The Riddle of Successful Traditional Lectures

This week, the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ECTS) had a very inspiring four-day seminar on theological education led by Dr. Perry Shaw of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Libanon.

Cartoons of boring lecturers and sleeping students, research results that the attention of a listener has a first peak of only ten minutes and is down after twenty minutes, other research results that show how little students remember of a traditional lecture (even if it is not boring) after some years and even some weeks, and general observations that lectures tend to focus on knowledge and comprehension only (lower level learning in the cognitive domain—at the expense of learning in the affective and behavioral domains and higher level learning in the cognitive domain [application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation])—all this constitutes a powerful plead against the traditional art of lecturing in which the professor speaks for forty-five minutes and the students listen and take notes.

I heard similar pleads many times and try to take them seriously in my courses, although there is always room for improvement. Still, I notice that students are not so negative about traditional lectures. As a student told me this week: “My main expectation of a professor is that he presents good new information.” I remember this from courses at Utrecht University, the Netherlands: when professors spent class time on small group discussions, student presentations, etc., class time was reduced and readings were increased, I felt I missed the core of education: the voice of the professor. Isn’t it the professor’s business to present good information and the student’s business to choose or feel compelled to think and talk about it later on or not? One of my greatest experiences was attending an intensive course of the late Prof. Dr. Martin Hengel in Tübingen, who in sessions of three and a half hours (with just a short break halfway the session) poured out a mild rain of knowledge on his students. He lost a few students who would perhaps have liked something more interactive or a more interesting topic, but most were excited. Similarly, the older generation of Dutch pastors who studied in Utrecht often quote the unforgettable Prof. Dr. A. A. van Ruler who used to say so and so in his lectures when they where students.

With all current educational emphasis on what people should know/do/be after they have left the classroom and completed the course (or heard a sermon in church), I miss the recognition that in the case of a good lecturer/preacher, the act of listening and being taking away to the heights of knowledge and the depths of Scripture is very enjoyable/enriching and an experience that is valuable in itself and does not need to serve a “higher” goal. Even so, it may be remembered for a life-time, while endless learning activities that are explicitly intended at transforming all kinds of aspects of the student may become very boring in the end. A quote about old-style professor Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) by one of his students (J. J. Buskes) may illustrate what I mean:

When Bavinck lectured … it could happen that he was so much filled by God’s glory that he forgot us and, while speaking, gazed out of the window into endless distances, for God’s glory is endless; and we were listening speechlessly and were introduced – for our whole life – into the mystery of salvation of the Eternal and Almighty One, who is our merciful Father in Jesus Christ. (Quoted in De Wit, On the Way to the Living God, 36.)

I wonder why such lectures can be remembered so positively as they seem to contradict current educational theory. Is the emphasis on research results that people remember little facts from traditional lectures and that their time of concentration during a lecture is limited not overlooking what people consciously or unconsciously internally do when they are listening to a good lecture? Could recent research on hearing sermons (see e.g. T. T. J. Pleizier, Religious Involvement in Hearing Sermons) also help to clarify why good traditional lectures are experienced and remembered as meaningful. Are good traditional lectures really so bad and ineffective as educationalists make us believe or do these educationalists themselves overlook something in their research on lectures?

Anyhow, the bottom line is that most lecturers are not called Bavinck, Van Ruler, or Hengel, and may benefit from using more learning methods in their classroom.

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