Anyone Still Listening? Educators Consider Killing the Lecture

| July 19, 2013 | 30 Comments
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Scott Aikin admits that he’s “a very conservative pedagogue.” That’s why the author and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University says that, this fall, he’s asking his students to keep their laptops at home. Instead, he wants their full attention for his main method of teaching: lecturing.

“I call it ‘the chalk and talk.’ I have a piece of chalk and I talk. I fill the board with notes and sometimes diagram things or map out an argument. Students are allowed to stop and ask questions or challenge at any time, and I’ll make good on answers. That’s it. Students only need pens and paper for the class (if not their books, too),” he said.

Aikin’s method appears beyond retro — some would even call it obsolete — but Aikin says that’s fine with him. He finds being the “sage on the stage” to be most effective. “The most content-full and involved classes from my college (and even graduate) days were primarily lecture courses,” he said. “Everything I do as a lecturer now I’ve cribbed from those I thought effective in front of a class.”

Studies show lecturing to be an effective tool for transferring information: for example, a 2011 study of classroom teaching methods performed by Guido Schwerdt of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Amelie C. Wuppermann at the University of Mainz, Germany, found that larger amounts of class time lecturing increased junior high math and science students’ test scores over time spent on problem-solving activities. But the majority of higher education seems to be moving in the opposite direction, toward project-based and student-led work, especially for time spent in class.

A large reason for the shift is much of the information conveyed in a typical lecture is already available for free, at any time online, freeing up class time for more in-depth, hands-on work. Dr. Tim Lahey, infectious diseases specialist and Associate Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, says the dilemma whether to kill the lecture is “the million dollar question in education, medical and otherwise.” One of Lahey’s main goals as head of Dartmouth medical school’s curriculum redesign is to incorporate more interactive work, what he calls the “evidence-based (and fun) teaching tools,” that he believes will revitalize medical school learning.

This is “the million dollar question in education.”

Teachers are wrong to assume that their role is to only convey information, and that merely saying the magic words will translate into learning for students, Lahey said. “Our students can access lots of information really efficiently now online, probably more efficiently than we could ever relay it,” he said. “So the added value of interactions with faculty should be talking through difficult concepts, refining difficult decision-making, and otherwise doing the challenging stuff that can’t be done with a laptop or phone. I try to structure lectures with that in mind.”

Lahey is eager to introduce more peer instruction in the revamped medical curriculum, because, he says, it’s clear that students working together in small groups produce superior outcomes to lecturing.

TRUSTING PEERS

Peer instruction was first introduced by Eric Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University and Area Dean of Applied Physics, to his classes in 1991. Mazur, who found that this method helped students understand better, said lectures are much like musical concerts — they can still be appreciated, especially as a motivational tool. But what’s changed is that the lecture is no longer the only way to transfer important information. “Ever since the Middle Ages, the primary vehicle for conveying information was the lecture,” he said. “But this is the 21st century, and there are so many ways to convey information, it’s not the necessity it once was.” Students don’t learn by listening, they learn by doing, and Mazur points out that the brain’s “hard work” of learning has to be performed by the learner, not the lecture.

Mazur’s method of peer instruction for physics classes involves two steps: first, he “primes the pump” by assigning reading or watching an online video of a lecture outside of class, and has students annotate the parts they had trouble understanding. Part two happens at the next class, when Mazur revisits concepts students stumbled over. “I say, here’s a question, think about it individually,” he said. “Then, commit to an answer, write it down on a piece of paper, or sometimes we use clickers, or handheld devices, or whatever. But here’s the crucial step: After you have committed to an answer, turn to the people around you, find a person with a different answer, and try to come to some agreement.”

[RELATED: Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking How Students Learn]

When students show each other how they came to a certain answer, they get a chance to refine their thinking, showing the other student why they did what they did. “When I say it, it may sound very clear and convincing, but to the students you are not really helpful,” said Mazur, explaining professors’ sometime curse of knowledge, and that new learners are sometimes able to explain a new concept to confused students better than a professor.

And while even “conservative” professors like Aikin still actively seek student involvement through discussions and allowing students to “share the expertise” in class, some students think it’s not nearly enough. Somewhere between standards and what professors deem best for students lies what students want out of the learning experience, a concern that professors rarely consider, says Zak Malamed, Student Voice founder and University of Maryland College Park sophomore. Malamed said that personalized learning is very important to 21st century students. “Professors do not engage students enough, if at all, when trying to innovate the classroom,” he said. “It’s shocking how out of touch they can be, just because they didn’t take the time to hear their students’ perspectives.”

In Malamed’s favorite class on social media, the professor asked how students wanted to learn what was on the syllabus, and made the class a conversation in a way that felt relevant to modern society. And the most memorable lecture Malamed has experienced at the university level was with Harvard’s Michael Sandel: “He interacts with his audience – it’s terrible that I see it as an audience, by the way – and engages the audience with each other. It makes the classroom seem much smaller than it is, and saves me from my short attention span.”

