Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen

If the social media response I have observed is any indication, then it is fair to say that Professor Molly Worthen’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times (“Lecture Me. Really.”) has been a bit polarizing among college instructors.  In brief, Worthen valorizes the lecture as the engine for student learning in humanities courses (particularly those at the introductory level) at the expense of what she terms “[t]oday’s vogue for active learning.”  Some readers have loved it and see in it a reflection of their own practices, while others–to put it mildly–feel less amenable to it and see in it a regretful look backward at the pedagogical days of yore.  As both a fellow humanist and someone who is ensconced in the scholarship of teaching and learning on a daily basis, I too had a visceral reaction to the piece, but I want to try and remain as objective as possible.  Rather than highlight my initial response, I want to call attention to the fallacies in Worthen’s argument and to the damage such “either/or” pieces can do to the discourse regarding higher education, particularly when they are published in extremely visible outlets like the NYT.

To begin with, I want to be absolutely clear: I don’t have any problem with lecturing as one tool among many that we can use to help our students learn.  It can be a very valuable strategy in certain instances.  After all, storytelling is the world’s oldest form of teaching, so there are times when a well-delivered lecture can be as powerful as anything else we do in the classroom.  The key is we have to keep them short, and we also need to use other teaching methods as well, because the research simply does not support the notion that courses dominated by lecture will be effective for student learning.  Derek Bruff, Director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, has recently written a phenomenal piece about the research on lecturing, so I won’t retread the same ground, but I do want to note from the outset that lectures should not be dismissed out of hand.

Worthen, on the other hand, clearly does not feel the same way about active learning. She not only dismisses discussion, group work, and other forms of pedagogy, but does so with derision.  As a result, she ignores decades worth of research and relies almost exclusively on anecdote.  It’s hard to build a case that way.  In what follows, I want to get to the bottom of all of the assumptions that underpin Worthen’s piece by closely reading passages from the essay itself, which I’ve placed in bold font.

“A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with ‘active learning’ methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that ‘it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.’ ”

Calling the Freeman, et. al., report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “a 2014 study” is akin to looking at a highly influential book (choose your favorite!) and calling it a pretty decent piece of work that changed a few minds.  This PNAS article was a bombshell meta-analysis of 225 different studies that didn’t merely suggest lecturing was less effective than a combination of active learning strategies; indeed, for many it definitively proved that this was so.  Yes, as a part of the wealth of data on grades and test scores, it began to reframe teaching as an ethical issue, going as far as to say, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  Those are very strong words by well-respected scientists, and they cannot be brushed off by mere hypotheses.  As a humanist, I can easily see that these findings are generalizable to my own discipline.

The biggest resistance I often see when I talk to people about the PNAS findings and  similar studies is the class-size argument.  Many, especially in the humanities, will argue that once the class gets too large, it is difficult to do anything other than lecture.  But discussion is possible regardless of how many students we have. When we get up to a certain number (say, 40 and beyond), though, it has to morph into small group discussion. This approach can be very effective, but there need to be clear guidelines, good questions, and the groups need to share their findings.

“In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.”

I don’t resent experts.  Some of my best friends are experts.  On my good days, I even like to think I bring a bit of expertise into my own classroom.  Here is the crux of Worthen’s argument, though.  She seems to think that it is enough to be an expert in a discipline, that students should somehow feel grateful to sit in our classrooms and bask in the glory of our knowledge.  Somehow–perhaps through note-taking (see below), perhaps by chance, perhaps by osmosis, perhaps by magic–students will absorb this knowledge and immediately understand how to make complex arguments and to think like scholars in the discipline.  The trouble is that learning doesn’t work this way.  The human brain does not work this way.  In order to build knowledge, students need to be active participants in creating it.  For the humanities, this can mean discussions, debates, in-class writing, course projects, etc. There is a whole field of inquiry called constructivism that has been demonstrating this for decades.  But you don’t have to believe me.  Just ask your students what their most meaningful educational experience has been.  I’ll bet a lecture is not at the top of the list.

