Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Ethics of Lecturing . . . or of How and When to Lecture

I have written before about how much I value the virtual conversations that take place among the contributors on the listserv-turned-google-group of chemistry educators, Chemed-L.  This week there was a lively back-and-forth about the ethics and mechanics of lecture.  It started with a share:

Scott Freeman, lecturer in biology at the University of Washington, gave an outstanding talk at Arizona State University on Sept. 12, 2014, entitled (after Eric Mazur's comment last May) "Is lecturing unethical: A meta-analysis of active learning across STEM disciplines".

Since all chemistry teachers have lectured at one point or another, people quickly bristled at the idea of being called unethical.  Our original poster tried to re-focus the conversation, by indicating what about ethics would be considered unethical:

In his talk at ASU, [Freeman] made the connection between ethics and the large number of students who paid tuition for the course and then had to drop it, when the course was primarily lecture.  He talked about at-risk students in this population. His remarks are at the end of the hour, in the question-answer period, as I recall.

He does NOT lecture -- and he teaches 700 biology students in a huge auditorium. During 6 years of his experimentation with active learning, the LESS he lectured, the lower the drop rate; hence, overall, the BETTER the student learning.

The question then became "Exactly what do we mean when we say 'lecture'?"  That produced these great posts:

Lectures can be inspiring or they can be insipid. Just like active learning. Lectures can be spot on what one needs to hear or filled with factual errors. Just like active learning. Lectures can be rigid preprogrammed one-way activities or flexible, dynamic multi-way conversations, just like active learning. They can be 55-minute run-on sentences or 10-minute targeted, focused, extemporaneous nuggets.
Unethical?  Let's not be absurd.  Ineffective, maybe.  Yet there are times when the only source of information is listening to someone else talk -- think jury duty.  Instead of abandoning the lecture, which is the way many of us gained much of our knowledge of chemistry, how about working to make the students better listeners?  Intersperse the lecture with questions asking students to relate the new material to their previous knowledge and experience.  Provide a chance for students to ask for clarification.  Quiz them to see where misconceptions occur, then provide a demo, video, or new description to help them understand the material.

One of my lectures this week was on Percent Composition.  The photos of my chalkboard show that I had a clear idea of what I wanted students to know and be able to do at the end of the lecture.  One approach, as mentioned by my colleagues in the above posts, would be to provide the definition and the formula and then solve the sample problems.  This would give students a model for what I wanted them to know.

Another approach would be to give small bits of information and stop periodically to create opportunities for interaction.  Ask students questions, ask them to try to solve problems.  In truth, this is what I typically do during a lecture. 
Instead of either, I told the students that I knew THEY could generate the notes because they knew some things about percent problems and they knew some things about compounds.  I started with "What do you think Percent Composition is?"  Blank stares.  Uh oh.  So I put a formula on the board - NaCl - and said, if I asked you for the percent composition of this compound, what do you think I would want to know?  Lights went on.  A brave volunteer:  "How much of it is sodium and how much of it is chlorine?"  Yes, exactly.  And how much in terms of what?  What do you think we will measure?   Then more blank stares.  But one student looked at the periodic table on the wall, so I pounced:  I think Calvin has an idea.  Calvin?  "Is it mass?"  Yes!  Then the kids led me through creating the formula and solving the practice problems.  The problems on the second photo were the most fun because they did it on their own and then we compared methods for solving.

What I tried to do with this approach is show the students that the background they have acquired, in chemistry and in math, can help them understand the concepts without me telling them exactly what to do so that they start to see that they can think and form ideas without me.  Whether or not it worked, I guess I'll find out on the quiz this week.

I have done a few elementary school science programs in the last couple weeks and I have been very pleasantly surprised at what young children know about science.  I have begun to wonder, though, if, as they age, we discount that they can remember anything and we don't rely on students to bring much to the table.  Students say "I don't know" but I think often that means "I can't risk giving an answer that might be wrong."  I am going to try to draw more answers out of students and help them build meaning by helping them link what they learn to what they already know.

One more post from the Chemed-L discussion that I think is great:

the bigger question for me is what to do with what he presented. I get that passive, one-way teaching is bad and active engagement with and between students is good. What I don't really know is how to determine where my teaching is on that spectrum and how to maximize my own effectiveness. Data-driven adjustments seem ideal but some of us don't have a lot of our own "data" to work with.

Maybe the thing to do in this situation is to collect some data.  For this, I like the apps Classkick or Nearpod, or webtools like Pear Deck or The Answer Pad.  With so many students carrying smart devices, these free tools are easy ways to quickly take the temperature of a room.

The original share about Scott Freeman's talk referenced the work of Eric Mazur.  I googled him today and found this great blog post by Sue VanHattum.  Also, I saw Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus present at OETC 2014 (a lecture!) about the interactivity he is striving to create in his chemistry classes at Ohio State.  Both of these guys are going on my "further investigations list."  I don't know the answer to the question of ethics, but I know that a lecture with no interactivity is not my favorite way to learn and that I am grateful to be connected to people who want to talk about the topic and explore it.

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