Lecturing and Student Engagement

I’ve been thinking a lot about lecturing and student engagement. We soon must figure out the courses we will teach for next year and I’m likely going to be teaching our intro class, the art history survey part 1. That class is set-up so that we must cover a lot of material. After some experiments last fall – when I last taught History of Western Art I – I came to the conclusion that such a course is probably best taught with a majority of the class as lecture. But this has me concerned, because based on many articles and books that I’ve read, most agree that lecturing tends to take away from increasing student engagement in their own learning.

In all of my other classes, I employ a problem-based learning approach. Nearly every class is filled with in-class assignments that encourage the students to apply the material that they have learned through the readings they prepared for class (and you can tell this way who has not done the reading). That does not mean there is no lecturing, but it’s balanced and serves to support the problem-based learning initiatives for that day. I’ve written about many of these types of assignments on the blog, especially the Roman Art and Architecture class, in which I first started to move towards a more problem-based learning pedagogy.

But I am troubled by how to approach our 1000-level survey classes. History of Art I and II are really important classes for our majors. They are required to take these two classes and our department has deemed recognition and identification of major monuments of art as a learning outcome for our department.

The changes I have made to the class prioritize recognition of styles of art over memorization – even though they must learn something about the major monuments of western art history. Because of the emphasis on recognition of styles in works they’ve not seen, some vestiges of problem-based learning continues to thrive in that class, too.

But the bulk of the class focuses on lecturing. So, friends and colleagues out there — if lecturing is the best way to get these ideas across in this 1000-level class, does that mean there will be necessarily a sacrifice of student engagement? Does lecturing really mean that some students will simply tune out? Is there a better solution that I am missing?


5 Responses to Lecturing and Student Engagement

  1. Elizabeth van den Berg says:

    I’m puzzling over this question myself this semester. The course I’m teaching currently hasn’t been offered since 2005, and I’m finding it more difficult to keep this generation engaged during the lecture portions – more nodding heads and glassy eyes than I remember. I’ve tried to balance lecture, discussion, film/video presentations, power points, and student presentations. Two things that I tried during my last lecture on Wednesday seemed to be helpful: 1. I made them stand up and learn a movement that I was describing in the lecture. This woke them up, made them giggle, enlivened a moment. I realize that learning a movement may not work in an art history course, but perhaps there is something else? 2. I usually lecture about similarities between Greek Theatre and Noh Theatre, but decided this time to ask the students in the course to list things that they knew about the Greeks, and then made the comparison to Noh. In that regard, they didn’t tune me out listening to me drone on about both forms, but actively brought them to the forefront of the lecture.
    Now – if only I can keep that kind of thing happening all semester….
    I let you know if I find anything else that works!

  2. gretchenmckay says:


    Thank you for these ideas. I’m truly glad to hear I am not the only one thinking about these issues out there. I like some of the ideas you have, especially the one about having them write everything they knew about the Greeks before going on to list differences.

    One thing I did in Roman Art when I was attempting to shift the course to a more problem-based learning platform, was to make a goal for each class beyond just “knowledge of ‘X'”. That might be the thing to do for the survey class, too.

    I agree with you that this generation fades quickly and AHY 1113 will likely be taught in a 90 minute time frame. I might just have them stand up and “strike the pose” — at least when we talk about weight shift in Greek art. Contrapposto and all that jazz! I might just do it..

    Do send on other ideas as they come to you and good luck with this particular class.

  3. Deb Vance says:

    I find that I prefer the 3-day 1-hour time frame. Maybe that’s something to consider. They have a day to absorb the information from the previous day and come in with questions. I’m always finding pertinent things in the world — from the news, the radio, on YouTube, etc. — to post to Blackboard that ties in with what we’re discussing.
    In the Introduction to media class, they — like everyone else in the culture — have deeply entrenched pre-conceptions. One thing I have them to is experience and observe each medium and answer specific questions about it, Some of the projects are collaborative. There’s so much information about media — much of it misleading or erroneous, and a lot of it avoiding those areas of discourse that would help it make sense (laws and regulations like the 1st Amendment, the Communications Act of 1934 — especially section 315 –, the Paramount decision of 1948, and now the Telecommunications Act of 1996). This has to be lecture and reading. But once they know about these laws and decisions, a lot of dismantling of preconceptions happens and we can apply the principles to current issues.
    Maybe there’s a parallel for art history — giving some of the design principles and some of the problems that needed to be solved in any period, and then looking at how specific works solve those problems? Looking for those same elements in the world today? There seems to be such a lack of aesthetics out in the world that it’s got to be tough. I think about this whenever I drive on route 140, or York Road in Timonium. So many buildings slabbed together, a clutter of signs and a lack of trees! no natural curves, everything’s disjointed, no solace for the eye. Even though it’s art history and they must recognize and memorize, arent’ there ways you have them try to apply the principles they learn?

  4. gretchenmckay says:


    Interesting ideas – and I do the application idea in all my upper-level art history classes. Or, I conduct case studies where instead of telling them, for instance, about the change in church architecture under Justinian, I give them all the pieces and make them come up with an architectural plan that they draw and present. Then we talk about what really happened.

    But in the AHY 1113 slog – we have to go from prehistoric art to the medieval period, and it’s a lot to cover. And there are major works that should not be dropped. It’s a real puzzle, and I’m still puzzling over it….

  5. gretchenmckay says:

    But I do have them apply style to new works of art – that is a major part of every exam so there is less memorization and more application to – how do you know this is an Archaic Greek statue? – for instance.

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