Stop lecturing students

Victoria student Sol Kauffman says profs talk too much


Photo by Laura Mills

From the Maclean’s Student Issue, on sale now.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and I’m sitting in my afternoon writing lecture. The professor has been reviewing PowerPoint slides for half an hour now. In one window of my laptop, I’m brewing ideas for the paper due at the end of this week; in another, I’m editing a photo shoot I did on the weekend. In my busy life, this is the perfect opportunity to get some work done. I half listen to the lecture, perking up when a question is asked. Lots of chairs in front of me are empty. Obviously the usual number of people are skipping class today. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’re working a part-time job; hell, maybe they just slept in. In front of me, I see a student on Facebook, another writing in her journal, another texting on a phone. I know these students and they’re strong writers; I’m confident they’ll all pass with at least a B+. It’s not that the assignments are easy. On the contrary, we’ll all spend some sleepless nights grinding away at them. So why are so many of us absent, physically or mentally, from lectures?

As I learned in my second year of an arts degree at the University of Victoria, you don’t have to be there. In 2010 I registered for an economics class as an elective for my creative writing program. The description in the course calendar sounded awesome and when I walked into the 200-seat lecture hall I realized I’d gotten lucky. The professor was a pretty good lecturer who didn’t have a boring voice at all, and the content was as interesting as I’d hoped.On the other hand, it was on Tuesday nights. As a staff photographer for the campus newspaper, the Martlet, my Tuesdays were spent shooting last-minute pictures. The reality is that I missed nearly all the classes that semester. Nobody noticed my absence, and when I did sit in there was no discussion and no real reason to stay. After all, the notes were posted on the Moodle website.

Studying on my own was a challenge. I printed out old versions of exams, rewrote the PowerPoint notes by hand to burn them into my memory, and answered more than 250 review questions before the final. Even though I didn’t attend class, I felt like I had everything down cold. I got an A. And I wasn’t the only one; lots of students did the same.

Now in my third year, this bizarre experience has stayed with me: how I skipped almost every class and still got an A, how the university made some poor professor stand up there to be ignored for four months, and what that says about lecture courses.

It isn’t possible to take a “correspondence” course any more, at least not in UVic’s writing department. A new addition to its policies says students who miss more than two classes a term must withdraw from the course or, if it is too late to withdraw, receive a failing grade. I understand that high demand and low attendance is embarrassing, but I think the policy is deeply misguided. Forcing students to show up takes responsibility away from them and infantilizes them, and that in turn encourages them to care even less. I can’t imagine a professor who prefers to lecture to students who are forced to be there rather than those genuinely interested in the class.

There is also a new policy on laptops, which are considered disruptive and permitted for note-taking only. Misuse could lead to a ban from the instructor or the department head. It is yet another example of the university trying to control student behaviour. Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume, who teaches a course for the writing department, says it is ill-advised. “Telling students they can’t open the laptop on which they’ve received their assignment, stored their research and written the essay seems about as wise as telling students they can bring textbooks to class but aren’t permitted to open them.”

Students will take diligent notes if the material is worth taking notes on, and the more universities engage students, the less they have to deal with disrespect and absenteeism. But the policy change is consistent with other Canadian universities. They are treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease: lectures that aren’t worth attending.

The economics class exposed me to some interesting stuff. But the concept of teaching something verbally, having students take notes, memorize material and then pass tests on it is simply outdated. For one thing, students become extremely good at managing their time and cramming to pass tests. This reduces the amount of information you retain; I hardly remember anything of the economics class. More importantly, I can always refresh my economics knowledge online. What I don’t have is the ability to assess a situation and make an economic judgment, because that requires skills. I don’t want my university experience to be a simple rite of passage where I have to prove I can memorize things long enough to prove I did. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and money.

The hardest class I’ve taken this year is a photography class. I scored a B+, but it was one of the most well-earned grades I’ve ever received. Every week we shot and developed a roll of film and I spent many nights in the darkroom preparing prints for a final project. You used to be able to do hands-on work like this as an apprentice, but there is too much competition now. A four-year degree of lectures leaves us out in the cold.

