Don't leave the lecture behind

Some of the best educational experiences come in large lecture halls, so universities should think twice before eliminating them

March 15, 2012|By Maria Granato

As a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, I was dismayed by recent news reports detailing the efforts of several major universities, including Johns Hopkins and the University System of Maryland, to revise or even eradicate the lecture model of teaching in certain disciplines. I am heartened to know that — as one would expect of such a high-caliber university — Hopkins is constantly seeking to improve the effectiveness of the excellent education it offers. However, I believe it is a fallacy to consider the lecture an ineffectual and obsolete teaching method. I do not seek to substantiate my claim with research but rather by sharing four years of experience.

Throughout my time at Hopkins, I found the most valuable classes, by far, to be lecture courses taught by the university's distinguished faculty members. These classes did not consist of some dull, monotonous professor at the lectern, insulting students' intelligence by reading us a textbook — which is the image given of lecture courses in a recent article in The Washington Post. Rather, I found that my lecture courses were presided over by engaging, experienced professors who brought to the classroom a vast wealth of research-based knowledge and all the benefits of passion combined with long years of arduous study.

In contrast, the classes that caused me to splutter in frustration were my discussion-based classes. I gained very little from such classes, in which the professor intervened minimally and I was left to learn only from the conjectures of my fellow students, who were struggling to grasp the same material as I was. Some of my discussion classes I considered a complete waste of time. I learned virtually nothing from one three-hour-long course in which students both lectured and led discussion while the professor merely observed. In such cases as this, I felt cheated as a student. There, in the same classroom with me, was someone who had devoted an entire life to the study and practice of the subject at hand — but the students were left to teach each other what was new material for all of us.

The Washington Post article I mentioned primarily addressed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, while I majored in a subject encompassing the social sciences and humanities. However, I did successfully master technical economics courses in a primarily lecture format, and I took several classes in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, which taught me a wealth of information using only lectures. In addition, the humanities are not exempt from the eye of anti-lecture critics, and I quail at the unpleasant thought of what my major would have been without many of my favorite classes: Introduction to Contemporary International Politics, Classics of Political Thought, and the History of Occidental Civilization, to name a few. All were lecture classes with hundreds of students.

One aspect of course policies that frustrated me over the years was that students were not forbidden to skip lectures (likely because of the impracticality of taking attendance for 500 students), while attendance at weekly discussion sections was always mandatory. Thus, if I was sick and needed to pare my schedule a bit, I was forced to miss the lectures I found so valuable and attend the sections, from which I profited little. Perhaps this is one reason why many of today's students appear to learn little from lecture-format classes: because lectures are treated as expendable, both by the professors and the university as a whole.

My intention is not to argue that modern universities should only teach material by means of the lecture, but I feel I must take a stand in defense of the system when it is under attack. Interactive learning is certainly engaging, and some blend of lecture and discussion is probably best. While I mostly found discussion-based courses to be fruitless (with a few exceptions), it is probably still a good policy to give students recourse to a teaching assistant, who doesn't have to juggle the questions and complaints of hundreds and so can help clarify and refine material.

We should continue seeking and pioneering the most effective teaching methods — but not at the expense of the lecture hall, which I found indispensable to my education, even in these modern times.

Maria Granato graduated in 2011 from the Johns Hopkins University with a major in International Studies. Her email is

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