Can lecture be engaging in all subject areas?

We talked a little bit in class this week about professors that have successfully engaged their students in a lecture setting and found ways to “reach them” with the subject material. Coming from a chemistry background, I am trying to think of ways of keeping students engaged in classes like organic and analytical chemistry. At some point, students need to just sit down and read the book. However, I believe we can do better in the classrooms where these subjects are taught.

I am in a class right now with a really great professor. In this class, we are learning the causes of air pollution and ways of mitigating it. I have been in similar classes before with similar subject material and every time, the time spent in class has been dull. It’s always been very passive learning on the part of the students with the professor talking at the class and doing little to engage them. But this professor is different. During class, she finds ways of working in current news topics, discussing public resources on air quality, and gives time to work on problems in class. These pieces of the lecture make the material real for students and break up the dense and monotonous 1.5-hour lecture that would typically be definitions, equations, and material.

All of this is to say that we can do better. While at some point, students need to sit down and learn the material by reading and practicing, lecturers need to get students to care. This can be done by making the material hit home, having them do problems so they feel like they have a starting point on the homework, or breaking up the lecture into different pieces. to keep them engaged.

But what about classes like organic chemistry. There aren’t many current news articles on topics related to organic chemistry meaning that they probably can’t engage students with current happenings this subject area. However, I have a few ideas that can make these lectures less excruciating. It may require that the professor get creative and even cover less material. But, would it be worth it if the averages on the exams were higher than 55%? Which is unacceptable in my opinion. No matter how you spin it, the professor is at fault. Either they aren’t teaching, they aren’t engaging, or their exams don’t match the level they are teaching. Anyway…, these professors can break up the class with problems, have students do intermittent presentations on reaction mechanisms, do small (and contained!) experiments followed by a discussion of what happened, or even do a one-day field trip to a chemical plant or lab. If I may add, my professor did none of this while I was in chemistry and the exam averages were definitely a 55% or lower! Was it the students or the professor? We’ll never know.

This may also be an issue for classes in the humanities. I have taken few classes in the humanities but for the ones I have taken, professors fill class time lecturing at students rather than letting them interact with the material. Lecturers teaching these classes can probably work in discussions or student presentations or maybe even field trips. While most professors feel pressured to cover as much material as possible in a semester, what good is it if students only take home 20% of it? It’s almost better to slow down and find ways to engage students. It will be less of a waste of the professors time and less excruciating for the students.

10 Replies to “Can lecture be engaging in all subject areas?”

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post and appreciate the points that you brought up. I have somewhat conflicting feelings on this topic. On the one hand it is wonderful to see professors who are engaging their students, modeling passion and creativity, and making class time both productive and enjoyable. In situations in which I am teaching or leading a group I tend to prefer a more interactive format as well. However, during my time as a student I have always been amazed at the expectation of fellow students to be entertained in class. I have always felt it was my own responsibility to care about what I am studying and if the professor is somehow connecting me with information about the topic (in a comprehensible way) then they are fulfilling their end of the of the contract.

  2. I loved how you ended this, “While most professors feel pressured to cover as much material as possible in a semester, what good is it if students only take home 20% of it? It’s almost better to slow down and find ways to engage students. It will be less of a waste of the professors time and less excruciating for the students.”

    When we aim for breadth and not depth the learning doesn’t stick. It doesn’t inspire and long term it is really only good for teaching how to learn information for a limited amount of time and uses. Instead, we need to situate the learning better. This is what the professor you mentioned is doing now. Situating the course content in the current news cycle. Not all situated learning needs to be from the news cycle though. It can also exist when students work to solve authentic problems that require an understanding of the course content. When we slow down and teach for depth instead of breadth we create these opportunities for really impactful teaching!

  3. How do we cater to multiple types of learning styles? While some students learn best through hands-on activities, others learn through hearing lectures or by reading the book. At some point, isn’t it the student’s responsibility to learn the material regardless of how the class is taught? Professors do have a responsibility to make their class engaging, but would moving toward one end of the spectrum be to the benefit of some students but the detriment of others?

    This point also ties back to the discussion we had last class about the difference between our ideal classroom and the reality that exists. How do we respond to students who don’t want to be engaged in active learning activities but just want to get in/listen to a lecture/go home? Is there a way we can design our class so that we don’t receive that kind of pushback?

    1. I think teachers strive for the best learning environment for the most. Naturally, there are always students that need more attention or greater effort. But I agree with you that at some point, what it takes for the success of a few resisting students could affect the performance of many others. I feel like we are theoretizing strategies that in practice require systematic support, funding, and staffing.

  4. Thanks for reminding us that “how we teach” and “how we test” are connected and that one might have a lot to say about the other. We’ll be talking about assessment soon, but for now, I’ll just say that I agree 100% that when the average on an exam is 50 something there’s a problem.

  5. Hello!

    I VERY much appreciate your post; its been so frustrating as an engineer to sit there in classes covering material I *should* be interested in, that I often *want* to be interested in, and just feel the hour-straight of definitions, math, and rote recited content suck every last bit of relevance and life out of the topic. In particular, your brief aside about the 55% average tests being always a bad sign just really brought to mind far, _far_ too many courses I’ve taken at my alma mater where professors explicitly prided themselves on their ability to get their average grade as close to 50% as possible, “so that they can maximally differentiate the good and bad students”. In every course like that I’ve been in, those tests are just genuinely unfair, resulting in a complete roll of the dice as to whether you are above or below the 50% mark.

    I’d be curious to hear which humanities courses you’ve taken that kept to a lecture format, what few ones I’ve managed to get to do have tended toward open discussion, small classroom (<20 students) types of situations.

    Lastly- the course I help teach is a senior-year undergrad course, and it's stunning the degree to which the content from previous courses has gone unabsorbed (no blame for the students, of course). I hear about some of the trials students were put through and cannot help but wonder in what way tackling that much work with so much severity of punishment for every little mistake can possibly be thought to motivate a student to learn. It means as a class in their senior year, your real prereqs end up somewhere at "Vague familiarity with the concept of X" or "understands that Y is a thing that exists and can be used like a gate" rather than remotely close to the depth they learned it at.

    I'm really not sure how we fix such things, to be honest?
    -Hani

  6. Hi! I also loved how you ended your post! It is the reality that we try to teach as if we can cover every single detail about the literature. This semester I am teaching for the first time (apart from part-time teaching) and I realized that I am pushing hard to give them every single detail about the subject matter, which is impossible. This week I was thinking about what you said here “it may require that the professor get creative and even cover less material”. I think this requires more time to prepare for us as educators as I believe covering less and being creative reflect how much the professor knows its field. This reminds me of “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, which is supposed to be our primary goal in teaching, I believe.

  7. Deborah,
    Great post! I agree that educators should strive to make coursework more relevant to student’s lives. This way they are more invested in what they are learning, because they feel it actually matters when it applies to real life! I like your suggestions on how to make class more engaging. I find that splitting students up to tackles a problem works well, as they want to keep up with their peers.

  8. Awesome post. I come from the engineering (focusing in computer science) background so I can’t comment heavily for chemistry. We have a similar issue with harder concepts that involve heavier math oriented concepts like algorithms. We could use a tactic like looking using news articles on how algorithms make change happen in the world (and a professor of mine has to show how powerful algorithms are in the real world). We are also lucky to have the concept of abstraction as a way to understand these harder concepts. Taking a problem and giving is context helps bring it out of the formal math and give it meaning — which is huge for tackling these problems.

    Maybe chemistry might be able to do that? Would like to hear your thoughts.

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