I enjoyed attending lectures as a student, and I enjoy lecturing now. I love biology and I love explaining it. I love introducing new terms, emphasizing the particulars of their usage, and giving students tricks for remembering them. I love explaining concepts, and making connections with things students have already learned or already know from everyday life examples.

However, despite my love for the lecture, I’m not so sure that my students benefit from it in the ways that I expect. More and more, my students are failing my introductory biology courses. This might be due to lack of effort or lack of preparation or both. Or, it might be that lecturing is not the most effective means of content delivery. Lecturing simply does not seem to reach a majority of my students.

Lecture-Free Teaching provides an alternative. This inspirational text provides a well-referenced call for science education reform, describes the author’s transformational journey in her own pedagogy, and outlines the student-centered, problem-based, cooperative learning approach she uses in her classroom. Here, students take notes from the text on their own time and use class time to solve problems in small groups. The instructor spends little time lecturing, doing so only when students ask for clarification on certain topics. The approach seems well suited to small class sizes, but the author includes information on related methods, including those used for large class sizes.

I picked up this book because I was already looking to move beyond the lecture, and reading it was certainly a good first step. It is filled with ideas and lists of resources and includes examples of syllabi, course outlines, assignments, and grading rubrics in the appendices. Missing are numerous samples of the actual problems that students solve during class. I needed to see how several typical introductory biology topics were handled using this approach. Throughout the text, the author referred to the “coursepack,” which contains all the topic outlines and the problems students would work on during the semester. I longed to get my hands on a copy.

Reading the text, I truly got a sense of how the author’s classes operated. I was intrigued by the use of randomly assigned, semester-long cooperative learning groups. Many of the benefits of this arrangement were listed, but I couldn’t help wonder about the problems that might crop up. I wanted a trouble-shooting guide to accompany all the good news about what reform would bring to my teaching.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to engage in teaching reform is the trickle-down effect. “If more high school and college faculty use participative methods, then newly minted educators will comfortably teach as they have been taught – which is, after all, what we have always done.”

Lecture-Free Teaching doesn’t make the transformation away from lecture sound easy. (The 13-step chronology to course design is daunting.) However, it does make it sound rewarding and worth the effort. I think the book provides an excellent entry point for college professors or high school teachers seeking to move the spotlight away from themselves and onto the students and what they need to do to think about the concepts that we want them to learn.

Addendum to the review above, by Suzanne Conklin:

I tried it. I spent the fall semester using a modified version of Wood’s lecture-free teaching in two different majors-level introductory biology courses (the first was an introduction to biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology; the second was an introduction to evolution, ecology, and the diversity of life). Each started with 24 students. I did not use Lecture-Free Teaching as a playbook; in fact, I didn’t open it all semester. Rather, I used it as inspiration, having internalized many of its principles and practical advice from a thorough reading the previous summer.

I explained the approach to my students on the first day of class. They knew that lecture-free teaching was an experiment for me and they understood why I was doing it. I told them that it would be hard, but I believed that they could handle it and, more importantly, that they would benefit from it. Not surprisingly, many students were initially reluctant. After all, I haven’t met many (any?) students in the past that would read the chapter ahead of time, and I suspected that they wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea. That was OK; I charged ahead.

One student told me that the perception of some students in the class was that I chose the lecture-free approach because it was easier for me. By not lecturing, it appeared I wasn’t working. Although lecture-free teaching places new responsibilities on the student, it still entails much more work for the teacher. Laying the groundwork for the lecture-free approach was no easy task. I cobbled together daily problem sets from materials provided by the textbook publisher and a few choice resources I’ve used for years. Keeping up with creating problem sets and topic outlines was a monumental chore. (Between the two classes, it meant reading and preparing for up to five chapters per week.) On the up side, I look forward to reusing these resources in future semesters.

It was in the problem sets that my approach deviated most significantly from Lecture-Free Teaching. In her book, Wood advocates using case studies and service-learning activities. While I believe that these types of lessons are probably more interesting to students and help connect fundamental biological ideas to the “real world,” their narrow focus makes it practically impossible to cover all the topics that I feel are essential. These students are biology majors, and I am obligated to prepare them for their next level of coursework. Meeting only twice per week, I had to complete nearly one chapter per session in order to cover the essential topics. I know – some will argue that I should cut down. Less is more and all that. I just don’t buy it. The material I include is already bare bones. My problem sets were designed to give students extensive practice using biological terminology and working with the concepts. Unfortunately, these were generally too long to finish in one class period, so students needed to complete them on their own time. I encouraged them to do this in groups, but few did.

