The Giant Lecture Course and the Big University

Over on Chronicle Vitae, a group of students at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, have written a spectacular piece – “A lecture from the lectured.”

They open by citing pieces that sneer at students today for being distracted, boring, and un-intellectually curious, then respond with appropriate scorn.

 At a university like ours, where thousands of students compete to fulfill their general-education requirements, it is lecture after lecture after lecture. For three to four hours of our day, we sit in cavernous rooms — with up to 800 strangers — where the professor doesn’t know our name, let alone ask us to speak.

They then describe their experiences, including some good ones with great lecturers, but far too often they complete their gen eds through these massive lectures in which they feel anonymous. Of course they don’t pay attention.

They also recognize the economics

We will admit that the problem is not that the lecture is inherently a horrendous format. We’ve had bad small discussion-based classes where no one has done the required reading. We’ve sat through awkward silences when no one wants to add to the discussion.
But for us, the lecture seems too much the default option for educating a lot of us at the cheapest price.

That’s the key to me. This class format persists not because anyone can defend it pedagogically. We all know that even in a class based on what Derek Bruff calls “continuous exposition,”such exposition is better delivered to 25 students, bored as they might be, than to 250. At the giant university, though, that’s not really affordable. The whole enterprise depends on the economics of the giant intro class for undergraduates.

We know it’s the worst acceptable way to teach.
We know students learn less in giant lecture classes.
We know a few profs who can pull it off, because they are good performers.
But we know that most profs can’t.
We know that reward structures at the giant university focus almost entirely on research productivity (and the elusive outside offer).

And maybe this was ok when the giant publics were cheap but good. They still can be good, despite these big classes, but they aren’t cheap any more.

I don’t know how to fix this, but I do know that the recent spate of essays spitting scorn at students who check Facebook during a lecture aren’t going to help.

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