R. E. Sparks
The lecture system is bad. We all agree to that. But I have not seen it change in my years of educational experience, except through the addition of practical experience in a laboratory and problem-solving recitation sessions. Of course, the lecture system is very difficult to get away from in technical courses because of the enormous amount of factual information and analytical techniques involved. Most of us teach such courses as if it were not possible to think until all these facts and techniques were mastered. Our whole course tends to be devoted to these and we end the course hoping the student will somehow to able to think properly about all we have given him.
After such a sweeping condemnation of the lecture system, I would like to be specific about its disadvantages, because this will help us be specific about the changes we ought to make. If we stay on the sweeping condemnation level, we will only be able to wring our hands in despair.
Any of us who has spent much time talking to students know that the poorest way to help someone learn something is to tell him. And, of course, there is a good reason for this--his mind is likely to be passive. For most of us, listening is usually an inert activity, conducive to daydreaming and general mental laziness, unless the subject is inordinately interesting. During a lecture the only mind working at reasonable efficiency is that of the lecturer. The only time such a situation can be highly educational is when the minds of the audience are also working. This will occur when the audience has strong interest in the subject matter. A good example is a seminar being given by a technical man to a group of his peers. Somehow we must arrange for the students' minds to be working too.
Another problem is that it is well-nigh impossible to have a good, inclusive discussion in a class of 30 students. If the instructor asks questions, a few of the sharper and more vocal students may start a discussion but the rest of the students are quite willing to let these few carry the burden. They feel little need or desire to participate in the discussion.
Very few students in a class of 30 will take time to ask a question that is troubling them unless they know it is troubling a great many other people too. And yet, what would be the most valuable input that an instructor could give a student? Obviously to answer his particular questions or to address the subjects that particularly interest him at the time. What is most relevant to the student is what is on his mind. No lecture, then, could possibly be very relevant to many of the students in a class.