Wednesday, March 9, 2011

call and response lectures

I've mentioned before that my own education was entirely at large, state schools. Here at Tiny U, a premium is put on small classes and lots of student-teacher interaction. At first, I didn't know how to teach except by lecturing. I still feel more comfortable with structured discussions than with free-ranging talks in my upper-division seminars. In intro courses with 60-70 people, I try to include a lot of in-class activities, but I still need to lecture. (Actually, one of my colleagues teaches such courses without ever lecturing, and I have no idea how she manages it. I'll have to sit in on one of her courses some day.)

In an attempt to make my classes more interactive, I've moved toward a style of lecture that I (inaccurately) name "call and response". This type of lecture works well for me, because it has a great deal of structure (so I feel comfortable, and know that I'll cover the material), but it allows students more of a role in the class. Here's an example from one of my recent Intro to Cultural Anth classes:

Me: This week's topic is gender. First, can someone tell me what is the difference between sex and gender? [I write "sex" and "gender" on the board]

Student 1: Um, sex is what you're born with, and gender is your self-identification?

Me: OK, sex is what you're born with. [I write "born with" on the board next to "sex"] In what way? Could someone expand on that?

You get the idea. I extract a definition that I'm happy with, then go on to define some more complex vocabulary, and to discuss gender roles, giving examples that are not from their books. After that, I open it up again:

Me: How do we learn what gender roles our culture expects of us?

Student 1: From our parents? [I write "parents" on the board]

Student 2: From schools? [ditto]

etc., etc.

Me: What about in other cultures? In the ethnographies we've read, Nisa and Guests of the Sheik, how were children and adults taught about their appropriate gender roles?

I like to finish each section of lecture with a more open-ended question, one that isn't merely students providing examples or definitions in support of my lecture goals. For example, when we talked about sexuality, I asked them what they thought about the relative importance of genetics and environment for determining sexual orientation. We had a good discussion, and one that brought in a lot of the examples from their textbook and from lecture.

This lecture style keeps more of the students more involved. On the other hand, it decreases the amount of material I can cover. If I wasn't under significant pressure to move away from a lecture format, I probably wouldn't make this change. I'm not sure it improves the learning, or if so it only affects some of the students. Given the requirements of this university, though, it seems like a nice compromise with which I'm very comfortable.


  1. Many of my undergrad classes at "Fancypants Smallish U" were small-- 15 people or less. But, they were still mostly lecture. I think the emphasis on interaction is kind of a new thing rather than a school-size thing, but maybe I'm wrong about that. I struggle with this too as it wasn't the way I was taught (at least until grad school, when almost everyone compulsively did all the readings so more freeform-ish class discussions weren't so risky).

  2. That's interesting - I'd assumed it was a big school/small school thing, but I guess not!

    My first year teaching at Tiny U, I didn't provide enough structure in my upper-division undergrad classes. As you said, in grad school everyone did the readings and was eager to have their voice heard. Undergrads, not so much. The results were a complete disaster! I'm still working on the right balance between free-for-all discussion and rigid lecture, even in higher-level classes.