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Teaching Tip: To Lecture or Not to Lecture in Your OM Class

October 4, 2014

 prof lecturing“There are purists among us who would say that we should never lecture,” writes Prof. Maryellen Weimer in Faculty Focus (Oct. 1, 2014). But as faculty, we bring expertise to learners–and having an expert around when you don’t know something can be very helpful. Do most teachers still talk too much? “They do,” says Weimer.  Are lectures fraught with well-established impediments to learning? “They are,” she adds.

Are some kinds of content better explained by the instructor than discovered by the students? Is it complex content, like computing an X-bar chart or an R-squared value, that you know from previous experience often causes students to struggle? Can your explanation lay the foundation and set the parameters so that students can start dealing with content from a place that expedites understanding? Is a lecture the best way to clarify what students find confusing?

Should we use lectures when students don’t seem to care about the content, don’t think it’s interesting, or don’t think there’s any need to know it? A lecture where you imbue the content with spicy facts, intriguing questions, colorful business anecdotes, and relevant details can cultivate student interest. Teachers talking about how they connect to and with operations management, why they love it, and why they think everyone else ought to also can be very motivational.

Many faculty now agree that we shouldn’t use lecture as the default instructional method. But we need to decide when lecturing makes sense so that it’s a conscious, purposeful choice. Then there’s the matter of length for any given segment of your talk: perhaps mini-lectures, not lengthy expositions that take all or most of a class session. I have found that a 10-minute video, a short class exercise, or a breakout to analyze a one-page case makes the lecture portion of the class easier on both prof and student. Your thoughts?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2014 7:28 am

    I tend to agree with you, Barry, that 75 minutes of straight lecture tend to be rough on everyone involved. Like you, I strive to infuse at least one video, discussion, or active learning exercise into every class session. But I haven’t given up on spending at least some part of class lecturing just yet, as I think that lectures can still hold some value for students. Many people have recently been proposing that instructors eliminate all in-class lecturing by recording all of their lectures and posting them online. But this approach is not without potential drawbacks. For one thing, recorded online lectures lose the interaction with students that a well-designed lecture contains. Furthermore, at many schools we can’t even get our students to read anything outside of class, so one may question their motivation to watch head shots of us lecturing on video for hours on end (unless we’re used as background noise while the students play on Facebook). So for my two cents…I’m a full supporter of creative active learning activities in the classroom. Well done simulations, games, and activities can be among the most fun and memorable experiences from college courses, and they can represent powerful methods for students to deeply understand core concepts. But effective lectures, at least in limited doses, can still play an important role in the total learning experience.

    • October 5, 2014 5:11 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you 100%, Chuck.

    • October 6, 2014 11:43 am

      Honestly I prefer to teach this class physically as there are so many great activities to engage students in learning this discipline. While students enjoy these activities and learn more from the class in this manner, there is a pool of students that simply prefer the flexibility that online classes bring around their busy lives. If faculty are just going to lecture, we can replicate that with recorded videos online. In my mind the value of faculty simply increases through these activities that simply can not be replicated well online.

  2. October 6, 2014 6:51 pm

    When I began teaching 40 years ago I lectured for 80 or 150 minutes just as my professors had done when teaching me. Like Chuck, I try to interrupt my lectures with some sort of activity for the students. Each week I have a news segment in which we discuss the articles on Operations Management that have appeared in our local newspaper during the past week. Also, I interrupt my lectures to ask the students how each topic applies to their place of work. This is particularly successful for my graduate courses. I also give quizzes on materials I have not yet taught in order for the students to try and figure out for themselves some of the principles of the topic. At times, I ask the students to go to their phones or iPads and to look up material. For example, this week I am lecturing on Facility Location and will ask the students to find incentives given by cities and states for companies to locate there with emphasis on the Philadelphia area and Pennsylvania. I also have used short videos to break up the class and help to introduce the topic. I have found that the less I lecture and the more I have students doing activities the more interested they are in the class.

    At any rate, the day of giving a straight lecture is long gone in Operations, and, from what I can gather, in most other fields also.

  3. October 6, 2014 7:40 pm

    Thanks Wende and Howard. Is it really interesting to see your differing perspectives. It is our hope that this blog can provide the current articles for you to use in class as Howard suggests. It is hard to keep up with everything going on in the OM world and we want to make it a little easier for all of you.

