Friday, May 06, 2005

What should students do during lecture?

This morning I did a Google search on "good lecturing" and found a vast array of interesting resources both about method and in defense of the form. Here is one particular gem (note that I like writing by grouchy and stubborn more mature males as that increasingly represents my own disposition), a reprint of an opinion column from the Chronicle. As is my custom when reading something provocative, I find things to agree with; knowledge is hierarchical and there are obvious benefits from novices learning at the hands of experts, and there are other things I don't agree with at all; students can't teach other students because they lack the requisite expertise. On the latter point, somewhere between the time of being a student and becoming a professor expertise is required. That one can be more expert than a peer seems obvious. Certainly there can be bilateral learning in such a circumstance.

Before answering the question in the subject line, I think it is worthwhile to consider a related question. Can anyone, student or otherwise, learn while sitting in the audience? Can one learn from watching TV? Can one learn from going to the movies, seeing a play, attending a concert? If learning is possible in those circumstances what does one do as the viewer or listener to make the learning richer, or more likely to occur?

I don't have a well researched answer for that, but here is my conjecture based on how it "seems" to happen for me. It is as if two channels are playing at once. One is "the absorption" channel. It just takes in what is going on and more or less stays in pace with that. The other is "the analysis" channel. It tries to figure out what is really happening at a more abstract level. It asks questions. It might linger on something that happened a while back or it might guess what is going to happen next. Both can and do exist simultaneously. When I become more intensely aware of one, the other seems to shut down for a while.

I think when I was younger (and I used to see a lot of avant-garde films) I could retain a fair amount of what I processed on the absorption channel. Now I don't think I even process some of the visual content at the time it is viewed and my memory for the event itself will be meager. But if there was some analysis, perhaps a good question, perhaps a way of reconciling some conflicting ideas, that lingers.

Now turn back to behavior during lecture, I know that I was never a good note taker. One part of that is poor handwriting, pure and simple. But probably a more important part is that if I am note taking then I'm not analyzing. Note taking is a way to keep busy. But at least for me it is also a way to suspend thinking about the issues till later. For this reason, I'm not in favor of note taking in my classes. I'd rather that students "pay attention" than take notes.

I have heard other instructors talk about the benefits of note taking. One benefit is in notation-intensive courses where sometimes the notation can become an obstacle to seeing the ideas. Writing the notation makes it more familiar to the student and hence the student can better reason with the notation. I can see the point. I know that for me I'd rather to that writing outside of class and see if I can reproduce the notation and equations that the instructor developed. It is my own test of whether I understand. But perhaps some of that goes on with note takers during the class and they are comfortable that way.

What else should the students be doing? Here I think the right question is what can the students do to make their analysis track function better. This is like asking how can one turn Dr. Watson into Sherlock Holmes. To answer I must say I'm not sure but as in my piece yesterday on the lecturer, I think also with the student that fear is a big deal and that some students don't ask off the wall type questions because they are afraid those will divert them and cause them to lose their track of what is going on. But asking those off the wall question is the key to learning and I think very bright people are asking those internally as they are watching what is happening. And with practice they get better at that and pick up more clues in a hurry.

I have no training as a psychologist. I've read a little bit by Maslow and some Howard Gardner stuff and a few others. But this is all strictly amateur stuff and my conjectures are nothing but little stories that make sense to me and are consistent with my own personal universe but haven't been tested at all outside of that arena. I do think one can't lecture well without having some model of what is happening inside the student's head during the lecture. I don't see a way to evaluate the various suggestions on lecturing that I found in Google without such a model. It seems to me this is an area where instructors would want to exchange ideas and their impressions about their own students. That in turn should serve as good motivation for instructors who are considering some modification of their approach to the lecture.

No comments: