Do math and science instructors lecture more than instructors in other fields?
February 16, 2010 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Do math and science instructors lecture more than instructors in other fields?

I'm a graduate student (and hopefully soon faculty member) in mathematics. Almost all the mathematics classes I've taken in college and graduate school have been lecture-based. The instructor stands in front of the room and talks. The students listen. Sometimes they ask questions, but the instructor essentially treats these as asides and keeps going with what they were saying.

(I took a course in my last undergraduate year that was a "seminar". The course worked basically like this, except the students gave the lectures.)

Now, I understand that this is really the only way to deal with disseminating information large groups of people. But this seems common in classes as small as, say, four or five students! The students feel free to ask more questions -- but the basic paradigm is the same. And often there's a textbook being followed, pretty closely. We all know how to read; shouldn't the class time be spent on something else?

The building that houses my department has a lot of classrooms in it, more than we need for math classes, so the classrooms are often used to teach classes in a variety of other departments. I walk past these classes -- there are small windows in the classroom doors -- and see students seated in a circle, not all facing the board like in a math class. There is something that at least superficially resembles discussion.

So my question is: is instruction by lecturing more common in mathematics (and the sciences, I suppose) than in other fields? If so, why? (Both serious research and anecdotes from people who teach or take classes in various fields are welcome.)

(I'm also a bit curious about what I can do instead of lecturing when faced with such a class, but this is not the thrust of the question. Besides, someone asked about that a few weeks ago.)
posted by madcaptenor to Education (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
is instruction by lecturing more common in mathematics (and the sciences, I suppose) than in other fields?

I'll tell you about law school since that's what I did after undergrad. I'm assuming you're asking about any field of study post-undergrad.

Law school is much less lecture-based than your description. I remember some of my law profs specifically apologizing in advance because "it's going to be mostly lecture today" (the implication being that it would be a rare class where a prof could make this statement). It would not be considered appropriate for a prof to regularly base their classes on lectures and only take incidental questions from students who happened to ask them. To be clear, I'm talking about classes with 100+ students. (If it's a seminar with fewer than 20 students, the expectation would be that the class is mainly based on student discussions.)

If so, why?

Law has a lot of grey areas based on many different kinds of human judgments -- judgments about facts, words, human nature, history, principles, values, etc. These things practically demand to be talked about in a free, open-ended discussion. I'm sure there are also many grey areas in science (maybe less so in math). But at the end of the day, I believe at least the goal is pretty clear: to gain a more accurate physical understanding of the world. In law, what's the goal? Is it fairness to all parties, or to the most sympathetic parties, or for society as a whole? But what kind of fairness matters? substantive fairness ("I've been compensated for my injury")? procedural fairness ("I had an opportunity to be heard making my case")? Or is an efficient process just as important as a fair one? How much power do judges have in interpreting and applying laws passed by legislatures? How much sway does "tradition" have over present-day decisions, and which "traditions" are most important? If you read Richard Posner's How Judges Think or Cass Sunstein's A Constitution of Many Minds, you'll get a glimpse of how maddeningly complex these issues can be. It's a huge mess of normative judgments that you're lucky not to have to deal with in math/science.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:16 AM on February 16, 2010

Yes, the lecture is pretty much still the main kind of instruction used in mathematics and the sciences, and often in engineering, computer sciences etc. too. Whether lecturing is a useful exercise is down to the individual student - for some, the lecture will be the bulk of their 'learning time', while others may be strongly motivated to study things on their own, and so a lecture will only be as useful as the amount of 'extra value' beyond the reading materials.

Some courses (humanities, arts, social sciences) have varying degrees of leeway in terms of opinion and ideas, and are amenable to discussion and debate even amongst new students. Conversely, some subjects require students to learn and digest huge amounts of preexisting information before they can even hope to debate any of it (without looking stupid), let along come up with worthwhile new ideas of their own.

Which isn't to say that lectures aren't the only way to teach, just that some subjects work just fine structured around large-group lectures and smaller-group problem-solving sessions, and others are more about gaining an understanding through group interaction.

In my experience, a bad lecturer will stick close to whatever books are on the curriculum. A good one will cover the same material but approach it from their own personal angle, and will flesh out the material to make it more exciting.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:17 AM on February 16, 2010

In my personal experience, yes, lecturing is more common in sciences and maths classes than it is in the humanities. Can't really speak to the social sciences.

More broadly, though, I suspect this phenomenon has to do with the flow of information in the classroom. In the humanities, quite a lot of what's being taught has to do with critical thinking about texts. This means that individual reactions and judgments are important parts of the course content-- I might well have something interesting to learn from my fellow-students' reactions to The Tempest or whatever. So it makes sense to sit in a circle to reinforce a sense that all class members are both givers and receivers of knowledge.