None of this is to downplay the importance of expertise, which is an essential part of being a college educator.  However, by being so adamant in suggesting that lecturing and active learning are polar opposites, pitting one against the other, Worthen feeds right into the ill-founded criticisms of higher education that have been dominating the press.  A refusal to change in the face of a proliferation of research or, at the very least, to add other strategies to the mix only serves to bolster our critics.

“They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.”

Who on earth is trying to assimilate all of these disciplines?  That’s almost literally impossible, and it strikes me as an argument more rooted in the crisis narrative surrounding the humanities than anything else.  Plus, what’s wrong with the sciences?!? They have found a way to demonstrate that students are achieving the learning goals that faculty are establishing.  Perhaps instead of being antagonistic, we could be more open to seeing how we could adapt similar strategies to our goals in the humanities.

“And it (i.e. the lecture) teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize.”

This assumes that we could ever be certain that all students were paying close attention, a point to which I’ll return below.  If we cannot be certain of this, Worthen’s argument begins to fall in on itself.

“Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article.”

There is no getting around it:  this statement is snarky, condescending, elitist, and derives from a privileged position within the academy.  Clearly, those of us who advocate strongly for more diversity among the pedagogical methods by which we teach the humanities just “do not understand what a lecture is.”  Trust me:  as a student, I have sat in plenty of lecture courses, and I’ve been to countless professional conferences, where–in the humanities–the lecture reigns supreme.  Yes, I know what a lecture is, but I choose to put my faith in the following rather than disproven notions of teaching or the echo chamber that can result from circling the wagons within our disciplines:  1) the research, and 2) the demonstrable gains in student learning seen by my colleagues who have implemented active learning methods in their courses.  Part of me also thinks Worthen is telling us that if we don’t have a similar educational background to her, then we just don’t know what a good lecture really is, so of course we would choose another mode of teaching.  Well, I won’t dignify that kind of ad hominem rhetoric with a response, except to say that I’m proud of my graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut (Go Huskies!), where–among other things–I was trained to be an effective teacher and to read research on teaching and learning.

“Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.”

I actually agree with Worthen that all of this is hard work.  But is a lecture really our most effective tool for helping students with argumentation, synthesis, and organization?  Are we to presume students are able to do all of these things on their own simply by listening (not even reading, but listening) to a model argument?  Even if we assume that the argument being presented in the lecture is of the caliber that it will revolutionize the field, it is a stretch to believe that students can take what they are hearing and apply the methods to their own work simply by taking notes if they haven’t been given any opportunity to practice through other means.  If it is happening for some students, how do we prove it?  Worthen is dismissing active learning in favor of lecturing on the basis of a hunch about what might be happening in her students’ minds.  Mark Sample makes a similar point in a comment on the Derek Bruff post I discussed above, and it is a vital one to consider.  There are no data to back the notion that this kind of learning is actually taking place, largely because such a claim would be difficult to ever verify.

“Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. “

I confess that the word “suggests” here really bothers me.  The research doesn’t just suggest that lecturing is less effective for these populations of students. The research is, in fact, pretty clear.  Here is a great example of a study on the ways in which lecturing is detrimental to underrepresented students and women.   Also, here is Adam Newman‘s brilliant Storify on the limitations of using lectures to teach students with disabilities.  On this latter point, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that universal design for learning has been around for a very long time, and its framework fully supports everything Adam says in his Twitter essay.

There also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding here about the way learning works.  If a student is struggling with something–say a concept or a pedagogical strategy like lecturing–simply doing that thing over and over and over again will not necessarily help him or her to learn it better.  Plainly put:  different students need different strategies in order to learn most effectively.  If we approach education with a one-size-fits-all model, we are sure to fail our students.

“Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.”

Again, I agree with the premise here.  I assume Professor Worthen is training her students how to take notes productively and to build attention while giving them opportunities to practice, because–otherwise–how can we be sure the strategies they are using are effective?

“Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes.”

If I had to write a script and rehearse lines before walking into the classroom, I would be an unhappy fellow.  What is so beautiful about the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, and all of the other fields under the umbrella of the humanities is the serendipity of discovery, when (through discussion or other activities) students and instructor together find a new way of seeing something.  Following the path Professor Worthen has laid out for us–practicing like actors awaiting their cue–shuts off the possibility for what makes education so meaningful to begin with.  This approach, of course, also focuses on the nature of our “performance” at the front of the classroom, rather than student learning.