We have to demand that universities prepare us for the modern job market. My writing workshops are a good example. Each class requires you to show up with comprehensive edits for your classmates’ pieces, and several times a term you have to submit your own drafts for group revision. Class discussions are lively and involved. The work we do is what we’d do in the field. It’s the same for my photography and journalism classes now that I’m in fourth year.

“Doing practical work in my field, be it writing, design or film, yielded the greatest results [academically], and that came out of workshops a lot of the time,” says Bryce Bladon, a recent grad of UVic’s writing department. “Likewise, lab work produced some of the earliest work in my portfolio and provided skills that I would not have otherwise learned.”

Through my 45 units of classes at UVic, I feel as though every hands-on course was worth twice as much as any lecture. Smaller class sizes and better professors may be expensive, but universities are squandering opportunities to give people credit for extracurricular professional development. The writing faculty at UVic scrambles each year to find enough professors and courses so people get the right number of classes, often dropping several courses in the calendar. If I could get credit for my time at the Martlet, or for my freelance photography, that would go a long way toward helping me and the university.

Let’s go beyond brainstorming stuff with your seatmate for five minutes and get into creating and critiquing each others’ professional-grade work. Now that I would love to shell out for.


Stop lecturing students

  1. My favourite classes when I was in university were the ones where the ideas were fascinating, and not easily digested from a textbook. I did not get to often experience “hands-on” learning during my first degree, but when I did, it was definitely awesome.

    It’s too bad that your experience of school today is so similar to my experience of school 20 years ago.

  2. I disagree with you about the laptops. I am all for banning laptops in class, unless they are used for taking notes, because they are disruptive. It is very hard to concentrate on what the prof is saying when all the people sitting in front of you are on Facebook, Youtube, or whatever other site they choose. I find it incredibly disrespectful, to both the prof and to the other students in the class. I have taken to sitting in the front row in all my classes so that I don’t have to deal with this distraction – but there is only so much room in the front row.

    If you want to do something else on your laptop during class, then it is simple: don’t come to class! If you are going to come to class, then use your laptop to take notes, not to update your friends on your latest escapades.

  3. “We have to demand that universities prepare us for the modern job market.”

    University is not vocational training. Universities prepare students by pushing and challenging them. In my experience, students who have a strong work ethic and a positive attitude will succeed whether not they are spoonfed, entertained, or matched like a jigsaw puzzle to a job.

  4. I’m sorry, but I’m actually really tired of having to attend school with students who have an attitude like Sol Kauffman’s. Professors aren’t there to entertain you, they are there to teach you. Sometimes you will enjoy the material, and sometimes you will find it boring. That’s life, so get used to it. The world can’t always revolve around you and your interests.

    I also agree completely with SphynxRunner’s comment: showing up to a lecture and then using your laptop for anything other than note-taking is incredibly rude and shows a self-centred attitude. I know for a fact that professors don’t have a very high opinion of students who do that, and I don’t bIame them. I am constantly getting distracted by other people’s Facebook, computer games, texting, and online shopping. If you can’t be bothered to pay attention for just a couple of hours, then do us all a favour and stay home. You have no right to distract the other students who are actually making an effort to listen and learn.

    As for class participation, I don’t usually care about it either way, as I paid good money to hear the professor speak, not some 18-year-old know-it-all. There are usually plenty of opportunities for students to make their voices heard both within and outside the classroom as it is (presentations, tutorials, office hours with the professors, etc), so if the professors want to use their lectures to, well, lecture, then that’s fine by me.

    I also second Greg’s comment. If it’s primarily preparation for “the modern job market” that you’re looking for, then call it a day and go take a college course or settle for on-the-job training. But judging from the tone of your article, I’m not sure if life in the working world will live up to your expectations, either — after all, sometimes your boss will make you do things that bore you, sometimes you will have to patiently listen to other people for long periods of time, sometimes you will have to focus on a single task at hand instead of indulging in a bit of entertainment on the side . . . and quite frankly, it doesn’t sound like you’re ready to do any of those things just yet.

    • You just have this attitude that the professor wants you to go, so you must go. A professor is not a boss. We pay them!