By contrast (pieties aside) I really don't have jack to learn about multivariable calculus or gene silencing from Bob across the aisle. The prof is the one who knows this stuff, and she's here to convey that information to us. So we naturally sit facing the prof. That's not to say that non-lecture methods-- small-group workshops or practice problem solving or article critiques or whatever-- might not be useful in such a setting, but egalitarian circle-style "sharing" doesn't really make sense in disciplines where, as le morte de bea arthur says, you have to work through piles of specialized information before you can get to the critical-thinking phase.
posted by Bardolph at 8:20 AM on February 16, 2010

I don't know anything about science classes. However, a rather famous counterexample in mathematics is the Moore Method approach to teaching. I've never done it in any of my own classes although I've heard about some wild success stories (in graph theory, topology, discrete math) and some horrible failures (math history and abstract algebra).

Another somewhat similar method is the Directed Discovery method; basically the Moore method but with a lot more support. I had this as an undergraduate in a graph theory course and loved it. I think this is something that would be difficult to do in many courses though.

Keep in mind, with rigid catalog descriptions and the sequential nature of math classes, it is often daunting to try something outside of the "chalk and talk" model to get through a course. You might be interested in Project NExT as a place to get tons of innovative approaches to teaching a college-level math course. It's one of the best things I've ever been part of, both personally and professionally. Feel free to message me if you want more details.
posted by El_Marto at 8:21 AM on February 16, 2010

Lecture only is not anything like universal in the sciences. Process oriented group learning (POGIL) was developed by chemistry professors but is being used in a lot of biology classrooms as well.

POGIL uses guided inquiry – a version of the Socratic method in which students use carefully designed materials that guide them to construct new learning.

POGIL is a student-centered strategy; students work in small groups with individual roles to ensure that all students are fully engaged in the learning process.

POGIL activities focus on core concepts and encourage a deep understanding of the course material while developing higher-order thinking skills.

POGIL develops process skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication through collaboration and reflection, making students more competitive in a global market.

I don't know of anyone using it for math, but I don't see why it wouldn't work.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:48 AM on February 16, 2010

In the humanities, very few classes are lecture-based. Some will be structured such that there is a lecture session and a discussion session, but it's almost unheard of to have a class that exists without a discussion section at all. I have taken one philosophy class that was initially planned as lecture-only, but the professor added a discussion section after the second week. I'm not sure exactly why, but I was glad she did.

You might be interested in Inquiry Based Learning. It seems to be related to the kind of methods El_Marto mentions above. My boyfriend is a grad student in mathematics, and he's currently teaching (freshman) honors calculus using the IBL method. Overall, I think he likes it, and finds that it's quite effective at ensuring that the students really understand the material, and fostering their ability to speak in front of a class, which is a key skill. It's clear that it can be frustrating for some of the students, and in some cases, the class progresses very slowly because they get bogged down or sidetracked.
posted by dizziest at 10:41 AM on February 16, 2010

My overall impression is yes, math and science uses lecture more often than the humanities and social sciences which are dominated by discussion at higher education levels. Much of the distinction has to do with what is expected of a competent student. In math and computer science there is little expectation that extemporaneous proofs or coding can or should be done. Rather the class ("together") time is spent in lecture followed by exercises with more open-ended time frames in which the students can practice and demonstrate the requisite skills. Other fields put a strong emphasis on students obtaining a verbal and extemporaneous mastery of their discipline. Those students often spend more time before class reading important texts and use the together time to practice their communication and reasoning skills using the device of open-ended discussion.

In my own field (archaeology) which somewhat straddles the social sciences and hard sciences a mix of the two approaches is common. Typically lecture, exercises, and exams are used in more methodological and technical courses and with reading, discussion, and writing for more theoretical topics.
posted by Tallguy at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2010

As my favorite engineering prof. recently told a political science major, "Hooke's law is F=-kx. This isn't up for negotiation."

Introductory math and engineering classes are almost entirely lecture, mostly because it's traditional and mostly because it's a good way to teach foundational material to large classes. Usually, the introductory classes would also include an hour or so a week of small break-out sessions that were question-and-answer based.

As I advanced in my engineering degree, the lecture courses were mixed with a large variety of non-lecture courses, including engineering labs, semester-long intensive design projects, and classes that mixed lectures with intensive individual projects.

Of course, a lecturer that parrots the material in the textbook is an ineffective lecturer.
posted by muddgirl at 11:15 AM on February 16, 2010

Ugh, the "intensive individual projects" were sometimes group projects.
posted by muddgirl at 11:20 AM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: El_Marto: I've heard of the Moore method, and I too have heard both successes and failures for the Moore method. My impression is that it really depends on the composition of the class -- it works better with homogeneous classes -- and for better or worse most of us don't have too much control over who's in our classes.

Also, my impression is that the best students are the ones who get the most out of it. The best students in an undergrad course are the ones that are most likely to become faculty members somewhere and decide how future courses work. I'm a bit skeptical about methods that only work for the people who'd learn the material no matter what.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:04 AM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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