Editorial: Interactive lectures liven up undergraduate education

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Large lectures — they’re a part of almost every undergraduate student’s college career. Yet, their effectiveness is questionable, and some educators are adopting a new approach to the classic college lecture.

Traditionally, large college lectures are comprised of a single lecturer communicating the day’s class material, with little interaction between the professor and large groups of students occurring. Afterwards, TAs are often tasked with leading recitations separate from the lecture. However, is it time to make the actual lecture more engaging for students? Many believe it is.

According to a Dec. 26, 2014 New York Times article, more and more lecturers across the country are attempting to actively engage with their students with interactive lectures, rather than incessantly lecture to them for the entire class. 

A University of Colorado study gives evidence that these interactive classes are more effective than their traditional counterparts. In 2008, the University reported that students in such classes achieved scores almost 50 percent higher than students in traditional classes — an undeniable show of efficacy.

The Times mentions that failure rates in introductory science and math classes are high. At four-year colleges, for instance, 28 percent of students aim to obtain a math, engineering or science degree. However, colleges grant just 16 percent of bachelor’s degrees to students in those fields. 

To be fair, many early classes — especially those on the path to a math or science degree — are intended to weed out slacking students and recognize the most capable students, which accounts for the dip in degrees awarded. However, with the modern cost of education, we should be encouraging, rather than discouraging, students. Afterall, they pay enough for it. Therefore, classes should encourage active learning that benefits the students, rather than simply weeds them out. This way, professors give students a fair opportunity to pass or fail the class, making their college experience worth the high cost.

In regard to large classes popularly taken as general education requirements, professors must find a balance between engaging students and putting them in excessively uncomfortable situations. Lecturers should use methods such as clickers, worksheets and small discussion groups to gauge progress. They should not, however, make less-knowledgeable students anxious or nervous with the threat of shoving a microphone in their face at random to answer questions. This is counterproductive and will shift focus from learning all of the material to simply preparing possible answers to posed lecture questions.

With higher level classes, however, professors should not excuse students from random participation. It is a student’s responsibility to fully prepare for their classes of expertise, or else be weeded out from a patch of healthy, growing minds. Having the ability to communicate and answer questions under pressure is a skill that developed and educated adults must possess. So, professors should have total freedom to be as interactive as they wish in these higher level classes, as opposed to a more moderate approach for general education courses.

Student success is societal success. Therefore, interactive college lectures, instead of droning lectures, must be an essential component to modern higher education.