An essential part of the lecture-free method is that students must read and take notes on assigned chapters before class. A few students found their groove, consistently completing this assignment. Some read sporadically, whereas others never opened the book. A few claimed to read but not take notes, and I believe that some of those were sincere. This inconsistent level of preparation made the problem-solving activities go slowly. Over the course of the semester, I just never discovered how to motivate the majority of my students to do the reading. I tried quizzes. I tried checking the notes. In the end, I think many students were just not motivated, willing, or capable of devoting the time and effort needed to keep up with the large volume of reading required.

Although Wood’s approach does not include regular lectures, her method encourages students to request lecture explanations of specific topics that they did not understand from the assigned readings. These mini-lectures are offered to the class if students request them ahead of time, or when students indicate that it is warranted by reporting a concept as a “murky point.” Preparing for mini-lectures was not a problem, since I had old lecture notes and PowerPoint slides from years past. I often kept the textbook PowerPoint presentation open on my laptop, ready to go if needed. I was able to handle most questions that came up on the fly. One or two strong students would request a mini-lecture almost every week, but I never heard from the majority of students. No mystery there. Most weren’t doing the reading. Sometimes I found myself devoting a chunk of class time to lecture just because I anticipated that they would need explanation of a certain complicated concept, such as lagging strands in DNA replication or regulation of gene expression by the lac operon. They usually appreciated this. Sometimes I sensed that students longed to be lectured to, to take the burden off them, but I remained steadfast and usually only did so by request.

The group dynamic was sometimes difficult to manage. Groups of four or five were assigned randomly at the beginning of the semester. They shifted slightly as the semester progressed because of attrition. From the beginning, unprepared students dragged down those who were ready to work. While I think that well-prepared students benefited from the peer teaching they did, they also lost out by not being in a group that was ready to tackle more sophisticated problems and work at a faster pace. Despite these problems, most of the time I loved being in a room full of students talking about biology. I rarely (ever?) experienced that when I lectured. As the commercial says: priceless.

There are some things I miss from lecturing. I miss telling stories. I miss being able to put the emphasis on ideas that I believe are really important. I miss lecturing on methods to solve problems, and I miss lecturing on complex ideas that come together from bits of stuff they’ve learned early on. There are also some things I don’t miss. I don’t miss lecturing on topics about which I am less confident. I certainly don’t miss lecturing to a class where the majority of students stare blankly at me while their pencils lie still.

I’m sure my population of students is typical of a comprehensive public college. Many of them work one or more jobs for too many hours per week. Some have families that depend on them. I assigned chapter after chapter to read when a lecture might have conveyed much of the same information, while saving them time. Did I feel bad about this? Sometimes, yes. Did I dread seeing my student evaluations this semester? Yes. But I’m glad I did this experiment. I gave the same kinds of exams I have always used, and students did at least as well as in the past. I was hoping to bring up the masses with this effort, but attrition and grade distributions were nearly the same as I’ve had in the past, and similar to those reported by others teaching the same courses in my department. Surprisingly, the student evaluations were mostly positive and left me encouraged. One student commented, “[I] really like the way you teach; reading the chapters before class was a lot of work but it help[ed] a great deal.” Another wrote, “Although very challenging, I enjoyed and benefited from the way class was taught.” My favorite comment was, “Professor Conklin definitely makes you work hard, but I believe I’m a better student because of it.”

On the basis of my semester-long experience, I think that the students who did well using the lecture-free approach will reap long-term benefits in several ways. First, they will see that the textbook is a tool that they can use to learn. As they encounter all kinds of teachers in the future, I hope they will no longer feel that their learning depends solely on the words that pour forth from their instructor. Rather, they should realize that they can be their own best teacher. Second, I think I opened the eyes of many students to see how much work is required to learn college-level science. Some students ran away when this bit of enlightenment hit, while others discovered they could be successful. The lab instructor for one of my courses noted that, compared to other sections of the course she has taught in the past, my groups of students were “more interactive and cohesive as a group” and “better able to ask a focused question.” She was impressed that even though they were “extremely vocal and very nervous” about the approach at first, ultimately they were “more mature” and had become “active learners.”

Finally, and most importantly, I think that the lecture-free teaching method is fully transparent. Student learning always depends on the student. No teacher has ever learned for a student, although sometimes I imagine that students perceive it that way. I think that when I lectured, students believed they were learning simply because I was teaching. Not necessarily so. In the lecture-free approach, students know immediately what they know and what they don’t. There is no hiding. Students choose to do the work to learn, or they don’t. Ideally, I would have twice as many hours with my students as I do. They need more time to hear biology, to speak biology, and to work with the concepts of biology. I believe this time is most productive when they have a group of like-minded students and an instructor to guide them in the process. In the future, I hope to combine the lecture-free method with the more traditional approach in order to find a blend that works best for my students.

I wish to acknowledge my colleague Eric Roberts for being a sounding board all semester and for offering sound critique of my book review.