Class discussion no substitute for good teaching

What does a professor’s job entail? Most people would agree that an important component of a professor’s job is teaching. So why does it seem like many professors are afraid to open their mouths in

What does a professor’s job entail? Most people would agree that an important component of a professor’s job is teaching. So why does it seem like many professors are afraid to open their mouths in class?

The simple answer is that the world of higher education has put an undue amount of importance on class participation. Instead of teaching by lecturing, many professors, especially in the liberal arts, have subscribed to the philosophy that running class discussions is the preferred way to teach.

The problem with this philosophy is that many students do not know enough about the subject being taught to be able to contribute something worthwhile to class discussions.

This does not mean that some students’ comments are not thought provoking; it just means that class participation should not replace lecturing as the primary means of education. Yet, in many classes, it already has.

Part of the reason for this trend is that lectures are often perceived by students as boring, which results in favoring teachers who encourage, and even force, constant class discussion.

Yet just because lectures tend to be less than riveting does not mean that they are not worth paying attention to. It is the professor’s responsibility to teach the students and that is why students show up to class. So why should professors be hesitant to directly share their knowledge?

They shouldn’t hesitate. But it seems that their superiors are constantly telling professors that getting students to participate is one of the most important aspects of teaching. Professors are also being told that even if students do not have something constructive to say, that does not mean that they shouldn’t say something.

At a Temple adjunct faculty seminar that was held during summer 2004, a handout was distributed to the attendees. One of the suggestions on the handout was “Design discussion so that everyone has to contribute.” The handout also recommended that professors “always try to make questions from students valuable.”

Although these two suggestions seem harmless enough, if put into effect, they could create a classroom environment that is inhospitable to true learning. For example, if everyone has to contribute, some students who genuinely have nothing to say will be forced to waste class time by stating something trite.

In addition, when those students who have nothing to say do contribute, it becomes the professor’s responsibility to try and glean something of importance from what he or she has said, thus using up more class time.

Too many times during my college career, I have fallen victim to classes where nothing is learned because the professor is dedicated to the struggle to make sure that every student contributes.

One of my professors was so desperate for comments once that he let a girl say, “They played tennis in this chapter, and I liked that because I used to play tennis.” After the girl said this, he didn’t criticize her for being vapid. He just moved on to the next raised hand.

Of course, class discussion can be a greatly valuable component to a classroom. However, the real problem is those instructors who do whatever they can to force class discussion even if it means not evaluating what students say in order to help them further develop their ideas.

It is important to remember that not every student needs to be vocal in class. Profound remarks cannot be birthed from every passing minute in a class, or else there would be no need for professors or college. Sometimes it’s a better idea to let the professors talk while the students sit with closed mouths.

Students have a right to expect professors to teach all that they know. And if being educated means having to sometimes stifle the thoughts in our heads, then we should be more than happy to pay that price.

Daniel J. Kristie can be reached at

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