17. Interactive Lectures, Seminars, and Tutorials: Learning by Talking

17.1. The Theoretical and Research Basis for Dialogue and Discussion

Researchers have identified a distinction, often intuitively recognized by instructors, between meaningful and rote learning (Asubel et al., 1978). Meaningful learning involves the learner going beyond memorization and surface comprehension of facts, ideas, or principles, to a deeper understanding of what those facts, ideas or principles mean to them. Marton and Saljö, who have conducted a number of studies that examined how university students actually go about their learning, make the distinction between deep and surface approaches to learning (see, for instance, Marton and Saljö, 1997). Students who adopt a deep approach to learning tend to have a prior intrinsic interest in the subject. Their motivation is to learn because they want to know more about a topic. Students with a surface approach to learning are more instrumental. Their interest is primarily driven by the need to get a pass grade or qualification.

Subsequent research (e.g. Entwistle and Peterson, 2004) showed that as well as students’ initial motivation for study, a variety of other factors also influence students’ approaches to learning. In particular, surface approaches to learning are more commonly found when there is a focus on:

  • Information transmission
  • Tests that rely mainly on memory
  • A lack of interaction and discussion

On the other hand, deeper approaches to learning are found when there is a focus on:

  • Analytical or critical thinking or problem-solving
  • In-class discussion
  • Assessment based on analysis, synthesis, comparison, and evaluation

Constructivists believe that knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes which are necessary to move students beyond surface learning to deeper levels of understanding. Connectivist approaches to learning also place heavy emphasis on networking learners, with all participants learning through interaction and discussion between each other, driven both by their individual interests and the extent to which these interests connect to the interests of other participants. The very large numbers participating in connectivist MOOCs means that there is a high probability of converging interests for all participants, although those interests may vary considerably over the whole group.

Laurillard (2001), and Harasim (2017), have emphasized that academic knowledge requires students to move constantly from the concrete to the abstract and back again, and to build or construct knowledge based on academic criteria such as logic, evidence and argument. This, in turn, requires a strong teacher presence within a dialectical environment, in which argument and discussion within the rules and criteria of the subject discipline are encouraged and developed by the instructor or teacher. Laurillard calls this a rhetorical exercise, an attempt to get learners to think about the world differently. Conversation and discussion is critical if this is to be achieved.

The combination of theory and research here suggests the need for frequent interaction between students, and between teacher and students, for the kinds of learning needed in a digital age. This interaction usually takes the form of semi-structured discussion. I will now examine how this kind of learning has traditionally been facilitated by educators.