Designing the Efficacious Breakthrough
by Matthew Vickless, PhD
(republished from September 4, 2017)
Many of us accept the limitations of lecture-heavy teaching, (try to) practice learner-centered pedagogy, yet still remember fondly the privileged experience of sitting through a lecture course taught by a true master--mine was the late, great Miltonist A.C. Labriola. In my own efforts to facilitate active learning among my students, I sometimes feel a little bit torn between my desire to help them become learners and my memories of how masterful lectures helped me learn. Luckily, Christine Harrington and Todd Zakrajsek's book on dynamic lecturing provides a welcome via media.
I haven't yet had a chance to review the specific strategies Harrington and Zakrajsek examine; however, the overarching principle behind their work, that effective lecture does have a significant role to play in our learner-oriented approaches to teaching, heartens my tamped-down but still-smoldering belief that a really good lecture, especially one that shares the lecturer's own scholarship, manifests a powerful academic ethos that we can leverage to help boost our students' confidence--and by extension their persistence--in a very special way.
In my experience, a learner's "ah-ha!" break-through moments can be fortified when they occur in a class where
the professor demonstrates profound mastery of the course material, usually drawing upon original scholarship, through compelling yet rigorous lecture and at the same time treats students like novice peers by using a shared academic discourse
such lectures, especially early on, may intimidate less confident students, especially first-generation, ELL, or imposter-syndrome-suffering students, who do not yet view themselves as novice academics and are not yet comfortable with academic discourse
Capitalizing on break-through moments under these conditions and during subsequent feedback/feedforward-based grading can bolster our students' sense of belonging in college. Done right, the lecture really can play a role in persistence, especially at community colleges, mixed baccalaureate/associate's colleges, or other institutions where the CV lines cataloging our publications may not really signify to our students.
The efficacious breakthrough I am describing can be particularly difficult to manufacture in the online classroom. When a skilled lecturer works in a brick-and-mortar space, often it's the physical connection (proximity control, body language, eye contact, and the like) that engenders the breakthrough. Replicating that connection through video lecture presents an exciting challenge. In this context, I believe that a mindful application of learning-centered design, complemented by effective presence, can go a long way toward setting the stage for sage instruction, capable of making students feel like they belong among us after all.
Here are some additional thoughts to keep in mind if you are interested in facilitating this kind of break-through experience for your online students:
Design supersedes content. Lecture is one way (refereed publication being another) that we disseminate our scholarship, which is by nature heavily text-based. Even if we aren't reading our lectures directly from a page or from notes, our delivery is almost always some kind of an oral/aural adaption of text we have written, in which content remains the coin of the realm. But when we adapt that content for online presentation, design has to become our main focus. This can be an uncomfortable experience, especially if we are utilizing unfamiliar technology; however, online lecture loses effectiveness pretty quickly unless our attention shifts from content to design.
Design can trigger prior knowledge. Throughout the design process, vigilant attention to cognitive load is essential. The risk with any lecture is overloading our students' short-term memory, an especially clear and present danger when we present our own scholarship. We also know that triggering students' prior knowledge helps bypass the limitations of short-term memory (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, p. 77). Making well-designed connections to previously covered material can help us to frame scholarly material without overburdening our students' cognitive load.
I think we have a better chance to facilitate an efficacious breakthrough for our students when we share our scholarship in ways that make them feel like we respect them as academic, albeit novice, peers. Lecture can help our students realize that they do belong. Yet how do we talk to them as peers without overwhelming them? And how can we rigorously present our scholarship to--and still facilitate learning among--the skilled novices in our online classes? This is a paradox we can resolve through our design choices.
 BTW, it was during one of Dr. Al's lectures that I learned how to properly use the phrase via media.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41 (2), 75-86. DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1