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Hudson '14: Abolish the lecture

A lecture is a great way to acquire knowledge and a poor way to receive an education. A lecture transmits information to students - a line from "Hamlet," the properties of the mitochondrion or Newton's second law, for instance. But education has a different goal. Education is not about the absorption of information. Education is about learning how to think with information - how might I interpret this line from "Hamlet," what might be significant about it, how could I build it into my paper's argument? In any endeavor, someone is successful according to how he or she acts on information, not according to how much information he or she knows. Therefore, to foster better thinking and greater success in students, Brown ought to abolish the lecture.   

A lecture is an ineffective form of learning for two main reasons. First, a lecture does not engage the audience. Each of us intuitively grasps this. The last time you were in lecture, you probably divided your attention between copying down what the professor said or wrote, checking Facebook and wondering what the Ratty is serving. Even during the time you paid attention and made some notes, you were just receiving information, rather than thoughtfully mulling it over.

Students do not lose focus during lecture because they lack interest in learning. Rather, students get little out of lecture because the lecture format forces them into a passive role, requiring that they simply absorb the information floated their way.

The hunch each of us has that lectures do not stimulate our creative faculties is supported by respected scientific research. There is evidence that brains are hardly active during lectures. In 2010, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers published a study concluding that brain activity during lecture resembled brain-dead levels in some students and only TV-watching levels in others. Jere Brophy, a prominent educational psychologist, has presented research throughout his career suggesting that students learn best when teachers frequently employ class participation. Of course, a lecture does just the opposite: It minimizes class participation. By drawing on personal experience and a body of scientific evidence, one can come to grips with the fact that lecture is indeed a suboptimal way of learning.

The lecture's second major flaw is that it promotes dependency. A lecture reinforces the notion that learning is about seeking out and relying on an expert's ­- the professor's - views, rather than thinking for oneself. A lecture gives us the illusion that by going to class, taking good notes and passing tests, one has engaged in deep thought.

True deep thought, though, is a solitary process of asking probing questions and struggling to piece together answers. But as students begin to associate the activities of a lecture with learning, they become less inclined to think of learning as a personal pursuit.

We should replace the lecture with both smaller classes and professors who teach by the Socratic method. The Socratic method is a teaching style in which the professor asks his students question after question, usually designed to expose faulty reasoning in the students' answers. Each student learns to arrive at logical conclusions by rethinking and reforming his or her conclusions. The process is perhaps the most effective way of giving a student an active role in learning. In short, the active Socratic method is the opposite of the passive lecture. If adopted, the Socratic method of teaching would allow students and professors to understand Socrates' maxim: "I cannot teach anyone anything. I can only make them think." This mindset would enhance Brown's stated mission of being a place of "free inquiry."

Many will say that abolishing the lecture is impractical. The obvious argument against abolition is that costs would rise to accommodate smaller classes. But there is plenty of room to cut costs in other areas. Brown's budget is fit for a different discussion, but it is no secret that classroom-related expenditures ­- professors' salaries, teaching materials, et cetera ­- make up only a small fraction of Brown's overhead costs and that smaller classes would in fact be feasible.

The great achievement of the New Curriculum was that it gave the student an active role in education. We now need to take the spirit of the New Curriculum one step farther. We ought to reconsider not just what people learn, but also how they learn.  



Oliver Hudson '14 can be reached at He welcomes your feedback, unless you plan to lecture him.



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