An article published by in The New York Times Sunday warns about an insidious source of racism and sexism on the modern college campus: class lectures.
“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students,” warns writer Annie Murphy Paul for the paper’s “Gray Matter” column.
The problem, Paul says, isn’t that lectures allow for professors themselves to show bias, but rather that the lecture format itself is racist, regardless of who delivers the lecture. White, male students simply outperform their peers, often dramatically, in traditional lecture formats, more easily assimilating and then reproducing the knowledge such lectures impart.
Part of the issue, Paul proposes, is that lectures put a psychological burden on women and minorities, thanks to “a high-pressure atmosphere that may discourage them from volunteering to answer questions, or impair their performance if they are called on. Research in psychology has found that academic performance is enhanced by a sense of belonging — a feeling that students from these groups often acutely lack.”
Paul also suggests that lectures mostly teach students by helping to build atop knowledge they already have. Minorities and low-income students likely come from lower-quality schools, and so have a more limited knowledge base that makes them struggle to extract the same information from lectures.
To remedy the problem, Paul proposes following an “active learning” model that puts a greater emphasis on quizzes, collaborative work, student discussion, and other elements that add increased “structure” to the course. Such approaches, Paul says, have been shown to close achievement gaps.
“Given that active-learning approaches benefit all students, but especially those who are female, minority, low-income and first-generation, shouldn’t all universities be teaching this way?,” Paul proposes, though she doesn’t address the factor that such “active learning” would likely be more costly and more demanding of professors, who are also expected at most colleges to conduct research on top of teaching.
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