“I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think the point of teaching is to get our heart rates up and to improve our resting pulse. Rather than an aerobic workout, shouldn’t we be focused on getting people to learn things?

I think it’s important to note that Worthen mentions asking questions here.  I want to know more about the kinds of questions she’s asking.  I’d like to think they are deeply analytical questions that require students to engage with the material and that spark debate.  Due to the rose-colored glasses I wear, I choose to believe that they are.

“Such words of caution are deeply unfashionable. But humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time.”

First, Worthen seems to be assuming that all humanists feel the same way about new modes of teaching–that we all pull out the garlic and scream in terror at the suggestion that we might consider changing.  This is hardly the case.  But again, why take such pains to further expand the gulf that has been created between the humanities and the STEM fields?  Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, we could all learn from each other.

“Such a student learns ‘when to speak and when to be silent,’ Newman wrote. ‘He is able to converse, he is able to listen.’ “

We have heard much from Worthen about the silence and the listening, but I would like to hear more about the speaking and the conversing. What role do these play in her classes?  They are, after all, elements of active learning.


I’d like to close with an anecdote of my own. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to observe Dennis Huston, a professor of English and one of Rice’s legendary teachers, for the book I am currently writing.  Dennis has won every teaching award our university offers, along with many national awards too, including the highly regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S Professor of the Year Award.  I was observing a Shakespeare course (and, yes, I have his permission to write about what I saw).  Certainly there was a fair amount of what Worthen would probably consider to be lecturing, though it came closer to an expert glossing of and commentary on the text, but he also was masterful about incorporating discussion.  When a student would respond to a question, he focused intently, kindly, on each person who was speaking, often walking right up to where they were sitting in the room. He would listen and then push further.  I must have heard him ask “Why?” dozens of times as he helped each student move beyond the surface to a more nuanced interpretation.  For Dennis, each student, each speaker, is the most important in the room while they contribute, and then they are all a team working to put together their own understanding of the text. To be sure, that interpretation may have existed before, many may have written about the same aspects of the play, but for these students, in this place, at that time, it was brand new—a thing that lived for each of them. For such a thing to happen in the humanities, we must first admit that we are not the most important people in the room (notice that I’m not dispensing with our expertise as faculty), and then we must acknowledge that learning trumps the delivery of our knowledge every single time.


57 thoughts on “Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen

  1. I agree with you, Josh, in many ways. And, in fact, was so happy to see exactly what I think is the key point here, very early in your post. Lecture is NOT the devil of teaching. Just like PowerPoint is not all bad. It’s HOW IT’S USED that is the problem. And, many faculty simply overuse it (just like they overuse any other technique). Faculty need to let the material AND learning objectives AND personal style AND research guide their teaching rather than just believe one strategy is best. In this case, one size DEFINITELY does not fit all.

  2. An excellent critique of what (from a mathematics education perspective) was a horribly ill-informed piece. Thanks for taking the time to articulate much of what I was thinking as I read it.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I especially appreciated your links to research about pedagogy. I hope the NYTimes article prompts an open discussion, in which research and data about student learning matter. Thank you so much for assembling this very helpful response.

  4. Great response, really captured my own thoughts after reading her article. You need to match the tool/s to the student cohort, what it is you are teaching, the objective for the class, the environment you are teaching in and so on and so on. Lectures are but one tool in an increasingly diverse toolbox. I like to embrace all new methods and tools and try them out or at least decide on it’s relevance and appropriateness for my classes. Researching what works and what doesn’t work for what you are trying to achieve is perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of teaching in higher education.

  5. Josh,

    Fantastic! Thanks so much for putting together such a complete response. Worthen’s piece frustrated me so much, but even more so when faculty forwarding the link to our provost. I’ve been hoping to find a strong response that exposed the fallacies and shared some of the key research supporting active learning. I’ll be sure to share your blog.


