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Teaching and Learning Committee
Amy Marcus-Newhall, Chair

The SPSSI Teaching and Learning Committee is proud to present another Forward newsletter column on Teaching Social Issues. Martin Greenberg is a past recipient of the SPSSI Teaching/Mentoring Award.  If you are interested in writing future columns on the benefits and complexities of teaching and learning about social issues, please contact the Teaching and Learning Committee Chair, Amy Marcus-Newhall at We welcome your ideas for future column topics that will appeal to SPSSI teachers. Also, please think of self-nominating or nominating deserving others for the SPSSI Teaching and Mentoring Award (see call in this issue or on the SPSSI website). The deadline for receipt of materials is May 10, 2010.

The Flawed Lecture Technique as a Way of Increasing Student Involvement
By Martin S. Greenberg, University of Pittsburgh  

    As teachers, we face many challenges. One of the most daunting is motivating students to become active and engaged learners. Ample evidence shows that when students are actively engaged they process the material more deeply, which leads to better understanding and retention. We have a rich array of methods to employ in the classroom to encourage active learning. Making the material relevant to their lives is one such technique. We do this by providing them with numerous concrete examples illustrating the application of the material to their everyday lives.  Involving students in discussion is another mechanism that fosters engagement.  In the course of such discussions we pose challenging questions designed to engage them with the material. Some instructors use a variation of this, dividing the class into small discussion groups. Other instructors require students to turn in questions about the material at the end of the class session. Presumably, having to think of questions encourages attentiveness and reflection. In addition, I have staged debates in class on controversial topics such as the death penalty. In order to encourage deeper processing, I assign students to defend a position that they previously indicated they oppose.  These are but a few of the many things that we do to encourage engagement with the material.

    I would like to propose another classroom exercise that can be added to the arsenal of techniques to encourage greater student involvement.  I call this the “flawed-lecture technique.” You have no doubt heard the expression, “we learn from our mistakes.” What I am proposing is that not only can we learn from our mistakes, but others can as well. The procedure involves deliberately introducing errors into our lectures. They can be errors of fact (e.g., eyewitnesses are almost always correct in their identification of a suspect) or of logic (e.g., since crime victims are often reluctant to report their victimization to the police, we ought to provide less incentive for reporting). I realize that deliberately introducing flaws in our lectures goes against the grain in that it violates everything we have been taught-- to be purveyors of truth. However, what I am proposing has a strong basis in empirical research. Numerous studies have shown that we are particularly likely to recall information that violates our expectancies. Why might this be so? Perhaps because, as research suggests, such information is more likely to capture our attention and that more cognitive effort must be invested in reconciling the incongruent information with our expectancies. This is particularly likely to occur when we are motivated to have accurate beliefs.

    I would argue that much good learning occurs when we are challenged with fixing, correcting, or repairing something, whether it be a lamp, a computer program, or a flawed argument. It is the process of repairing a “broken” fact or a “broken” argument that induces deeper processing and more thoughtful reasoning about the issues. Consider, for example, a pedagogical technique often used for training medical doctors. They are presented with a patient who manifests a complex of symptoms (i.e., bodily functions that are not working correctly) and are asked to use their working knowledge of the human body to diagnose the problem(s). Similarly, the training of repair persons of all sorts, whether they be auto mechanics or those who fix electrical appliances, involves teaching them to apply their knowledge to fix something that is malfunctioning. The common thread underlying this training approach is that the act of fixing or repair involves activation and careful examination of relevant knowledge structures or schema.  This investment of cognitive resources to explore our knowledge structures can not only help students diagnose and fix problems, but may have the additional benefit of helping them identify deficiencies in their schema as well.

     Implementation of the flawed lecture technique comes with strong warnings. In order for the technique to work, students must first have in place an appropriate schema. Without an appropriate schema, the presentational flaws are not likely to be detected or acted upon. I would not recommend use of the technique in large lower-level lecture classes. Students in such classes may be overly accepting of the teacher’s remarks. For many of them, the primary concern is writing down what the professor says rather than detecting flaws in the lecture. I think the technique works best in upper-level undergraduate classes and in graduate courses. Finally, it is likely to be most effective when students are warned in advance. Such a warning might take this form:  “Some of the things I will tell you today may not be correct. If you feel that what I have said is incorrect, then by all means, raise your hand and voice your concern.”

    If you believe that my arguments are flawed and you find yourself vigorously disagreeing and thinking of counter arguments, then perhaps I have made my point.

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