At a Loss for Words – The Future of the Lecture Might Be in Less Talk

Silentium - Latin for "Shut Up & Pay Attention"

A recent study from researchers Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman suggests that the Methuselah of instructional technologies, the venerable broadcast lecture, might finally be showing signs of going the way of geocentricity and the four humors. Applying methods taken from the theory of “deliberate practice” by psychologist Anders Ericsson, the research team introduced a more interactive, discussion-based and assessment-oriented approach to a physics class that strongly implies major improvements to science and engineering instruction in general.

The setting for the study involves two groups of electromagnetics students (control: 267; test: 271) wherein both were given the same learning objectives and enjoyed the same pedagogical approach (but not the same instructors) for the first 11 weeks of instruction. On week 12, Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have limited teaching experience) jumped into the fray and according to the BPS Research Digest lead the test group utilizing “…discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback.” And, what is especially important to note here: there was no formal lecturing. According to the researchers the object of the game was:

“…to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at ‘thinking scientifically’ in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others.”

In contrast to the test group, the control group went on learning the same material in the normal (typically passive) fashion epitomized by classroom lectures for probably the last 900 years. The students, however, apparently noticed a difference. As quoted in the BPS review:

“Student engagement (measured by trained observers) and attendance in the control group was unchanged in week 12 compared with earlier weeks. In the intervention group, attendance rose by 20 per cent and engagement nearly doubled.

The critic or cynic might assert that the presenters were putting on a better show in the test case. What about student performance? On the first day of class after week 12 both groups were tested on what they had learned the previous week. In addition, as part of the preparation for the test, both groups were given all the materials used by the intervention group, i.e., the clicker questions, group activities and problem sets, and exercise solutions. The results are as striking as the jump in student engagement:

The non-lecture intervention group averaged 74 percent correct while the control group averaged 41 percent. Factoring out random guessing, the intervention group did twice as well as the traditional lecture students (the effect size being on the order of 2.5 standard deviations!). Not to be downplayed, student reviews rated the non-lecture approach very positively. Ninety percent said they enjoyed the process.

Jeffrey Mervis writing for the AAAS ScienceNow magazine quotes Wieman as saying:

‘It’s almost certainly the case that lectures have been ineffective for centuries. But now we’ve figured out a better way to teach’ that makes students an active participant in the process, Wieman says. Cognitive scientists have found that ‘learning only happens when you have this intense engagement,’ he adds. ‘It seems to be a property of the human brain.’ ” – Jeffrey Mervis, A Better Way to Teach?

Given the novelty of the technique and the overt nature of the study there has been some criticism of the results based on the Hawthorne Effect. The research team discounts this criticism on the basis that the intervention only occupied a small percentage of the students’ overall daily learning activities. Drilling a little deeper, psychology professor Daniel Willingham (as recounted in Carey below) cautioned that the study might not have been designed well enough to discern which of the factors introduced in the new classroom style account for the gains in student performance and to what degree.

In what might be one of the clearest victories for proponents of the Inverted Classroom the research team is optimistic of the result and reckons it can be generalized to a wide range of post-secondary courses. No doubt further studies can be expected. The study in question is supported by a $12 million dollar program to investigate new methods to enhance science instruction using research-backed methods.


Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783

Carey, Benedict (2011). Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning

Mervis, Jeffrey (2011). A Better Way to Teach?

Dwyer, Liz (2011). Research Proves College Lectures Need to Go the Way of the Dinosaur

Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice

The Inverted Classroom

Should We Teach to Learning Styles?

Learning styles, it seems, are part of education. How exactly they got there I am not sure, but I don’t recall a time when I did not know (or suspect I knew) my dominant learning style. In fact, I suspect more educators know their learning styles than blood types. That said, after all this time, I’ve begun to readdress my thinking concerning learning styles and the role they should play in teaching and instructional design.

