Credit Where Credit is Due: Incongruities in the Value of Lab and Lecture


What constitutes learning and credit in higher education? In most institutions of higher education, we award units for packets of time dedicated to successful learning. Attend a course for three hours of lecture per week; complete the course with a passing grade, and the successful student is awarded three units of value indicating competence and experience in a particular discipline. Unfortunately we have data that describes in no uncertain terms that learning is least effective in lecture conditions. The more we understand about the neurobiology of the brain, the better grasp we have on aspects of teaching and learning that result in long lasting learning and skills. Analysis of deep student learning, that results in the student's ability to link new knowledge to past learning and apply this knowledge in a critical way to everyday life, occurs most effectively when the students are involved in active learning, in contrast to passive learning. As much as we faculty enjoy our role as pundits and experts within our fields, if our goal is really to have the students walk away with useful knowledge, the least effective venue is an exclusively lecture format, the "talking head" approach.

Who would claim that the most effective means of learning to swim would be to attend a lecture course for three hours per week for a semester, take a series of multiple choice exams, and then receive a passing grade for knowledge concerning swimming? This kind of knowledge may be useful, but is very ineffective in guaranteeing that the student has any competency when required to stay afloat in a pool. This is a skill, some might argue, a psychomotor skill that requires experimentation, practice, and application.

Yet what academic matter does not require this kind of personal investment by the student to master any type of knowledge? Science courses, applied technologies, art, music, and computer studies are disciplines, which have incorporated active learning as labs for decades. More recently math, writing and psychology have identified the importance of adequate time for learning through experimentation and application, with an instructor available to provide active feedback. Many instructors incorporate active learning strategies into lecture hours, but are limited using this type of activity because of the one-hour blocks of time. Small group activities, presentations, peer collaboration are frequently used within the classrooms designated as "lecture," thereby blurring the standard definition of the term; in truth many classes in the arts, humanities, and social sciences designated as "lecture" are more similar in practice to "lab classes."

One thing most community colleges do better than any other arm of higher education involves using the same instructors to teach both laboratory and lecture, in contrast to using teaching assistants or graduate students. This use of faculty to teach both does not reflect merely an absence of graduate students on community college campuses; rather, on most campuses, labs are intentionally taught by the lecture instructor. This holistic approach to learning results in didactic hours that provide opportunity for theory to be described and also offers hands-on lab hours for students to apply and personally discover the finesse required and BOARD HUMOR the difficulties encountered in applying this knowledge. This methodology is especially important when we couple this teaching strategy with the knowledge that most of our students are kinesthetic learners. Faculty who have analyzed students for learning styles have found that regardless of the discipline-sociology or science-regardless of the level of the institution- Community College or Cornell-students classify themselves as learners to comprehend best by doing. And research supports the finding that learning environments that provide opportunity for immediate diagnostic feedback, trial and error, are the most effective for gaining expertise in using knowledge.

Some equate laboratory curriculum as something akin to Julia Child's cooking instruction in which a recipe is carefully followed and in the end a student produces a product through imitation. This is not the laboratory of today. The effective nature and value of learning by doing in a laboratory is in stark contrast to the value assigned to laboratory learning. A common scenario for science students may entail signing up for a four unit science class, three hours of lecture and three hours of lab, or a five-unit course which requires nine hours of class per week. For the faculty member teaching a lab, the lab hours are often weighted far less than those of lecture (for instance the lecture hours receive a 15 hour load and the labs 18 or 22 lecture hour equivalents). Both the faculty member's and the student's time are devalued in the present system of awarding credit and compensation. The rationale for this disparity is an enigma: While it was once presumed that laboratory time required no advanced preparation or out-of-class grading and evaluation, in today's academy nothing is further from the truth. Preparation time for laboratory activities are often much more intensive than for lecture and include preparing the materials for the students to use, improving the procedures to improve discoverylearning, cleaning up after the learning experience, and grading the student products of the lab work. Students also often complain that their time and work required for lab courses far exceeds that required in typical lecture courses.

The value of well-used lab hours for active learning, discovery, and application, coupled with the unique opportunities for authentic assessment of student skills, is unparalleled. Yet both students and faculty are credited less for these hours. In today's world of higher education, we continue to value the importance of seat time while failing to acknowledge the benefit of true application through lab practice. Bringing to life the learning experience is the purpose of the lab hour. If we truly value student learning, why don't we credit a three-hour lab as we do a three-hour lecture? It is time to re-evaluate the understanding of what constitutes "lecture" and "lab" as well as the student credit and faculty load assigned to laboratory learning experiences and give credit where credit is due.