Canadian undergraduates are streaming back to class this month and for most that means a return to cavernous lecture halls. The lecture format is an institution at most universities and as money gets tight, it's also is a favourite way for schools to spread thin resources. Despite its long history, University of Guelph business dean Julia Christensen Hughes argues the traditional lecture is not the best way to learn, pointing to decades of research. A former leader with a national group dedicated to improving university teaching, and co-editor of a new book on the subject, she is at the forefront of efforts to shake up how higher education gets done. She speaks with The Globe and Mail'sElizabeth Church.
What's wrong with lectures?
When the lecture model began, the Internet didn't exist or even the printing press. It was an oral tradition for transferring knowledge. Now information is ubiquitous. If you are curious about something you just Google it. The purpose of education today should be to help people seek, assess and apply information in meaningful ways.
So are you calling for the death of the lecture?
Not at all. I don't imagine a day when we won't ever have a lecture. They can provide a useful purpose, done well - that's the caveat. A lecture done well can be motivating or energizing if the faculty member is communicating their passion. It can be provocative. It can be very useful. The problem is when the lecture isn't done well and it's the only thing that's done.
What are common problems?
We try to stuff too much in a lecture. That idea is just flawed. You need to ask questions and pause after 10 minutes. You need to tell stories. If all we do is lecture in the traditional way, we have pretty powerful evidence that short-term memory kicks in. What we are doing isn't working if all students are doing is cramming stuff into their heads and forgetting it later. We need to break that mould.
If it doesn't work, why are universities and professors so fond of the format?
One of my heroes is educational philosopher John Dewey and he was writing in the late 1800s and challenging the traditional model of education. To me, it is important to recognize this challenge has been going on for more than 100 years. That underscores the enormity of the challenge. When something has become that imbedded, we need cultural and system change.
What's the answer?
You have to look at the education of faculty. Most come from a PhD program where they haven't been taught anything about how people learn. Universities across the country, the vast majority, have some kind of teaching centre where graduates and faculty can go for support and assistance. But that participation is voluntary. The PhD experience is preparing faculty for only part of their role - the research. We need to change the graduate experience to prepare them for their role as teachers. What other professional body would not prepare people for such a significant part of their job?
Is it realistic to expect change when universities are scrambling to balance budgets?
Whenever you have a resource-constrained environment, it promotes innovation. If all students are doing is jumping through hoops, that's not a very good use of resources. Given the cost of university, the expectations of students and their families are shifting, as well. They want to know there is a rich learning environment. The public wants that, too. As a society we are going to face economic challenges. We are going to have huge debts and tough choices about how government invests. Universities are all about learning. We need to learn from evidence how to improve what we do.