  6. From a faculty member in STEM and a TLC director, very well said. I think her article was just about being controversial. IF, and a big if, she used methods to teach students how to effectively take notes, formulate arguments, analyze thinking, etc, then her lecturing would be more effective. Yet research clearly shows, other methods are superior with student learning. I think too many faculty love being the expert in the room, and the focus on them that a lecture-only classroom brings. Turn off the ego and focus on student learning.

  7. To your knowledge, do any studies comparing active learning to traditional lecturing incorporate different ways of “continuous exposition,” for example storytelling? The PNAS article by Freeman et al., in their conclusions, seemed to be leaving traditional lecturing by the side of the road rather than exploring and evaluating different possibilities within that category. I’d be interested to see how storytelling compares to straight exposition, for example, but I have not seen any studies of this type. Thanks for any information you or others could provide.

  8. What struck me the most when I read the piece in the Times was a kind of territoriality: they are using scientific criteria to evaluate the humanities. Unlike Josh, I am not going to try to be objective. The sense that I got was that those of us in the humanities (I am a philosopher) need to protect our turf from the increasingly-frequent incursions of the applied sciences.
    There is no doubt that there is a reduced student demand for what the humanities have to offer as STEM colonizes every field.
    Are the humanities still important and still relevant? Certainly. Should someone make arguments in defense of the humanities? I think so. But Worthen has not done that. Instead, like a climate-change denier, she has urged us to ignore claims that are supported by an overwhelming body of evidence. And, as with climate change, the stakes are high. The last time I looked student loans in the US exceeded $1 trillion.

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  10. I am not a humanities scholar. My field is educational psychology, especially one of its foci on theories and research in human development. I am also not a professional academic; I was, in my working life, a school psychologist. I have, however, taught some few courses in human development at the graduate school level. I found that to cover the material included in the syllabus, which was designed by the Department of Education, not by me, I would have short-changed the students if I relied solely on active learning techniques. Some of the material the course covered required a comprehensive knowledge of the field of human development which the students did not possess. In general, I confined my lectures to such broad-based background material. Some of this background material was included in the texts and other readings, but some was not. I think an academic appropriately includes such material for the general use of the students in their wrestling with ideas through active learning techniques.


    • Thanks very much for your feedback! I was strongly advocating for a mix of techniques in my post, and for not demonizing active learning, and your comments align exactly with my thoughts here.

  11. Lecturing is also easier. When I started teaching 5 years ago my department chair showed me how she kept hard copies of her PowerPoints (in Notes Pages) in tabbed 3-ring binders for each class. When she did class prep all she had to do was move the PowerPoint for that lecture into the notebook she took to the classroom. She was teaching advertising principles and creative strategy using lectures written 13 years ago! And that was how she instructed me to do it. Coming up with in-class exercises and evaluation tools for those exercises takes much more time and effort, as does keeping the content current and relevant to the field.

  12. Years ago, I taught at large universities, “lecturing” to crowds of faceless students. Here at Chesapeake, I suspect most professors are more likely to speak to smaller audiences — audiences they can interact with. This is what I have in mind when I now use the word “lecture” — a professor using a script to explain material in a coherent and entertaining fashion to students, pausing to ask questions and generate discussions to help students comprehend the material. I agree with the author of the “Lecture Me. Please” article that this format works well in humanities (and social science) courses.

    I don’t expect my sociology students to become sociologists. I don’t expect them to even remember many of the details we discuss. But I do hope they learn how to think critically; how to look at an issue from multiple perspectives; how to listen attentively, summarize effectively, and respond cogently. I want my students to use these skills to become better citizens, better parents, better people.

    While I certainly see the value of on-line courses and the use of group exercises, I also believe there is a place for a well crafted lecture.

    • Thanks for your comment! Hopefully I made clear that I think lectures have a place in our classrooms as one tool among many. I particularly agree with what you say here: “pausing to ask questions and generate discussions to help students comprehend the material.” This goes far beyond filling up every minute with exposition or even most relying on exposition with a few questions added along the way. My sole argument is that we need to rely on a variety of techniques to help students learn. One-size-fits all does not work.

  13. I appreciate that your response is critical, but (mostly) with unclenched fists. I really believe that we all want to learn how to teach every student that enters our classroom (yes, I’m an idealist) and think that screaming at each other encourages the culture of disengagement from teaching as a scholarly activity that is pervasive in higher ed.

