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Disparate teaching methods suggest integrative approach for enhancing teaching effectiveness in higher education

Defense of lecturing makes one thing perfectly clear: Introducing collaborative methods will increase lecture effectiveness

The traditional lecture is taking an academic tongue lashing from group-learning advocates who decry the lecture as an ineffective, boring, and authoritarian (Bruffee, 1999; Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005) relic of a simpler era. However, still the “cornerstone” of higher education (Matheson, 2008, p. 129), the lecture has ardent supporters who argue that research validates the lecture as an efficient method for transferring knowledge to students.

Considering the disparate perspectives suggests a question about whether lectures should be retired and replaced with more collaborative teaching methods, or should lecture continue as the dominant teaching method in higher education? Two peer-reviewed papers offer disparate perspectives for answering the question. Larry Michaelsen and Michael Sweet (2008) argue that Team-Based Learning should replace lectures because TBL is more effective for helping students develop and apply knowledge. A selection of academics lends their voices in support of Michaelsen and Sweet’s proposal to replace lecturing with student-centered teaching approaches. In defense of the continued viability of lecturing, Catherine Matheson (2008) argues that lectures are more effective in some cases, and can be made even more effective by integrating interactive elements. Considering both perspectives against a situational leadership model suggests an integrative approach that would allow teachers to stop imposing static teaching methods in dynamic environments, and start developing flexible skills for adapting developmental practices to context.

Team learning should replace lectures

In “The essential elements of team-based learning,” Larry K. Michaelsen and Michael Sweet (2008) propose a Team-Based Learning model to replace “traditional” lectures. The theorists argue that a lecture can help students to develop basic content knowledge, but does not help students learn how to use that knowledge. With TBL, students not only learn basic concepts but also learn how to use those concepts to solve problems through collaboration. Michaelsen and Sweet identify four essential elements for effective TBL. First, the teacher must properly form and manage the groups. Second, individual students must accept responsibility for their own learning and for the learning of their team members. Third, students must receive constant feedback from the teacher and from one another. Fourth, the teacher must design group assignments that support individual and team development.

To Michaelsen and Sweet (2008), replacing the lecture with TBL introduces benefits “that are virtually impossible in a lecture based format” (p. 24). With TBL, students can gain deeper knowledge by learning how to apply concepts to solve problems, gain an appreciation for collaboration, develop insight into their strengths and weaknesses, and develop critical thinking skills. In addition, “at-risk students” can become more successful through “social support” (p. 25). For the teacher, replacing lectures with TBL can increase student attendance and improve student preparation while allowing the teacher to focus on building “rewarding relationships with their students” (p. 25). In short, TBL helps the teacher focus on learning as a “partner” (p. 25) with active students rather than lecturing as an authority figure to passive subjects.

A chorus of condemnation for lecturing

With such benefits from TBL, one may wonder why any teacher would continue relying on lectures. Academic literature rings with a chorus of voices decrying lectures as not only ineffective but also inappropriate; some even suggest that lecturing is irresponsible. Fink (2004). argues that university students are increasingly impatient with lectures. This is because students are distracted by diversions, and question the connection between test preparation and work success. Barkely, Cross, and Major (2005) argue that businesses are increasingly frustrated with graduates who lack basic skills for success at work. Instead of preparing to cooperate with others to accomplish shared goals in a dynamic global economy, college students in contemporary universities spend most of their time developing individual skills for passing. In Japan, Goodman argues that Japan’s rigid lecture system is nothing more than an “enormously elaborated, very expensive testing system that trains [individual] students how to pass tests,” while failing to teach the knowledge and skills students need to be productive members of society (p. 7). Almost universally, the critics advocate group-learning methods to cure the ills caused by lectures.

The problem with the lecture is the lecturer not the method

The chorus of condemnation can leave the impression that the lecture is not only ineffective but also irresponsible in today’s classroom. Contrarily, in “The educational value and effectiveness of lectures,” Catherine Matheson (2008) argues that the lecture is not only the dominant teaching method in higher education; in many cases, it also may be more effective than group-learning methods.

Matheson (2008) considers the key arguments against lectures, including that they are outmoded, ineffective, authoritarian, and boring. To Matheson, the problem is not with the lecture as a teaching method; the problem is in the teacher’s inability to lecture. In other words, the professor is the problem not the lecture method. To Matheson, the lecture is an “efficient and effective” (p. 122) way to communicate knowledge to large groups of students. This is not only a matter of economy but also demand. Citing findings from Routledge University researchers, Matheson emphasizes that many teachers who attempt to replace lectures with group-learning techniques often have to revert to lectures to accommodate student demands. Matheson does not indicate what the students were complaining about. However, one problem could be the same as the problems with lectures: the practitioner is the problem not the practice. Similarly, collaborative learning methods are significantly more complex and require teachers and students to develop new skills. If not properly managed group-learning processes often fail (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008). For example, during focus group research to assess the viability of Team-Based Learning practices in Japanese higher education, an almost universal sentiment among professors who participated in a TBL seminar was, “It sure seems like a lot of hard work” (Duncan, 2011).