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  • http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines Robert Talbert

    Regarding that study about the effect of lecture on students’ algebra test scores carried out by Guido Schwerdt, make sure you click the link and read the study. Schwerdt found that increased lecturing led to increases of only around 5% of a standard deviation in student test scores, and results for high- and low-achieving students were not statistically significant. Also, the “test” in question only measured factual knowledge, not problem-solving skills. (Schwerdt is up-front with these facts.) So even the evidence in lecture’s favor isn’t extremely compelling, at least IMO.

    • Candid One

      This is a topic that the news media is still beginning to grasp; it’s no longer a fringe topic. They’re only now beginning to accept, to perceive the extent of this educational paradigm morphing. Last week, a study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education proclaimed the advantages of “hands-on” approached to instruction, of the efficacy of the “flipped classroom”. It happens that this study focused on comparison of techniques for teaching neuroscience. The findings were featured in the April-June issue of IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies.

      • http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines Robert Talbert

        I caught that Stanford article when it first came out, and it’s really interesting. It’s not really so much hands on vs. flipped classroom, but rather it seems to promote a way of doing the flipped classroom that makes flipping even more effective (namely, have students do hands-on activities prior to watching lectures). It’s worth a look.

        • Eric Zuckerman

          I’m going to have to look at this Stanford article. The flipped classroom is really just a way to force efficiency, in my mind. That is, the workflow is the same (watch the lecture and then do the problems) just shifted in terms of when the material is presented and practiced. The efficiency comes in that there is less ‘spinning of the wheels’ while doing the problems because you have an expert there (the instructor) and some study pals (your classmates). Plus, students seem to enjoy short, directed lessons that they can watch in their own time (and repeatedly), which I have seen increases the number of students who actually utilize the lecture material. So, there is promise here, especially in problem based classes (math and science).

        • Eric Zuckerman

          Just read the Stanford article. I would like to see this accomplished with a completely different hands-on model. It may just happen that the “BrainExplorer” interactive device is so good that it makes the study work. Until they repeat with a different hands-on model, you cannot be sure.

        • CBennett

          I have training in the flipped classroom. I love the depth it allows but transition to this is slow. Often results are not as high as anticipated due to a lack of personal responsibility by a large majority of parents and students to whom the concept is new. We have to get away from spoon feeding everything and into a mindset of more active participant in our own education.

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  • drbobp

    I’m also surprised, 99% of the time this blog has excellent information. But the article ignores a vast amount of research in cognitive psychology on learning on why expert teachers are moving away from lectures. The story makes the movement away form lectures to be a fad or a trend and not based research and data on learning. BTW, there is a time and place for lecture but not for the process of transfer.

  • Cindy DiDonato

    Lecture has a place in education. We should listen to educators at certain junctures in the educational process. Educators expressing information on a particular topic is totally appropriate in face to face class meetings. Just because we can learn through technological avenues does not eliminate the need for lecture. I say this even though I am a strong proponent of personal learning through inquiry.

    • Keaton Wadzinski

      Lectures (i.e. educator presenting information via spoken instruction) shouldn’t be to blame for the disengagement crisis.
      I’d argue that the “conventional lecture dynamic” is more at fault– i.e. the tradition of one educator presenting the same set of information, at the same speed, in the same fashion, to 30+ students at one time.
      Interesting and relevant study- “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring” by Benjamin S. Bloom.

  • Tom Foley

    In all honesty, if all the experts crunching all the figures have it so figured out, why is our education system still falling behind? One reason, many have never been in a classroom and their data is based mostly on theory and not practical applications. Common Core should be interesting to watch…

  • JiveAssNigger

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    Great article and long life to this blog !

  • http://downwithjugears.blogspot.com/2009/10/sickest-fixation.html JiveAssNigger
  • http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org Scott McLeod

    I love that the philosophy professor defends ‘sage on stage’ lecturing. WWSD? (What Would Socrates Do?)

    • Candid One

      Some subjects, particularly the more abstract, are better presented in lecture format. Philosophy is definitely that kind of subject although a good Q&A-discussion phase can be useful for involved topics.

      • http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines Robert Talbert

        “Some subjects, particularly the more abstract, are better presented in lecture format.” –> Do we have evidence to that effect?

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  • http://classmind.com/ Ryan Laughlin

    The question for an educator shouldn’t be whether or not to move away from the lecture. The question should be “Why?” Several research studies (and, no doubt, your own experience) indicate that students are becoming increasingly bored in class and unable to learn as effectively as recent as 10 years ago (before mobile technology). Why? As you’re well aware, we live in an entertainment society, where competition for a student’s attention is fierce. (They’re on SnapChat, Vine, Facebook, & Twitter… in class.) Simply put, engaged students learn effectively. (Of course, you know this. I’m not saying anything new. The recent Stanford article mentioned in these comments is the latest proof.)

    So, if you’re an educator who excels at engaging your students via the lecture, then by all means, keep lecturing. After all, engagement is the key. However, if you’re an educator who loathes the fact that your job is requiring you to become an entertainer more than a teacher (as many educators have told me), then you should probably explore moving away from the lecture. Better yet, create a hybrid lecture format, introducing technology & new teaching methods to stimulate class engagement. You don’t necessarily have to give up the lecture if that’s what you’re most comfortable with. Just start testing. Find what new teaching method or technology works best with your personality and for your students.