    What I’ve noticed is that using active learning strategies makes me a better instructor primarily because it allows me to parse my students’ understanding of the material in real-time and give them access points to the material. This is separate from the increased learning from students who are actively integrating new information and ideas with existing knowledge structures as opposed to cataloging them for later processing.

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  15. Maybe the Law School experience is different, but although most of our classes were lecture classes, many used the “Socratic method” and the professors regularly interacted with the class. It was lecture, but it was also interactive. This seems similar to your example of the the Shakespeare professor. A pure lecture with no interaction is an invitation to do the crossword puzzle. But actually engaging in discussions with students is an invitation to pay attention and think.

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  17. Since everyone’s agreeing so heartily, I’ll add two notes of disagreement–plus a compliment.

    First, you don’t address the very clear issue that the kind of replacement of lecturing that’s imagined under so-called “active learning” reduces learning to getting the right answer.

    Your response to this argument is to reject it and then to say ‘and by the way what’s wrong with that?’

    Philosophy and history and art history and many other humanistic fields simply cannot be reduced to this banal idea of knowledge: getting the right answer to a conceptual questions. Humanistic fields are more profoundly dialogical and dialectical than that. Is there really a serious issue in the humanities which can be reduced to a conceptual question *which has a right answer*? “Is history teleological or cyclical? Sorry, that’s not right–turn to your neighbor and discuss some more.”

    Second, you claim that “[t]hose who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is” is an *ad hominem* attack. It isn’t. Your claim that the author is “elitist” and “privileged” IS an *ad hominem* attack.

    The claim that those who attack the lecture simply fail to understand it could also be expressed: those who attack the lecture want to eliminate the kind of complexity that a good lecture can help students explore.

    To claim that opponents of the lecture fail to understand the lecture is not an attack on someone’s character. It is simply a statement that the idea of knowledge captured by the Masurian notion of active learning is not the only one, not the ideal one, and not adaptable to all subject matter. That is not an attack on character; it’s an attack on paradigms of knowledge.

    Finally, I admire greatly your description of what a good teacher does: this may involve lecturing, but it’s also facilitating the students’ learning. And I doubt that a tidy “conceptual question” and some turn-to-your-neighbor-ing could have produced the effect of an insightful teacher both lecturing and interacting live and in real time.

    Teaching is an art and a craft. It’s practical but can be beautiful. To ask everyone to hew to the same method because it works well for certain subject and certain populations at certain educational levels–that’s not even good science. And mangles the fact you bring forth so clearly: that great teaching is not a recipe.

    • Thanks for your perspective here!

      I’m not sure why you are equating active learning with getting a right answer. Many humanists I know who use active learning, including myself, employ these strategies to dive into big questions and wrestle with ambiguity.

      On ad hominems: I never used the word “attack.” I said it was rhetoric, and I still believe that it is. Suggesting that the reason we would want to move away from lectures is because we don’t know what they are is a comment about our intelligence. It’s fair to direct it back at me, and I’ll have to think more about this. I do think there’s value in calling out things like this, but I could attend more closely to my own rhetoric.

      Finally, thanks for the compliment!

      • The Mazurian flavor of active learning is the one focused on the correct answer to a conceptual question.

        That is the approach that is most widely touted as helping our students avoid failing and helping us to avoid lecturing.

        If it is always ad hominem to say that someone else has a limited conception of something or does not understand it deeply, then all discussions have some ad hominem aspect.

        A comment about another’s understanding is not at all identical to a comment about another’s intelligence. You and I might understand the notion of “dialectics” differently, but that does not imply that either of us is simply incorrect or thoughtless. Indeed, 150 years of philosophy have centered on exactly such debates. (Marx v. Hegel, anyone?)

        You’re welcome about your fine description of a real teaching moment in the classroom.

        I fear that when we speak in generalities about education and inveigle others to follow definite methods, we give too little attention to the minute details of social interactions which make education thrilling, effective, humbling, and fascinating.

        When our theories are less interesting than our observations, the theories must go, and the observations stand. I cheer your observations; whereas I fear you don’t give the lecture enough credit. Lecturing is not perfect, but I believe it’s not worth damning as the current fashion says we should.

