Digital Natives Like a Good Lecture, Too

Students want us to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and not just the ‘guide on the side’

Steve Katz / Creative Commons

December 01, 2014

I recently received an email about a workshop on teaching "today’s students" (as if we had a choice and could teach yesterday’s). Reading the schedule for the workshop, it seemed to be yet another campaign for us faculty members to get with the program and adjust to classrooms full of "digital natives."

It is an accepted belief now that our students are all homo sapiens digitalis. They grew up with computers and therefore are naturally adept at using them, right? By the same logic, we could say that anyone born in the West after about 1850 is a "textual native," with the rise of mass media meaning everyone over the last 150 years has been surrounded by the written word. (A moment’s consideration of the persistence of illiteracy should put that concept to bed.) If the existence of technology prior to one’s birth conferred a particular affinity for it, there wouldn’t be so many lousy drivers on the road. After all, everyone alive today was born after the advent of the Model T.

Meanwhile, many of my digital-native students appear befuddled by the campus library’s online catalog, by JSTOR and Moodle, and even by the university email system. But I am told repeatedly that today’s students are "different," as though some drastic alteration to the human genome has taken place, with the result that yesterday’s teaching methods don’t work. So we’re meant to flip our classrooms, have integrated learning strategies, and embrace other "new" developments. (Or not so new: Flipped classrooms, in the form of competency-based learning, have cycled in and out of fashion in pedagogical circles since at least the 1920s.)

I have not been teaching long at my current university, so in the midst of reading various suggestions and guides to classroom techniques, I decided to ask my students what they enjoy most (and least) in their courses. I teach at a research university, my students are bright and (mostly) well prepared, and I know I am lucky to have the chance to work with them.

Their answers were illuminating. Many of my students are education majors, so the notions of flipped classes and blended learning are not new to them. Let me tell you, they do not like to feel that the techniques they are learning to use on high-schoolers are being used on them. "Waste of time" and "having to teach myself" were loud comments I heard again and again.

Group work came in for a particular hammering. Students can’t help their classmates’ lack of preparation, and they don’t want it to be their problem—especially if their grades are on the line in a group project. I’m also at a primarily commuter campus. Perhaps the collaborative group-work stuff works better at residential colleges, but most of my students have part-time jobs, are on the campus only during their classes, and really don’t want to have to coordinate times to meet on a project with classmates who live 30 miles away. Even the most basic level of cooperation brings problems: Simply suggesting they consult to make sure their presentations don’t overlap results in my receiving several panicked emails each semester from students because someone in their group won’t reply to messages.

I don’t think "today’s students" are much different from how I was at 19, or from previous generations of students. In the past 1,000 years of higher education, we have found what works best in teaching: small classes and one-on-one interactions between student and professor. That is why Oxford and Cambridge still have one-on-one tutorials, and I don’t see those classrooms being flipped anytime soon. They already are flipped, in the sense that the student has to prepare an essay every week before the class but also has to attend lectures which are very much in the traditional model.

My teaching model is not static: I use movies, music, artifacts, and other elements to make my classroom more engaging. I asked my students what they liked because I really wanted to offer them a good learning environment. But flipping my classroom won’t resolve the fact that there are 25 students in a seminar when 10 would be far better. I just can’t offer them the small-group, Socratic-dialogue model from which I gained so much.

From what my students told me, they clearly want the information and skills we can teach them. They don’t just want the professor’s role to be showing them where to find this stuff somewhere else. They want to hear what we have to say.

So take heart, colleagues. One female student even said, "We’re paying all this money to learn from you, the experts." Another talked fondly about an older professor’s lectures (delivered off-the-cuff, with no visual aids) because they illustrated what it "must have been like to go to university 30 years ago." That was not meant as a criticism.

Meanwhile, my teaching evaluations suggest the same thing. Of a seminar class, one of my students expressed the wish that I could "give a mini-lecture each class. She seems to have lots of interesting ideas." My cynical heart grew about two sizes that day.

A large part of the value that we bring to the classroom is that of the "sage on the stage," rather than the "guide on the side." We have the qualifications and skill, and for students, being in the same room as an expert is an valuable part of university experience.

Students don’t enroll at brick-and-mortar colleges because they want a distance-learning experience. Instead of trying to offer both and ending up with neither, let’s play to our strengths.

Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in the humanities at the University of New South Wales, in Australia. Her website is and you can follow her on Twitter: @katrinagulliver.