to add a more active learning approach to lectures? I have found one. It’s called peer-to-peer instruction. An American Public Media article on a class at the University of Maryland has put in the spotlight a suggestion that lectures should focus, not on the professor lecturing, and not the professor asking students if they understand, but asking the students to instruct each other on the topic.
I think the most effective way to deal with lectures is simply to remove them. I am not sure Princeton will ever do that. In the meantime, I appeal to professors to attempt to alleviate the deficiencies of the format they are saddled with. While I would never presume to tell professors how they ought to teach, I hope some of them will find my arguments persuasive.
Ryan Born is a philosophy concentrator from Washington Township, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is part of a recurring weekly column on politics and pedagogy at Princeton and abroad.