The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Is Lecturing Always Unethical?

Should, and can, professors keep their mouths closed?

Did you catch the clever little ambiguity in my title?  First, I might be asking if every time a professor lectures it's unethical.  Of course, the answer is no.  Some lectures are wonderful.  They're like the milk in a Special K breakfast:  part of a balanced meal.

The second question embedded in my title is a little more complicated:  If professors rely only or primarily on lecturing as a teaching technique, is that unethical?  It may be a bit of a stretch to say that professors who lecture too much are acting unethically.  However, to the extent we are ethically obligated to facilitate positive impacts on our students, and to the extent that we know better ways to educate and don't avail ourselves of them, lecturing too much entails ethical implications, if not ethical violations.

Some extreme adherents of the lecture method take its effectiveness as a matter of faith.  I believe they make some basic mistakes in reasoning, including the following:

  • They believe that because they and others have always done it, it must be good.
  • They dismiss decades of research showing that more active ways of learning may be more effective than sitting and listening.
  • They paint with a broad brush, arguing that all methods since the middle ages are not effective because some of them have been ineffective "fads." (To be fair, some folks at the other extreme disparage all lecturing, saying essentially that no lecture can ever be effective for any student.)
  • They confuse active learning with technology.
  • They believe that what they say out loud is going to be learned better or interpreted more correctly than what students read in a text. (In a way, it seems a bit disrespectful to lecture too much. First, we disrespect authors by thinking that we need to restate what they've written so carefully. Second, we disrespect the ability of students to read and to learn from that reading.)
  • Finally, they believe that higher education can continue the way it's been, with professors transmitting information to students.

Because so much information is available to students in so many different formats (including video lectures that are often better than ones we develop), if we continue to think of teaching primarily as knowledge delivery we may be hastening our own demise as a profession.  It's possible that schools (and legislatures) will get wise to the fact that they'll be able to buy (or simply download) excellent content, and have technicians administer assessments to students.  No need for high-paid in-house experts!

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What students need now is not information from experts, but skills, such as evaluating information, applying knowledge to theoretical and practical problems, etc.  I focus a lot on skills in my courses.  For example, I tell my students that nobody will ever pay them to sit and listen, or to take notes.  Even Roger Ebert doesn't get paid to watch movies.  Rather, he gets paid to think, analyze, critique, write, and communicate.  We need to do a better job of teaching those skills.    

Certainly, lecturing can be good or bad, and many professors are improving their lectures by incorporating a variety of advancements, including videos, demonstrations, guest speakers, quick breaks for students to discuss a point in pairs, etc.  One problem with many of these enhancements is that they are little more than different ways to convey information.  Yes, they might work better at information delivery, but they don't solve the problem of helping students become more active and more skilled.    

The list of innovative teaching methods that do focus on skill development is vast, and includes collaborative learning, writing to learn, classroom assessments, problem-based learning, structured controversy, large and small-group discussion, service learning, and a bunch more.  Are all these methods good, and better than lecture?  Not for every purpose.  But we professors should take our own advice and think critically about them, look at the data, continue to learn, take some risks, develop our craft, and assess what we do.

Just one example:  If professors believe they need to say aloud what students need to know, they have the option of recording lectures, having students watch them out of class, and then using class time to have students assess, practice, analyze, communicate, etc.

Lecture Hall
Sometimes professors can't help lecturing more than they know is optimal.  College administrators and legislators may share the narrow view of teaching as knowledge transfer, and opt for class sizes in the hundreds, such that few alternatives to lecturing are possible.  (But some of the hard core lecturers I've met do not vary their approach with the number of students.  I had one professor in college who lectured relentlessly to a class of five students.  Every class period!  All semester!)  Another structural problem is the number of classes some faculty members are required to teach.  These instructors are simply overworked and need to cut some corners. 

Let's end on a positive note:  Many in higher education recognize the complex goals we have for the teaching-learning process and the value of a variety of teaching methods.  Many professors and instructors try really hard to make their classes as effective as possible, even given the constraints of class size and teaching loads.  They go to teaching conferences and workshops, carefully evaluate the evidence for, and principles behind, different behaviors, make changes in their teaching, and evaluate their performance.  These are the folks who inspire me and give us all hope for the future of higher education.

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

© 2011 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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