  • Dave

    Our typical “change everything” attitude in education. Using a variety of methods to engage different students with different learning styles and abilities works best. Too much of any method is probably not good. However, as is mentioned below, there are some BRILLIANT lecturers and they should not quit just because there is a smart board around. Almost 50 years later, I can still remember some of these brilliant teachers, AND what they said.

  • Alex Kluge

    I am seeing more and more parallels between the current evolution of education and the 1990’s evolution of software engineering. Software engineering, at that time, was seeing the raise of computer aided software engineering and a quest for a single best process and best tool that would lead to successful software development projects.

    Two of the most important lessons learned during this time were that there is a better way, and that the magic bullet is that there is no magic bullet. This concept is part of one of the landmark documents in modern software engineering, the agile manifesto:

    Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

    So rather then deciding if the lecture is good or bad, which is focusing on the process, I would look for hallmarks of when it is appropriate, and when it adds value to a specific set of students studying a specific subject. Sometimes a lecture will be appropriate, sometimes a workshop or lab, and sometimes a group discussion, and sometimes something totally different.

    • cheerfulstorm

      Thank you for that wise statement. After reading so many comments of “lecturing is obsolete” and that it “doesn’t work”, all I can think of is that it works for *me* as a learner. If it works for me, then it works for others (no matter how individualistically I may think of myself). I hate project-based learning and groups as a learner, myself, because I always end up holding up others. I write well, and have learned to take good notes, have an organization system in place, and I learn best by listening. I need a few hours to process and come up with good questions to clarify things and figure out applications. But then I’ve got it.

      If we want to talk about serving all students and differentiation, we need to include as many types of instruction as we can – not eliminating one because at the moment it is currently unpopular. I think there are more students like me than we know, because they are the ones who are quietly taking notes and not the ones who make a production out of being bored because they never practiced the skill of concentration (too much pbl and collaborative learning where the note-taker does most of the work, if you ask me). But I’m not bitter or anything ;-)

      All I’m saying is that it is a tool to be used within a tool box. We don’t throw away the manual screwdriver because we have a power drill. There are times when the manual works easiest and best. The same goes for lecture.

  • Michael Mussman

    “But what’s changed is that the lecture is no longer the only way to transfer important information.”

    The lecture never was the only way to communicate information. It was never the best way, either.

    The article betrays a lack of historical awareness. It seems the author never bothered to ask why teachers began lecturing in the first place.

    Before the lecture, we had the written word. Thanks to scrolls and books, you could find information without having to ask a living person. That’s a fabulous technology, and it still works.

    But books were rare and expensive. Rather than force scores of poor students to purchase books they couldn’t afford, schools began to do lectures, sharing the text with several people at the same time, for free. Sometimes these lectures involved nothing more than a man reading the book out loud to an audience.

    Today, text is cheap and easily available. The problem that lectures addressed has largely been solved. Therefore, the lecture is no longer needed.

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  • SCSU TechInstruction

    Great article and the excellent comments underneath! However, the article misses to
    address the possibility of cultural differences. E.g., when article
    cites the German research, it fails to acknowledge that the US culture
    is pronouncedly individualistic, whereas other societies are more
    collective. For more information pls consider:
    Ernst, C. T. (2004). Richard E. Nisbett. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why. Personnel Psychology, (2), 504.

    The article generalizes: another omission is the subject-oriented
    character of the learning process: there are subjects, where lecture
    might be more prevalent and there are some where project learning, peer
    instruction and project-based learning might be more applicable.
    I opened the article for discussion on our IMS blog:
    http://blog.stcloudstate.edu/ims/2014/06/28/constructivism-lecture-versus-project-based-learning/
    and hope to see feedback from the faculty on our campus.

  • Krystal Wilson

    I love lectures and great arguments but the last class I took everyone was on FB or taking selfies for Twitter.

    • TC

      What were you teaching, intolerance?

      Krystal Wilson • 7 days ago
      I don’t mind gays. BUt illegals…they need to go.

      Discussion on Infowars

      Cruz: Blame Obama for immigration surge

      Krystal Wilson • 7 days ago
      I like immigrants for cheap labor.

  • CBennett

    I believe that lecture is often more effective for middle school students who are not yet making the connection between active engagement in project based learning and written standardized testing. We as teachers have to help students extrapolate the knowledge available in hands on learning and model the connections to written tests often in order to provide a scaffold until the students are experienced enough to do this for themselves. I know this, even with power point my middle school students struggle to take notes- and I would hate to be a college professor in a few years because I think this is becoming the norm.

  • Dana Cunningham

    Lectures are definitely important with transferring information to students, but hands-on research is also important to allow students to remember and see how the information learned in class applies to the world. This program at Lehigh University seems to do a great job of stepping beyond the classroom to allow students to explore topics they are curious about. http://bit.ly/1o3TGXH