Re: “Keep the Baby!” and “An oppressor”

I just read Kathy Kerr’s post about the value of the “lecture” and I really agree.  Reading her post helped me organize my thoughts a bit on PBL versus didactic lecture formats.  I also saw Brandon Peoples’ post “An oppressor” and I have an idea to address his question about how to still effectively use a “content delivery” approach in balance with PBL.

First one quick observation – in the reading about the UVa system, there was one tidbit that caught my eye.  In describing the first year class PBL class, it was mentioned that the professor did give a brief lecture after the students had worked on their case.  The article hardly focused on that, but I think it’s an important point – that a lot of PBL still incorporates some lecturing, or “depositing” of info by the professor.

I agree with Kathy that a very important part of education is having “experts” share their knowledge with us, and this necessitates professors explaining to us the information they possess.

But wait!  What is “explaining”?  Explaining, and lecturing, can come in many different forms.  Think about assembly instructions for a piece of Ikea furniture: pictures of parts with arrows and hilarious little cartoon dudes.  These cartoons are pretty good at explaining how to assemble that new desk with just images, however they could do the exact same thing by naming each piece, and typing out “X part is joined to Y panel”.  Each approach is a way of explaining the same process, but which is easier to understand?  Which one leads to comprehension of the necessary task in the easiest way?

My point is that there ARE engaging ways to lecture that help comprehension.  The best talks I’ve heard have always had the least text involved in the presentation, but use lots of  images, drawings and models.  The best speakers have kept my attention by helping build an image in my own mind of how the information they are telling me fits into a relevant system or environment.  The difference is in the professor’s presentation: Telling stories, using real-world examples relevant to the audience, incorporating humor, mistakes, talking about the origin of the information or it’s evolution through time, these all help engage listeners.  Even aspects of the professor’s physical presence such as walking around and modulating vocal tone contribute to student’s interest in what you have to say…actually, Dr. Fowler is a perfect example of how a professor’s energetic vocal tone and physical presence helps keep attention focused on her and what she is saying.

I’m a big fan of the story-telling analogy.  Framing a lecture with the idea that you are trying to tell a “story” can help you automatically organize the information or talk about in a way that is more stimulating/entertaining.  You might be wondering “Sure, this is great when you’re talking about literature/politics/etc., but how could you possibly tell a story about differential equations?”  Well, what makes a good story?  Characters, conflict and resolution (yes, I know this is a gross oversimplification, but this post is getting long enough as it is!).  So, your mathematic variables are your characters, the equation is the conflict, and the solution is the resolution! (Okay, that made me groan a little at myself.)

This might sound cheesy and you might feel foolish talking about x squared as the “underdog”, but it’s a small price to pay if it keeps your students listening in an engaged manner.  Plus, being a little silly can go a long way to helping your students feel less like you are “authoritarian” and more like you are an ally in the learning process.

I am all for PBL, but I also know sometimes GOOD lecturing is a useful way of sharing critical info with students.

ps – I hear the argument that some people are just good at public speaking (i.e. lecturing), and others aren’t, to which I would respond “well, of course!”.  Some people are more naturally talented at playing piano, and others aren’t.  THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T BECOME GOOD AT IT!  How do you become better at public speaking?  Like piano and anything else, you have to practice.  Take a class, ask a friend to sit in a talk/lecture and give you feedback.  Oh yeah, and PRACTICE!

About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.
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