Remember that one or two (or ten) times you missed a lecture class because being just another face in the crowd of 300 left you with an existential crisis about your place in the world? Probably not. A more common reason among college students for skipping lectures sounds like something along the lines of, “Um, it’s boring.” At Boston College specifically, the core curriculum means that, for better or worse, all students will inevitably end up in a large lecture class at some point in their college careers. The nonchalance with which one chooses to not pay attention in lecture, or simply skip altogether, is glaring; students do not feel engaged in these classes. It would be easy to assign blame for this issue to professors who don’t make their lectures more interesting, or to students for their all-too-short attention spans, but an actual solution may require both parties to acknowledge their own shortcomings in the classroom.
For much of history, knowledge has been passed on by word of mouth. Lecturing has long been the preferred method of teaching within the humanities, but hardly the most effective. In large introductory classes where interaction is limited, the instructor speaks and the students are expected to take notes, perhaps so engrossed or overwhelmed with this task that they are unable to listen critically or synthesize the information. This dynamic can be stifling, especially if the speaker is not particularly organized or engaging. It is not enough to be knowledgeable; the speaker must be able to share what he knows in a way that will resonate with his listeners. Lecturing in and of itself is not a bad method from which someone could learn, but not all lecturers are created equal. The problem arises when professors do not demonstrate enthusiasm for their subjects or an ability to adapt to the needs of their students.
Furthermore, some professors are reluctant to introduce active learning, a term commonly used to define any instructional method that calls upon students to do something other than watch, listen, or take notes in their classrooms. While active learning has proven especially important in the hard sciences, humanities students could also benefit from the implementation of these methods. It’s not about catering to our lack of attention spans, but rather creating an atmosphere that’s conducive to different ways of learning. In some cases, that might not entail trying to scribble down everything that is being said so that one can try to figure out what was important later (or maybe just decipher messy handwriting).
Still, lecturing has its place in a class curriculum. Active learning techniques, like short writing exercises, case studies and group exercises, assume that students have a foundation of knowledge on the subject matter. Group discussions where the students know little make for unproductive conversations; people generally don’t want to learn from others who know even less than they do. For that reason, lectures are far from unnecessary. A well-prepared lecture can cover the important points, expose students to material that may not be readily available, provide insight into the material, and arouse interest. Because active learning would not be outstandingly useful without lectures, professors should make an effort to include both.
However, because it would be ridiculous to suggest that professors do all the work in retaining our interest in a class we signed up for, it’s important to note the part we play in disengaging ourselves from lectures and, thus, denying ourselves the chance to learn or garner interest in a class. The best-case scenario would have students holding discussions with each other outside of class on what they’ve learned. At the very least, students should be attending lectures and, more than that, they should be making a conscious effort to pay attention and internalize the material being taught. There is something almost tragic about the fact that we find ourselves bored by things like the catalytic historical events that culminated in our present society or the sociological and biological foundations of our existences. Even worse, we choose to rectify that boredom by refreshing Yik Yak or thinking about what we plan to have for lunch.
Ultimately, on both sides, the goal of education should be to foster a love for learning. For professors, this means realizing that the best approach for helping students retain the information might necessitate more than just having them act as scribes in the classroom. For students, this means committing themselves to recognize the value in what they’re being taught.