      The point isn’t that we find the class boring, so we don’t go. The point is that we find the class useless so we find some other use for our time. I’d rather pick up more hours at my part-time job than go to a lecture that wastes my time.

      We get marked on attendance and participation, so we have to do it, or our grades will prevent us from getting the jobs we want. CA firms are now expecting degrees with GPAs of at least 3.5 (and if it’s only 3.5, you have some explainging to do) that cover all the prerequisites to begin the modules, something unheard of decades ago, but one person started doing it, and then it became the expectation.

      And in the modern job market, there is absolutely no time where you listen to people drone on and on for over an hour – never. It’s been proven that the longest any brain can really focus its full attention on a lecture is for 20 minutes. Really, if someone’s Facebook prevents you from focusing, you weren’t that interested to begin with.

      And what exactly is wrong with being self-centred? It’s my education that I’m using to improve my life. You don’t honestly think we go to school because, you know, that’s what we’re supposed to do (and be good little school girls and fold our hands over our crossed legs to be prim and proper). It’s my life and my education.

      My guess is that this author knows what methods are best for her learning style, and like me, the textbook teaches her everything she needs to know. Why, again, do we need to know how to pay attention during a lecture if we’re ignoring the prof and still getting an A+, and probably have part-time jobs?

      • @Jason:

        “You just have this attitude that the professor wants you to go, so you must go. A professor is not a boss. We pay them!”

        Erm, no, we don’t, as students, pay them. The government does out of taxpayers’ money, just like cops, nurses, firemen, etc.

        You are right that the professor is not a boss, but not doing your work out of defiance is very much a high-school attitude. Believe it or not, professors usually want us to succeed and go to extraordinary lengths. Making class mandatory isn’t one of them.

        The current attitude amongst our peers that professors “work” for us is wrong. They don’t. Neither do we work for them, but by signing up for their courses, the least we can do is show up once in a while and do our best. Believe it or not, that actually has benefits for us, too.

  5. 30 years ago when I was a Kings University College in London Ont. we had a very different experience. Classes were mostly under 40 people and there was constant discussion about every point made. We had to take several of our coarses at the” main U”.A mile away at UWO There were hundreds of people in the lecture theater. Talk about dreary. It was a complete opposite to our classes at Kings. So Maby if you want a particular type of teaching you need to do research and find the right school. Talk to your high school guidance councilor, that’s their job. This is how I ended up at Kings in 1979.

  6. @ Jason,

    No, no, I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me — I absolutely believe that it is the student’s choice whether or not to attend lectures, and I have always disagreed with mandatory attendance. I have missed many lectures myself over the course of my degree so far, and like you have still managed to get top marks. My point is that if you ARE in lecture, the least you can do is show some common courtesy towards both the professor and your fellow students by keeping the distractions to a minimum. This is just basic manners we’re talking about here, not about being “good little school girls [that] fold our hands over our crossed legs to be prim and proper”.

    I’m afraid I don’t agree with your comment that the longest we can focus on a lecture is 20 minutes. That’s been “proven” by who, exactly? If 20 minutes is the longest someone can focus on someone else’s ideas and information, then we’re all in a lot of trouble — most meeting presentations and conferences in any field last for far longer than 20 minutes (and these can often feel like a lecture, format-wise).

    “Really, if someone’s Facebook prevents you from focusing, you weren’t that interested to begin with.” Not true — it’s the sea of laptops all constantly flashing different graphics and colours at any given time that gets distracting. And for what it’s worth, I have been in lectures where the professor was forced to interrupt his/her lecture to ask someone to stop constantly fooling with their phone because it was a distraction even for them there at the front.

    I completely agree with your sentiment of “It’s my life and my education”. All the power to you, Jason: go to class when/if you want to, and devote as much time and effort to your projects as you see fit. The professors aren’t there to hold your hand or boss you around, and neither am I or anyone else. All I ask is that when you’re in a learning environment, make the effort to learn instead of turning it into your own private computer lab, arcade, or texting session. There’s a time and a place for everything — that was my point, really.

    Anyway, I did enjoy reading your response, and wish you luck in all your future endeavours.

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