My Students Hate Lectures

There’s a teaching problem that has been puzzling me for three years. I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of how to fix it. 

Here’s what’s been bugging me.

My students hate lectures. In fact, most of my students despise them. I’m not sure if I will ever know the real reason why and it may not really matter why. What does matter is how I can address this problem — is there a way for me to hold “lectureless” classes?

It took a bit of experimentation and noodling (and some great ideas from a book called “How to Teach Digital Natives” but I think that I may be finally moving toward how to make this happen. 

When I started teaching three years ago, all I had to go on with regards to how to run a class was my school experience. What I knew was to put together a lecture on a specific subject along with a set of notes that I presented as slides. I talked and used the slides for 30 minutes or so and assumed that at the end of the lecture that the students would be prepared enough to apply and demonstrate their newfound knowledge by completing a lab. I was transferring knowledge from me to them using the age old technique of talking and listening.

During the lecture, the students would listen (or so I assumed) but very rarely did they take notes or ask questions. If I asked questions of the class, what I mostly received back were blank stares. Discussion and class interaction about any of the points I covered was a rarity. 

What I finally concluded is that my students were no better at understanding and applying the knowledge following my lecture. In other words, I was wasting my time preparing and their time delivering a lecture.

Needles to say, this was frustrating. This frustration is what moved me to start thinking about never delivering another lecture in my life.

What I decided to do to fix this frustration was a radical (at least to me) change in how I transfer knowledge.

Here’s what I did.

At the beginning of a unit, the first thing I do is make a list of items that I think my students should know about a subject, This list is based on my experience and any standards I must meet. I make this list in the form of questions (you will see why later). I also gather any other knowledge sources they might need (e.g. from a textbook, from Videos or from articles) all of which are posted on our Learning Management System. All this forms a set of knowledge resources that I used to jumpstart the next step.

Once I am comfortable with the target and goals, I hold a group discussion to introduce the unit.

I start out by giving a very brief orientation about the subject we are going to focus on. This is only an overview and does not go into any great detail about any of the knowledge they are going to focus on. I focus on why we are learning this subject and how it applies to real life situations. 

Following the orientation, I appoint a class scribe to record the important points of a group discussion on a whiteboard. There are only two questions I ask in this discussion. The first question is I ask the students as a group to make a list of things they think they know about the subject we are going to explore. The second thing I ask is what they are curious about or what do they think they should know about the subject. I act as an advisor or guide during the discussion to make sure that the list of “to knows” generated by the group covers any unit requirements. 

From what the students have on their list, and what I have on my list, I compile a final list of knowledge goals (in the form of questions) for the unit. I divide this list into sets and assign one set to each group (the number of groups depends on the class size. I like to have groups of 4 – 5 students). I form the groups by randomly assigning students (this lets everyone in the class eventually work with everyone else). I have each student write their name on a piece of paper, put all the names in a box and randomly draw names until the groups are completed. 

The assignment I give to the students is that they need to find, document and present the answers to their assigned questions to the rest of the class. This makes the students the researchers AND the teachers. They learn to gather and sort knowledge themselves. They do the work using self-discovery instead of me talking at them. 

In addition to this assignment, I also require the following:

APPLICATION: I assign one or more labs to the class. (All students are required to complete the same labs.  I encourage them as they are doing the labs to either use the knowledge that they were just taught by the other students or do whatever research they need to do to complete the lab. 

LITERACY: I prepare a list of vocabulary. The students have to provide the definitions. The vocabulary is taken from the chapter reading and other relevant material. Completing the vocabulary list can be done with the group but can not be copied from one person to another. Each student has to do their own work. 

PRESENTATION: The students need to compile their knowledge into a presentation intended to teach the rest of the class what they learned.

STUDY GUIDE: To ensure that the students know the information that will be asked of them on a summative assessment, I prepare a study guide. The guide has a list of questions that must be answered and facts that they have to know. It also provides a section in the text where they can discover the answer. I required that these study guides be completed and turned in before the summative assessment is done. 

During class time, students either work on the assigned labs, their vocabulary or work on their group presentation. While students work in class, I circulate around the classroom. As I circulate, I usually hear a number of discussions where students are working to complete the slides and answer the assigned questions. By listening to these discussions, I find that there are items that need clarification or that places where students need assistance. These items provide “teaching moments” where I can give either individual help or I can stop the class to explain a concept that is giving students difficulty. These teaching moments (which often involve demonstrations) are usually less that 15 minutes long and allow me to help the students where they are having trouble. No lectures…. just short teaching moments.

The first few times that students presented their material, I found that their presentations contained facts and procedures and answers that were flat out wrong. This was to be expected given that for many this was their first exposure to a subject but naturally, false facts and conclusions is not a desired learning outcome. What I decided to do to mitigate this problem was to require the students to show me a draft of their presentation. At this “review” we discussed the items in the presentation that either were not correct or needed further clarification. We would work as a group to identify and correct these items before they were presented to the whole class.

In addition to the core knowledge of the unit, the students gain the following skills:

  1. They learn how to do research using the Internet (the most complete encyclopedia that has ever been available to mankind).
  2. The learn how to identify true facts and false facts. (I emphasis the need to validate a fact from more than one source and to check the credibility of the site).
  3. The learn how to collect a set of information and assemble it into a cohesive presentation. (We also cover things like how to give a good presentation, how not to “read the content” of  your slides, and what makes a good and bad slide presentation.)
  4. They learn how to verbally present and communicate information.

So, is this working? So far, so good. I require each student to keep a daily “exit ticket”. At the end of the week, I ask them to summarize their learnings in class and free-form write a paragraph about what worked for them and what did not work for them during the week. So far, students have been telling me that they  like to be in charge of their own learning process and don’t miss the lectures at all. I am sure with this information and a bit more time and observation, I will keep tweaking and adding to this process but I am encouraged with the early results. 

Stay tuned. We’ll see what happens.

Here’s a flowchart / overview of how I prepare for a unit.

Class Unit Knowledge Flowchart

Addendum

This video from Edutopia contains some additional information on the subject. It talks about eliminating the lecture as part of building a “lecture free”, blending learning classroom based around three concepts:

  • Blended Instruction – students access content through teacher designed blended instruction. (Blended means that information is delivered to the student using methods such as video, labs, blended notes etc.). This leads to:
  • Self-paced structure – students learning at their own pace within each unit of study. This allows for:
  • Mastery-Based Grading – students progress from one step of the course to another only when they have demonstrated mastery of the previous subjects

Without the traditional lecture, the instructor is freed to assist students as they proceed through each of the unit subjects and students have the opportunities to work in groups using each other’s skills and knowledge.

This video from Edutopia is an excellent overview of how to implement Blended Learning in a classroom.

More Information, Resources and References

  1. Flipped Classroom (Article)
  2. Teaching Digital Natives (Book)

// May 27 2022 // Post ID: 430