Replacing the Lecture: Experimenting with the Hybrid Course model

The lecture has been a time honored tradition in teaching, though it’s utility has been questioned since the dawn of the  “digital information age”. For centuries it served as an efficient way of transferring knowledge from teacher to pupil. The lecture has been especially useful in the industrial mass production approach to education since the late 1950’s as class sizes, especially at the introductory level, increased to unwieldy proportions at most public institutions of higher education. Fundamentally the university lecture has become  a “ process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.” (Mazur, 2009)

The remedy proposed by many is to make the lecture a more active learning experience, which requires, of course, that the student be willing to participate in class. A major problem with the lecture mode of instruction is that the amount of information that a person can take in over a given amount of time is limited. Most people can only hold about 7 items in memory and thus some suggest  content.  Educators have tried their best to remake the (basically) passive approach of a lecture into an active learning environment by incorporating  a variety of classroom techniques like “chunking” lecture content interspersed with short discussion, the one minute paper, clickers, etc.  Regardless of these “innovations”, the lecture retains two outmoded features in particular:

  • the instructor as the sole source of knowledge,
  • the lecture hall as the location for knowledge dissemination.

In faculty development presentations at the dawn of the Web in the early-90’s, I suggested that the lecture was becoming an antiquated way of teaching. Needless to say, my assertions were assailed as a heretical assault on a bastion of higher education. But increasingly, more are beginning to question the effectiveness of the lecture and are looking for alternative modes of instruction.

Why do we hold on to the lecture? It’s an easy way to pass information, but the lecture itself does not build knowledge. It informs, knowledge is gained when one applies it. Students rarely get to apply what they hear during a lecture, hence the advent of the discussion section for the humanities and social sciences, or laboratory session for the physical sciences.

Once again, I’m calling for the end of the lecture as we have come to know it. In its place should be an active learning environment in which the instructor ends their role as a “broadcaster” of knowledge and becomes a facilitator of it. Facilitating means creating content that requires active knowledge building. Facilitating can also mean providing students with a road map to resources that will help them build knowledge. It should be inquiry-based, especially in higher education. (Isn’t that the “higher” part?)

To this end I have done away with the conventional lecture format in my introductory physical geography course and replaced it with a hybrid model. This course has three 50 minute periods that are designated as lecture time and two 110 minute lab sessions each week. The delivery of lecture content has been replaced with readings from my online physical geography textbook, podcasts, and online videos. The online textbook is built around much of the information contained in my lectures. Formative assessments are interspersed through the textbook content as are links to streaming videos and podcasts from sources like the National Geographic Society, National Public Radio, NASA, and the United States Geological Survey. In this way I am providing a road map to information that students can use to learn the content of the course.

I have created what I call “concept review” assignments for each course topic. These are generally 10 short answer essay questions related to concepts presented in the assigned material. I continue to schedule the usual Monday-Wednesday-Friday time slot that was devoted to lecture for students to complete these assignments or see me for personalized help. I continue to offer four hours of office hours each week when students can come by as well.

The lab sessions remain essentially the same as before, an introduction to the lab is presented and then students use the remaining time to complete their assignments.  The introductory presentation is now extended to review key concepts from their readings that relate to what they do in lab.

The hybrid format gives students more control and flexibility over how they learn the course material. Those who can learn on their own have the opportunity to do so without the encumbrance of a scheduled lecture that may not do them any additional good. The MWF sessions are a time to provide personalized help for those who need human interaction for learning.

For myself, it has increased my workload appreciably.  I spend more time sending email announcements and communicating online with my students. Adding the concept review assignments, which could have been done without a change to the hybrid format, has added much more time to grading. I feel I have a better sense of what students are getting from their reading by having creating these assignments. Finally, I much prefer working one-on-one with students who need the “human touch” while setting those who don’t free to engage in the material as they see fit.

For another critique of the lecture, see this excellent TedX presentation by Jeff Jarvis

References for this post:

Tapscott, D. (2009) The Impending Demise of the University. Edge: The Third Culture, Last visited October 6, 2010.

Mazur,E. (2009) Farewell, Lecture.  Science, 323(2) 50-51 pp.


About Michael Ritter
Retired Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

One Response to Replacing the Lecture: Experimenting with the Hybrid Course model

  1. Pingback: “This is Bulls**t” | The Digital Professor

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