I’ve been reading Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? which has a chapter titled “How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?” A note to auditory learners: If you go over to the Future of Education web site or look at the Episode 90 interview at the Psych Files web site you can listen to two interviews with Dr Willingham that address the topic in light of the current research in cognitive psychology. But be warned: you might not like what you find.

To start, it’s a good idea to distinguish between learning style and ability. Willingham points out that there are scores of various learning styles that have been put forth over the years. A short list might include:

  • Analytic/nonanalytic
  • Field dependent/field independent
  • Impulsive/reflective
  • Convergent/divergent
  • Serialist/holist
  • Adaptor/innovator
  • Reasoning/intuitive
  • Visualizer/verbalizer
  • Visual/auditory/kinesthetic

Style should be distinguished from ability in that style implies a “manner of doing something” whereas ability suggests “a capacity for doing something,” leading even to notions of talent. That is, two equally adept (able) students might think about a subject in different ways (sequentially vs. holistically, for example). As Willingham says:

“Abilities are how we deal with content (for example, math or language arts) and they reflect the level (that is, the quantity) of what we know and can do. Styles are how we prefer to think and learn. We consider having more ability as better than having less ability, but we do not consider one style as better than any other style.”

Teachers and instructional designers no doubt note the differences between individuals (in personality, motivation, and interest) and may account for the inherent advantages of certain cognitive styles for a particular lesson or task, but Willingham is quick to remind us that after nearly seventy years of research, no evidence exists to support the notion that learning styles, as described by learning style theorists, exist. Simply put:

Teaching to an individual’s purported dominant learning style offers no advantage in terms of how much that individual learns.

In fact, in Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), page 113, Willingham presents a positive spin on this finding when he writes:

“Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”

This is far from the end of the conversation where learning styles are concerned however. The teacher and instructional designer can still benefit from a knowledge of learning styles if they flip their application over and apply them to the instruction rather than to the instructed. That is,

…differentiate instruction based on the meaning of the lesson to be conveyed. Match the content (or meaning of the lesson) to the style of the presentation not to the presumed “learning style” of the students.

At first glance this is ingenious but a few likely examples reveal its necessary utility.

Consider that you need to present some lessons on tying knots for a class on mountaineering. Can you imagine that your students would actually master how to tie complicated knots if they did not have a chance to kinesthetically learn the knots by practicing with rope? Would a language course in Chinese be well designed if it did not offer its students an auditory portion wherein they could listen to proper pronunciation by native speakers? Would you try to teach geography by describing countries by the contours of their borders rather than using a visual presentation of the land areas and their features?

These are examples of how to match the (learning) style of the presentation to the meaning (or inherent goal) of the lesson.

Although predictions from individual learning styles theories might not be supported by experimental evidence, learning styles themselves are nonetheless persistent memes in education. Willingham estimates that 90% of his students at the University of Virginia believe in them although he is unable to find mention of learning styles in popular education texts. In addition, many professional training seminars promise to help practitioners in education and business master the application of learning styles for problems in the classroom and the workplace. But still they elude the researcher. Maybe they do exist but we have yet to design the correct experiments to measure them? Or maybe the lesson of learning styles is just that we have to understand them differently and approach them more as guides for connecting meaning to the content and the style of presentations we fashion for our students.


Daniel T. Willingham

DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS? A Critique of Learning Styles,” Steven Stahl, American Educator, Fall 1999.

Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” Psychological Science in the PUBLIC INTEREST, Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, Volume 9 Number 3, December 2008.

Advances in Applying the Science of Learning and Instruction to Education,” Psychological Science in the PUBLIC INTEREST, Richard E. Mayer, Volume 9, Number 3, 2009.

Mind myth 7: Learning styles and multiple intelligences

Professor pans ‘learning style’ teaching method

Reframing the Mind – Howard Gardner and the theory of multiple intelligence,” Daniel Willingham, EducationNext, Summer 2004 / Vol. 4, No. 3.