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  21. Thanks for your time and interest in responding so well to the article. I teach Accounting and am a fan and user of active learning techniques, more specifically Team Based Learning (TBL). I especially liked your support for UDL – a responsibility that is often overlooked.

  22. Nice artical ringing true of my experience in science (Biochemistry) I like a good lecture but view it as a skeleton to hang core concepts and learning on. Active learning is then used to embed, practice, apply and understand these concepts. (Not in that order)

    I find short burst of content 15/20 min with some other activity work well, even if it is to say think about the concept in your own way.

  23. Reblogged this on TILT and commented:
    We’ll be referencing – and linking to – your response to Worthen response as within our weekly blog post, due for publication today. We’ve selected this as the single response to share for its breadth and specificity in developing a powerful, teacherly, scholarly response.

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  25. This has been interesting to read. I may be missing something (I often do!) but I don’t quite grasp the thinking behind this idea that the humanities are best learned through conventional lectures. I don’t see the evidence for that.

    I don’t think we’re talking about content expertise here, which tends to be the focus of graduate school (gaining it then and there). Rather, I think it’s a matter of pedagogy, in particular, pedagogy that is based on evidence. There’s a lot of it.

    Most of the criticisms in this thread and in the original NYT opinion piece haven’t been at the evidence, and in my world (psychological science) that pretty much means that the evidence stands.

    I think part of what’s at play here, though, is the fact that people who enter the professoriate are, all at once, rather alike as learners, but pretty atypical from most of their students. Here’s my mantra on that matter: let me always remember to teach the students I have, not the ones I wish I had!

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  30. Way too long! Just wanted to find out a bit about active learning but you wore me out. Think I agree about lectures being a less than perfect teaching tool, though.

  31. Josh

    I appreciate your response to Worthen’s article in the NYT. Recently, I have sparked some uneasiness in response to my evaluations of teachers as it pertains to Danielson’s Rubric on Engaging Students in Learning. I am high school principal. The issue is that a score of 2 equals basic, which teachers see as failure. I understand there ire as evaluations are directly related to keeping tenure and ultimately employment. However, in recent observations I scored teachers with a 2 in Engaging Students in Learning because the level of engagement was “basic”. It’s important to know that I praised the instructors for their delivery of the content as well as their master of the content. Furthermore, they did quite well in other components and their overall score was well above effective. My critical feedback was pointed at the lack of “active” engagement by the students. In addition and where I disagree with Worthen the most, is placing the responsibility of learning completely on the learner. I believe teachers can pick up on visual cues from their students, however, how will we know for sure they are grasping the content? I also agree that intellectual engagement can be taking place during a lecture, but it’s the proof that is important. I don’t think waiting for the summative assessment to check for understanding (which is engaging the learners) is appropriate or fair. Checking for understanding throughout a lesson is also beneficial for the instructor as they can acquire data that allows for adjustments. It tells the instructor whether to move ahead or whether they may need to re-teach. The bottom line; and not discrediting the art and/or talent of some lecturers; implementing strategies that meets the needs of your current learners is hard work. With straight lecture, you can teach the same thing year after year without making adjustments to lessons or the assessments.

  32. Josh, thank you for writing this, though I did want to make one point that I think somehow has slipped through this debate: why on earth would we think that there is one formula (be it active learning, lecturing, or blending) that will work for all educators? As a student, I remember having one lecture class that lit a fire in me and changed my life, and a lecture class immediately after it which was so painfully boring my notes consist of listing favorite movies. I’ve seen the same with active learning activities.
    I guess what I’m getting at is the same way that public educators are pushing against rigidly standardized evaluations, perhaps we must concede that there are some educators who have a gift for lecturing, and some whose strengths are in other methods. As such, we need not attack those who can actually do what they set out to in lecturing while encouraging other to branch out to newer methods

    • Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for this feedback! I agree with much of what you say here and tried to make clear in my post that I think short lectures have a place in our teaching. Where I diverge is in the last part of your comment. I don’t think accomplishing “what they set out to do” is necessarily the same thing as helping students to learn.

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