Regarding limited student attention, Matheson (2008) proposes that teachers can make lectures more engaging by introducing activities, questioning, and group activities with lectures. Regarding the authoritarian power structure associated with contemporary lecture-based environments, Matheson seems to suggest the solution to ineffective lectures is to integrate group-learning methods into the lecture. Lecturing teachers can share power and increase student interest by creating opportunities that “not only makes students active contributors, but also checks understanding, activates prior knowledge and experience, and most importantly, offers opportunities and support for practice with self-assessment and feedback from tutors and peers (p. 221).

It depends?

An interesting point to note is that Matheson’s defense of lecturing seems to suggest that the cure for bad lecturing is to adapt group-learning methods into lectures. This does not dismiss her argument, but suggests that the debate between TBL versus lecture is not a matter of one against the other but a matter of which approach to use for a given context. Matheson (2008) points out an important limitation of group-learning methods is that they spend so much time “trying to enable students to apply knowledge in practical contexts [that] there may not be enough time to transmit the theoretical knowledge that must be acquired before it can be applied” (pp. 220-221). This point is reminiscent of the Self-Directed Learning Model, through which Gerald Grow (1996) proposed that a teacher should adjust classroom leadership practices depending on the abilities and motivations of the students.

Integrating the Self-Directed Learning Model (Grow, 1996) with the Categories of Group Learning Methods (Fink, 2004) helps to demonstrate the shifting practices a teacher might consider depending on the changing dynamics in a class [See Figure 1]. Applied to the lecture versus TBL debate, the integrated model shows the teacher’s shifting role in the spectrum of learning methods from lecture through TBL. The model suggests that teachers facing classrooms of inexperienced students should focus on developing basic knowledge with lectures and avoid collaborative processes that may frustrate the students who lack the knowledge and skills to learn through collaboration. The teacher can start applying more collaborative methods as students develop the knowledge and skills to collaborate. At the other end of the spectrum, applying only lectures in a classroom filled with experienced and knowledgeable students can prove frustrating for the teacher and the students. The model suggests that advanced students will be more productive and satisfied by collaborating in mutual development with colleagues than listening to lectures from a professor who lacks practical experience. The model also shows that teachers can enhance classroom effectiveness by implementing multiple approaches, depending on the context, material, and student (Duncan, 2011b).


Considering the question, “should the lecture be retired to make room for more collaborative learning methods?” created an opportunity to review the advantages and disadvantages of disparate teaching models: the traditional lecture and Team-Based Learning. Advocates of group learning methods see lecturing as outdated, boring, authoritarian, and even irresponsible. Defending lectures, Matheson argues that collaborative-learning methods can be just as inefficient and ineffective in many situations, and pointed to situations in which group-learning methods failed. Matheson’s suggestions for improving lectures by integrating interactive and group learning methods are reminiscent of the Self Directed Learning Model, which suggests teachers use different approaches depending on student ability and need. Integrating Grow’s model with the categories of small group learning illuminates how the decision between disparate perspectives may not be matter of one over the other but of which to use for a given situation. In other words, the effective teacher will not only understand which approach to use for a given situation, he or she will develop the capacity to tap the strengths of multiple methodology to match practices with a dynamic environment.



Works Cited

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bruffee, K. A. (1999). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge (Second ed.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Duncan, B. (2011, June). The college teacher’s shifting leadership role in group-learning environments. Aomori, Japan: Unpublished paper for Fielding Graduate University.

Fink, L. D. (2004). Beyond small groups: Harnessing the extraordinary power of learning teams. In L. K. Michaelsen, A. B. Knight, & L. D. Fink (Eds.), Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching (pp. 3-26). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Goodman, R. (2003). The why, what and how of educational reform in Japan. In R. Goodman, D. Phillips, R. Goodman, & D. Phillips (Eds.), Can the Japanese change their education system? (pp. 7-30). Oxford, England: Symposium Books.

Grow, G. O. (1996). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly , 41 (3), 125-149.

Matheson, C. (2008). The educational value and effectiveness of lectures. The Clinical Teacher , 5, 218-221.

Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of Team-Based Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning (116), 7-27.