  4. Ozgur Ozluk permalink
    October 8, 2014 10:49 am

    It has been shown by research that your brain will stop absorbing new material 30-40 minutes into a lecture. So I agree with the commenters that we have to break it up. I do so utilizing group discussions, brain teasers, problem solving exercises. If I do feel that the class gets too glazed-eyed on a particular day, I even take a 3 to 4 minute break, where I tell an unrelated joke, play an upbeat song or show a funny YouTube video. The following paper might be of interest, somewhat related to this topic:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3776418/

    • October 9, 2014 1:42 am

      Thanks, Ozgur. I know you are busy setting up a new grad program in Turkey this semester and I appreciate your comment. I read the linked article and it was definitely worth the time.

  5. October 8, 2014 2:54 pm

    Should we “lecture” or not? Certainly the pace at which we share information has changed, and our mutual ability to absorb information has increased. The question is, does “lecture” imply an older, slower presentation of information?

    I recall reading an interview with Jerry Seinfeld many years ago, where he commented on the early days of the sitcom “Seinfeld” and its intellectual growth through the seasons. One of the points Seinfeld made was that the pacing and dialog of the first season was noticeably slower than the later years, and that it really took a year for the writers and actors to hit their stride.

    Indeed, you may find a similar generational change in the pace and delivery of television programming between your favorite programs of today and your childhood. I recently watched some episodes of my family’s childhood favorite, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, and even though it still makes me laugh, it is noticeably slower paced than our family favorite today, “Modern Family”.

    So the question may not be whether we should lecture at all, but whether our lecture delivery provides the content and pacing suitable for modern expectations. Is our lecture fast paced enough? Is our scripting and integration of media professionally polished and utilizing all of the methods available today? If you are presenting the same lectures you did twenty or even ten years ago, then maybe it is time for a revision.

    • October 11, 2014 12:00 pm

      This is a very interesting observation about the pace and I would tend to agree except that on my teaching evaluations I still get asked by students to “slow down”. I think college students are very good at maintaining a rapid pace when texting or playing video games or maybe even watching television but not so when being lectured to.

  6. Phillip Flamm permalink
    October 8, 2014 9:39 pm

    Phillip Flamm
    Lots of good comments! I have a little different perspective since I have large lecture classes. Early on I decided that there were definite disadvantages in using a lecture only approach for a 250 student class. The main changes I instituted involved splitting the Tuesday/ Thursday class into one large lecture and small labs for the purpose of having students develop a comprehensive business plan based on operations concepts.
    In the large lecture I utilize a fairly aggressive teaching style….constant movement, varying speed and pitch of delivery, colorfully humorous stories from my career as a plant manager and industrial engineer, videos, and descriptive power point slides that aren’t too wordy.
    In the lab that students attend once a week lab instructors work one on one with teams to help teach and explain the operations concepts used to develop the project.
    I definitely agree that the straight lecture format has outlived its usefulness. Teaching large sections these days requires a bit of entertainment to be sprinkled in to keep the attention of the audience.

  7. October 10, 2014 5:39 pm

    Thanks to all for the thoughtful advice! I have a question for the folks that have made the transition from all-lecture to some-lecture/some-activity: Did you need to down-size the volume of material that you covered? The volume of material seems huge compared to the 15 or 16 week window we have to cover it – unless you transfer knowledge very efficiently (as in a lecture). But then, that begs the question of effectiveness – did any of it sink in? Just wondering if/how others have narrowed the breadth of coverage, to make time available for depth of coverage. Thanks, Tom Hollinberger

  8. October 11, 2014 12:05 pm

    I have not down-sized the material but rather have transitioned some of the material from lecture to activity. Some of the exercises have been published in this blog and can be found in the Teaching Tips section.

  9. October 13, 2014 8:19 am

    Do you remember “The Paper Chase”? In Harvard Law of years past, students had to find missing information and answers to incomplete questions, sometimes competing with each other for sources. Even in my own education, I spent many long nights searching for answers to topics I did not understand. To some extent, the grading and progression system actively measured a student’s ability to self-teach.

    In my own experience of twelve years in academia, this expectation is no longer held. Today there is often an expectation that knowledge should be fully gained and understood in the classroom, and any kind of gap in classroom delivery or “Paper Chase” type study is considered a failure of the instructor. This has pros and cons. In the past, by definition, some proportion of students passed a course, but really did not understand much of the material. Today, there is a greater expectation that all points covered in a lecture should be fully understood by everyone. So, yes, this necessarily means the depth or quantity of material is reduced, but the minimum information retention is much higher, and this is significantly driven by the student’s self perception of information retention at the time of course evaluations.

    So, we have a shorter perceived attention span, which I believe is as much a reflection of the much more fast paced and rich information environment we live in today as it might be a comment on students’ motivation, and we have a student expectation that success is measured by how much lecture content is retained, and is relevant to their goals. So that leads to a shorter topic list that is more intensively presented and repeated.

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