The notion of replacing or limiting the venerable lecture has been visited in earlier posts (The Inverted Classroom and The Future of the Lecture) but it seems the topic is far from exhausted. Recent research in cognitive psychology published in the journal Science points to another dimension in the problem of lecturing, namely, that people (read: our brains) do not remember much of what they hear in lectures. This may come as obvious to many students and conference attendees alike but this time it’s coming from investigative scientists who have the numbers to prove it.
Backing up a bit, suppose you were asked to design and deliver a class or training session that had to maximize educational outcome – meaning, it had to work as a learning tool more to the benefit of the students than the teacher – no holds are barred, and you knew of a technique that resulted in an 80% improvement over the traditional lecture method. Would you use that method? More to the point, could you justify not using it? Well that is what Deslauriers, Schelew and Wieman found (see Science article below) when they compared the lecture with a more interactive class they designed to teach physics. All things being equal, if you supplant the lecture with a presentation that is designed to work more in accord with how most people learn, test scores go from 41% for the garden-variety lecture class to 74% for the interactive class. Pretty impressive stuff.
So what is the nature of the design of the interactive class? Put simply, research in cognitive psychology suggests that learners will get better results if they use what they have just been given right away. The theme: Deliver new information, play with it, use it to solve problems, evaluate mastery of the skills and concepts, repeat as needed. Deslauriers, Schelew and Wieman’s physics students were hit repeatedly with questions during class that they had to answer with clickers. Students frequently worked in groups where they were challenged to use their new knowledge to solve problems. Lastly, the students were evaluated in part using two class tests rather than the traditional single mid-term exam.
Let’s make it clear, pouring the old wine in a new bottle does not make it sweeter. Content matters. Doing homework in class and listening to lectures at night is not “flipping the classroom.” Recording lectures and putting them on YouTube or iTunes U is no solution:
“A University of Maryland study of undergraduates found that after a physics lecture by a well-regarded professor, almost no students could provide a specific answer to the question, ‘What was the lecture you just heard about?’ A Kansas State University study found that after watching a video of a highly rated physics lecture, most students still incorrectly answered questions on the material.” — David H. Freeman, Discover Magazine
Even in the best cases of well-thought-out well-designed interactive classes some likely criticisms remain. There is an issue with the Hawthorne Effect that needs to be retired, but personal experience suggests that these findings are not surprising or unusual, at least in kind. Another question that surfaces is whether this kind of interactive class lends itself to subjects like literature, philosophy, history or political science. What are the limits of the approach?
Finally, we have to ask why if there is so much evidence and personal experience against lectures do we persist in giving them? The answer might well be wrapped in four prominent qualities of the practice: 1) lecturing is easy and cheap to do; 2) we have been taught to accept bad lectures as normal (for well over a thousand years!); 3), they (certainly the live version) create an illusion of interactivity between the presenter and audience that is not supported in actual observation (see D. Clark below); and 4), they stand as proof by the presenter and/or the institution that the material has been covered and “delivered” to the audience.
Pragmatically, and for the reasons above, lectures inherently favor the presenter and the institution. Lectures originated in a time when books and information were both scarce and expensive and colleges needed to solve a problem of distribution. Closer to the modern era lectures appear to be supported by tacit agreement with the dubious notion that teaching and telling are the same thing:
“The problem is not with the lecture but with the idea that receiving information is the key part of learning.” — Dominik Lukeš
The notion that the lecture’s time has come is finally reaching the Academy. Educators like Graham Gibbs (see below) have been questioning its value for over thirty years. More recently university professors like Stanford University’s (formerly) Sebastian Thrun have had their own epiphanies on the matter:
“Mr. Thrun told the crowd his move [away from Stanford] was motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. During the era when universities were born, ‘the lecture was the most effective way to convey information. We had the industrialization, we had the invention of celluloid, of digital media, and, miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ he said.” — Nick DeSantis, Wired Campus
Dr Wieman likewise has his own concerns about his colleagues and the future of the lecture in science instruction. As recorded by David Freeman of Discover Magazine:
“But scientists who teach have proven reluctant to toss out the lecture, never mind the evidence that it doesn’t work. ‘They say this is the way it’s always been done, and it was good enough for them, so it’s good enough for their students,’ Wieman says. Were this attitude to hold in medicine we would still be bloodletting, in physics we would be trying to reach the moon with very large rubber bands, and in economics we would still be suffering major worldwide financial crashes. (Well, physics and medicine are advancing, anyway.)” — David H. Freeman, Discover Magazine
What seems certain is that we are on the foothills of a major shift in what happens in the classroom. What develops in terms of the effects on corporate, college and military training remains to be seen. After all, it might not result in a single universal one-size-fits-all form. How this upheaval in teaching feeds into distance learning and web-based training is another discussion that almost certainly has to rear its head. The resultant form of the instructional process is anybody’s guess, but what is certain is that whatever it evolves into, whatever we see as the best fit for our instructional purpose, teaching well will remain hard work.
Freeman, David, H., Impatient Futurist: Science Finds a Better Way to Teach Science
Louis Deslauriers, et al., Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, Science 332, 862 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783 (PDF)
Gibbs, G., “Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing,” SCED Occasional Paper No. 8, Birmingham. 1981.
Clark, Donald, “Don’t Lecture Me” – ALT-C 2010.
Clark, Donald, “Lectures selling students short: evidence from ‘Science’ “
Lukeš, Dominik, “Putting lectures in their place with cautious optimism“
Deslauriers, Loius, Schelew, Ellen and Wieman, Carl, “Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class” Science 13 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6031 pp. 862-864