If I’m not lecturing, what am I supposed to do in my classroom?

Several years ago, I spent a month in Changsha, China, helping professors from seven universities to accomplish two tectonic shifts in their teaching: use English rather than Chinese to teach their courses (called English-medium instruction in academic literature), and transition from a lecture-only model of teaching to engaging students with activities.

Some of the professors were already adept at translating their lectures from Chinese to English. But when it came time to add activities to the mix, they were perplexed. Lecturing is still an acceptable and sometimes even an expected way to teach in China. All of them had learned from lectures throughout their schooling. So, it didn’t surprise me when one of the profs said, “If I’m not lecturing, then what am I supposed to be doing during the class?”

This question is at the centre of the shift from a “stand and deliver” teaching style to an activity facilitator role. Over the years, I have assisted many instructors to figure out this transition. The shift has its challenges, because what instructors do in the class is underpinned by 1) how they perceive their own role; 2) how they think students learn and, therefore, what students should be doing during class time; 3) how they prepare for the lesson and use instructional time. All three of these are transformed when active learning is added to the mix.

If I’m not a lecturer, then who am I?

It’s not unusual for instructors to view themselves as experts in their content, whose classroom role is to deliver that content – exactly as it stands – to their students. They don’t expect students to add any of their own insights, or to question what they hear. This is the direct transmission approach to teaching – opening up the top of the student’s head and pouring knowledge inside.

The activity facilitator approach involves instructors viewing their role as involving students in experiences that will help them to process the content they’re learning. Instructors release their view of themselves as solely content deliverers and the only expert in the classroom, realizing that as students learn, they will often question what they’re learning and develop new ways of viewing the content.

Aren’t my students supposed to sit and listen to me?

Proponents of the direct transmission approach believe that students learn information best by listening to a subject matter expert and taking notes from what they hear. Processing the information goes on within the individual student’s brain. If students are able to regurgitate what they’ve memorized, they are considered to have learned the content.

Instructors who ask students to learn from activities believe that the processing of content happens most effectively when students talk, draw, role play, write, or play games, in addition to listening. They encourage students to use their own knowledge and experience as a foundation for understanding new content. They provide opportunities for students to think critically and creatively, ask questions, challenge each other (and the instructor), and back up their opinions with evidence. In effect, students are constructing new knowledge from the instructor’s content.

If I’m not lecturing, what am I supposed to be doing?

Preparing for a class in which lectures are the main teaching mode involves reviewing information for its currency, adding updates, organizing the information sections into a coherent whole, and possibly preparing a PowerPoint style presentation. Class time is devoted to the delivery of the content.

Preparation time for an activity-based lesson involves matching the activity to a planned learning outcome; deciding on the type of activity; thinking through or possibly taking a dry run of the activity’s steps to see where students might have challenges; and figuring out how long the activity will take.

During class, instructors introduce the activity to students, ensure that students are clear about what they’re supposed to do, and monitor the activity’s implementation from start to finish.

It’s not hard to see why some instructors struggle to, or even outright resist, the switch from giving lectures to facilitating activities. But taken at a manageable pace, this transition can help instructors to add another dimension to their teaching identities, freshen up their teaching practice, and interact more meaningfully with their students.

Next Up: DIM Your Doubts About Designing and Implementing Classroom Activities

Photo Credits

Lecturer by fauxels on Pexels.com

Students around a computer by Fox on Pexels.com

Students in a lecture by ICSA on Pexels.com

Students laughing by Jopwell on Pexels.com

Professor in office by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

Thinking at a whiteboard by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

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