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Dumping the Traditional Lecture: Throwing out the Baby with the Bathwater?

“It’s a tradition going back thousands of years,” writes American RadioWorks’ Emily Hanford in “Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking the Way College Students Are Taught.” That said, “[University of Maryland Professor Joe] Redish is trying to change the way college students are taught. He says lecturing has never been an effective teaching method, and now that information is so easily accessible, lecturing is a waste of time.” Hanford continues, “Redish wanted to reach the students who weren’t teaching themselves. So he began trying to better understand how people learn.” Using research that had begun in the 1960s and 1970s, he found that “cognitive scientists determined that people’s short-term memory is very limited – it can only process so much at once. A lot of the information presented in a typical lecture comes at students too fast and is quickly forgotten.”

Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wupperman, of EducationNext, provide a different view in “Sage on the Stage, Is Lecturing Really All That Bad?” They write, “It is said, for example, that lectures presume that all students learn at the same pace and fail to provide instructors with feedback about which aspects of a lesson students have mastered. Students’ attention may wander during lectures, and they may more easily forget information they encountered in this passive manner.” Scherdt and Wupperman continue by presenting conclusions from research that compared the traditional lecture style to the more progressive problem-solving learning style.  Additionally, they found that “Learning by problem-solving may be less efficient, as discovery and problem-solving often take more time than mastering information received from an authority figure.” They continued, “We find that teaching style matters for student achievement, but in the opposite direction than anticipated by conventional wisdom: an emphasis on lecture-style presentations (rather than problem-solving activities) is associated with an increase—not a decrease—in student achievement. This result implies that a shift to problem-solving instruction is more likely to adversely affect student learning than to improve it.”     But Hanford adds another learning style to the mix as evidenced in the classes of Eric Mazur, a Harvard professor who identifies a crucial paradox in education.

Hanford writes, “That’s the irony of becoming an expert in your field, Mazur says. ‘It becomes not easier to teach, it becomes harder to teach because you’re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.’” This idea has given birth to Mazur’s peer instruction courses. Hanford validates the course structure with these conclusions, “By the end of the semester, students have a deeper understanding of the fundamental concepts of physics than they did when Mazur was just lecturing. Students end up understanding nearly three times as much now, measured by a widely used conceptual test.  In addition to having a deeper grasp of concepts, students in Mazur’s classes are better at solving conventional physics problems, despite the fact that Mazur no longer spends class time at the board doing problems. He says this shows something that may seem obvious. ‘If you understand the material better, you do better on problem-solving,’ Mazur says. ‘Even if there’s less of it done in class.’”

Does the typical professor undervalue the educational benefit of peer-to-peer learning?  In the debate of lecturing versus problem solving, is an all-important third party left out of the discussion? Following the success of the peer-to-peer learning method in the classroom, and the growing popularity of collaborative MOOCs and online classes, should the world of higher education seek to redefine how college students learn?  If so, where do we go from here?

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