Chalkface Nostalgia

8 min read

With the pandemic seemingly drawing to a close, at least in the United States, it’s disappointing to see university students, administrators, and even instructors longing to return to outmoded and ineffective instructional methods. It’s not just a return to campus. It’s a return to classrooms, and to droning at the chalkface. It seems like the pandemic made lecturing cool again, in ways that could set back university education moving forward.

Prior to the pandemic there was widespread agreement that lecturing was not an effective way of disseminating information or a good use of instructional time.

It’s true that many instructors continued to lecture, particularly in large courses. The reasons for this are various. As an instructor who was still lecturing, I’m familiar with a few of them.

First and foremost, transitioning a course away from the lecture model takes time and energy. I had started laying some of the groundwork, but hadn’t yet completed the transition.

Second, the university’s physical plant is set up to support lecturing and not other forms of instruction, particularly for large courses. I can request and receive a 1200-seat auditorium to lecture in for three hours per week. This is normal and not a problem. I cannot request and receive 40-seat classrooms to run small group activities for the equivalent 90 classroom-hours per week. This is abnormal and a huge problem. Large courses are expected to lecture.(1)

Students seemed equally aware of the ineffectiveness of lecturing. In classes that posted recordings, attendance had already plummeted, with students choosing the pedagogically-superior online videos over the live classroom experience. I have not seen any studies of actual attendance in college classes, particularly those with videotaped lectures. But my own anecdotal experience is that it hovered between low and nonexistent. Even the ones that were physically there were not mentally present. Attend a few large college courses and sit in the back sometime. It’s eye-opening.

Note that there are ways to make lecturing work, particularly in contexts like law or business school where classes are smaller and include a great deal of student participation. But in most undergraduate courses we just weren’t really trying. For example, instructors that truly believed in the lecture model or had found ways to make it work could have required attendance. Some did. Most didn’t, a tacit admission of defeat. Most just showed up, gave their PowerPoint to the handful of students in the front of the room, and then returned to their office. Learning!

So pre-pandemic most instructors had conceded that lecturing didn’t work. Students agreed. And things were changing. Slowly.

But once the pandemic started, universities fired up the chalkface revisionism. Attending in-person classes suddenly became the hallmark of the college experience. Millions of dollars and millions of person-hours were devoted to trying to preserve this suddenly super-valuable college experience at institutions across the country during an unprecedented global health crisis.

Not all of this effort was devoted to filling lecture halls. Bringing students back to campus so that they could interact with each other and participate in other aspects of college life was highly-valuable and completely worth it. Some institutions got this right. Harvard brought as many students back to campus as possible but ran all courses online, which struck me as exactly the right decision. But at a lot of universities the raison d’être seemed to be getting students back into classrooms.

Needless to say, this whole push felt bizarre if you remembered the very recent history of lecturing at college. There was a strange collective reluctance to discuss the reality that neither students nor faculty really believed in the lecture model. Nowhere in a single of the of the many articles I read about college pandemic planning did I encounter the simple question: Was anyone even attending class before the pandemic? Could this really have been such a valuable part of college if so many students weren’t even participating in it?

Making matters worse is something that is still true, even in the waning days of the pandemic: The in-person instructional activities that are high-value are also higher-risk, and vice versa. With adequate space, students can safely fill a classroom and daydream while the professor drones. But group activities or other high-value small-group interactions that bring students in close proximity to each other violate social distancing guidelines. Interaction is valuable, but tends to require proximity. Watching is not that valuable, and while it can be done at a distance, that distance might as well be all the way to YouTube.

As a result, the things that we could do in our classrooms during the pandemic tended to be the things least worth doing. But we did them anyway. And through both our words and our deeds, we also proclaimed them to be the important and valuable parts of the college educational experience.

Now with Fall 2021 on the horizon, and the pandemic ebbing, there really is a big push to get students back into classrooms, again accompanied by a big and very reactionary focus on finding space to support the lecture model.

Imagine 50% of your students coming to class!

My university has been very clear with guidance about how to return to lecture halls, which will be operating at 50% capacity or 200 seats, whichever is smaller. We’ve been given advice about how to modify our courses so that we can resume lecturing even given reduced classroom capacity. Maybe teach 50% of your students on Tuesday and the other 50% on Thursday? This kind of guidance can be giggle-provoking. Imagine 50% of your students coming to class!

At the same time, we’ve been given essentially no advice about how to safely conduct higher-value interactive in-person activities like tutoring sessions, small group work, or drop-in office hours.

It’s at least possible that this is because conditions are still in flux to the point that it’s difficult to understand what kind of safety measures we’ll need to employ next fall. But, at the same time, we’re still actively planning for lecture-style activities, even under fairly conservative assumptions like 50% room capacities. This seems like a classic case of recency bias. In May 2020 we were pretending campus would be open in the fall when it was clear it would probably be largely closed. In May 2021 we’re pretending that campus will be largely closed in the fall when it’s at least likely that it may be largely open. Particularly now that we’re requiring students to be vaccinated.

So, again, there seems to be a huge amount of effort going toward determining how to resume the least valuable educational activities. The obvious problem with this approach is that it doesn’t produce the best outcome. But there’s another more pernicious problem: It elevates and promotes the lecture model that we should be trying to move away from.

A forward-thinking university would have recognized the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the transition towards more active learning and engagement and away from droning at the chalkface.

A forward-thinking university would have recognized the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the transition towards more active learning and engagement and away from droning at the chalkface. Instead, we’re pushing chalkface nostalgia, and encouraging students to get misty-eyed as they remember back to drowsing or Instagramming through their in-person lectures. Those were the days!

What’s even more disappointing about this backwards thinking is that the pandemic actually did provide a lot of classes the opportunity to experiment with alternative teaching models. Until Fall 2020 I had never been given the option to teach my course asynchronously online before. Had I tried to do something like this before the pandemic I suspect I would have gotten a lot of pushback. But how will students meet each other if they aren’t all coughing together through the same huge lecture?

Not every large class chose to seize this opportunity. Some just hung out on Zoom and waited for things to get back to normal. There wasn’t really a lot of institutional encouragement for trying these new formats, even if they were available.

But I did seize this opportunity, and the asynchronous online course that I designed is the best version of my course that I’ve ever taught. For me, there is no back to normal. We moved forward, and it’s better. We will resume high-value in-person activities like peer tutoring sessions and in-person help hours once it’s safe.

But I will never return to droning at the chalkface. Because lecturing doesn’t work. We knew that once. I hope that we remember it again.

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