According to keynote speaker and history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith, Friday’s Sixth Annual Spring Teaching Forum and Innovation Fair touched on five of the most important questions of higher education. It illuminated who teaches, what they teach, whom they teach, how and why, he said.

The conference, called “Lecture, Section, and Learning,” began with a talk by Smith on the history of lecture and sections at Yale followed by a faculty panel discussion on integrating lectures and section. About 100 faculty members and graduate students listened to their colleagues’ presentations while enjoying a buffet lunch in the President’s Room.

Bill Rando, director of the McDougal Graduate Teaching Center, opened the forum with a speech that highlighted the need for faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students alike to determine how to best make use of Yale’s lecture-section class structure.

“It has been clear to me in speaking with students that the role of section isn’t always clear, and sometimes the [teaching assistants] aren’t exactly sure what the purpose of section is either,” Rando said. “The hardest thing to do in teaching is to teach if you don’t know what the purpose is.”

After providing background history on the evolution of sections at Yale — which were originally taught by tutors, later by junior faculty, and finally by graduate students beginning in the 1960s — Smith reflected on his own personal practice, which involves first teaching a section himself, then meeting weekly with all the section staff to debate ways to get students more involved in class and how best to coordinate lecture with section.

“I love lecture and believe that even with 500 students one can sense whether the audience is with you or not,” Smith said. “Sections and seminars, however, are much more difficult to teach and more important for the students. After 45 years, I am still trying to do better about getting all the students to respond.”

Four faculty members from different disciplines sat on a panel following Smith’s speech to reflect on their techniques on integrating lecture and section and to answer questions from the audience.

Christine Hayes, professor of religious studies in classical Judaica, emphasized the value of section not only as a review of lecture but as a supplement to it. She said section is a time for students to try out the ideas she proposes in lecture and to closely analyze primary sources that are not discussed during that time.

Hayes said a section spent simply reviewing lecture materials would be “an hour wasted.”

“If students need to spend that long reviewing my lectures, then I have not done my job,” she said.

In courses such as math and economics, sections play a different role than in the humanities because they focus on practicing and reviewing specific problems. Economics professor Benjamin Polak said the key to leading a good section is writing good problems that do not just repeat what is covered in lecture but that also help expand students’ understanding.

“The only way students can learn to use the concepts taught in lecture is by practicing in section,” Polak said. “Students often have the illusion that they understand lectures, but putting these lessons to use is another thing altogether.”

After a question and answer session and a dessert break, Graduate School Dean Peter Salovey, who will assume the deanship of Yale College on July 1, closed the forum with a discussion titled “Putting it Into Practice.” Salovey touched upon the differences between teaching to communicate information versus to teaching to develop critical thinking skills. He said he emphasized the motivation that teachers should have to inspire further study in their students.

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