The Student-Centered Lecture

fdkomite, Lectures

A couple of years ago, when I began thinking about the courses I teach as places where content is created and curated rather than transmitted and tested, lecturing was one of the teaching modalities I most wanted to jettison. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy lecturing, it just seemed that so little of it “stuck” — and what did stick often sounded parroted or parodied when it came drifting back up through the prose of a midterm essay. My lectures articulated my explanation and interpretation of historical developments I’d spent twenty years studying and thinking about. Did I think they were good? Yes. Did students get a lot out of them? I liked to think so. Did what they learned from them stay with them past the midterm? Doubtful. Was there a better way? Probably.

So when I embraced networked learning as the main modality for my courses, it seemed that lecturing  might not be compatible with the kinds of active learning and knowledge production I wanted to support and facilitate. I’d been so impressed with what students could do when they were given the opportunity to explore and pursue a topic that interested them in depth and in conversation with their peers. Subjecting those often disparate and always unique presentations to the constraints of my own interpretive arc  — no matter how elegant and “good” I thought it was (it was mine after all), just did not feel right.

But finding an alternative has taken a while. I’ve found that students embrace the responsibility of having more control over what they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Putting them in conversation with each other and engaging with the substance of their work and the questions their work raises elevates the quality of what we create together as a class and what they leave the class with as individuals. We spend much of our F2F time discussing student work, identifying and analyzing source material, and debating the merits of particular interpretive models and historical debates. For assessments I ask them to show me what they’ve learned, reflect on their learning process, and suggest how their work addresses the broader issues of the course.

But to make it all work we still need some lecture to provide context and draw connections between the students’ work on particular topics. I’ve tried various things, including giving short (15-20″) overviews of the main themes we will work on in the coming week and thematic presentations that connect discussions from different parts of the course. But the one that seems to work best uses the students’ work as its foundation.

The outline for a student-centered lecture on the transition from the upheaval and violence of the Russian Civil War to the economic and social transformations of the 1920s might look something like this:

I. Civil War / War Communism (1918-21)
A. Militarization of Labor:
B. Party Membership:
C. Kronstadt Rebellion:
II. The New Economic Policy (1921-28)– Capitalism as a road to socialism?
(several good posts on this topic)
A. Lenin’s Pragmatic Approach with the West
B. Entrepreneurs and the Re-emergence of Capitalism
III. Soviet Youth: Promise and Peril
A. Young, Wild, and Communist
B. The Invisible Children

The URL’s are all posts written by students over the previous weekend. I make this outline available to the class on a Google Doc, and give a brief (2-3 minute) explanation of what we’ll be talking about and why I selected these posts and topics as references. (This semester there are 25-40 posts submitted every week.) Then I lead a guided discussion anchored by this outline, and elaborated with the perspectives of the individual authors and the collective expertise in the room. Everyone can read or review the posts, and the authors have the opportunity to talk about their work in some detail and ask questions raised by their research. Students can take notes individually or add to the outline as we go along. I still have an interpretive arc in mind, but we support and develop it together. Because it uses student-generated work as the jumping off points for the presentation and explanation, the connections between what students “know” individually and the big picture (both the macro-level view, and my perspective as the “expert”) are made explicit. I believe this helps construct an analytical framework and understanding of a particular period or topic that has a longer half-life than the traditional lecture did.

This is a working theory and it will certainly continue to evolve.  I’m not ready to kick lectures to the curb or the dustbin, but would like to imagine the “student-centered lecture” taking its place in the ranks of this versatile transmedial pedagogical form. (A big thank you to Practice in Pedagogy for bringing Friesen’s article to my attention.)

5 Replies to “The Student-Centered Lecture”

  1. I actually love this method “student-centered lecture”. I believe that if we can involve the students in our lectures, it works better for them to learn more and more. But, we should be careful to manage the time of class because some students may be talkative.

  2. I’ve tried to implement more student-centered activities in my lectures. Composition is tough because so much of the process of writing is done independently, but including activities like workshops, grammar activities and thought experiments that keep students grounded and get them involved tend to be successful.

  3. These all sound like great ideas, Chad. My students research and write their posts independently and then we work with them collaboratively online and in our F2F meetings. I bet peer mentoring, peer-reviewing activities might work well in your composition classes? Also love the idea of “thought experiments.”

  4. Dr. Nelson,

    Thanks for sharing some of your magic tricks. I’m so impressed by the posts that some of your undergraduate students are doing. The level of commitment is really impressive.

    One question I have, thinking of engineering of course, how would you incorporate the learning of more technical topics, like solving equations, or things that are more mathematical based. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but would like to have your perspective. I do think there is a better way of teaching it beyond giving one problem and making them repeat and repeat problems. I think we can incorporate a lot of student-centered activities.


  5. I deeply appreciate this post and really have enjoyed participating in this type of engaged, networked learning. I wonder as I think back to some of my Master’s program counseling courses where we had lectures, our teachers inserted a lot of real world examples and other case studies to help bring what we were learning to life. We engaged in “fishbowl” activities to show how theories were applied, did role-playing activities to get a feel for how to engage with clients, and many student-led lectures and presentations were completed after we had researched material. Perhaps we were doing similar things without the technology in the latter part of the 2000s. So interesting to see how things are changing in teaching over time.

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