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Traditional lectures don't work

by PhilipJ on 3 January 2009

As will be no surprise to anyone who has ever sat through a lecture, traditional lecturing doesn’t work, or at least, not as we wish. The most recent discussion of how traditional lecturing is failing students is from physicist Eric Mazur, who writes in the most recent edition of Science in Farewell, Lecture? (pdf, closed access):

The traditional approach to teaching reduces education to a transfer of information. Before the industrial revolution, when books were not yet mass commodities, the lecture method was the only way to transfer information from one generation to the next. However, education is so much more than just information transfer, especially in science.* New information needs to be connected to preexisting knowledge in the student’s mind. Students need to develop models to see how science works. Instead, my students were relying on rote memorization. Reflecting on my own education, I believe that I also often relied on rote memorization. Information transmitted in lectures stayed in my brain until I had to draw upon it for an exam. I once heard somebody describe the lecture method as a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either. That is essentially what is happening in classrooms around the globe.

The traditional lecture method ignores the fact that lots of people learn in lots of different ways, and when it comes to things like calculation, watching someone else do them does little for one’s own understanding. It might make sense to you for the brief moment while watching, but it is not a substitute for doing it yourself to really master something.

I think the relative lack of utility of the traditional lecture has been masked by the fact that students are (usually) in a university program out of choice, and will pick up the slack and teach themselves as is necessary to succeed in the course. It is also my philosophy that the quicker a student realizes they should (and can!) be teaching themselves the material, the more enjoyable the learning process and the better they do.

So what are we going to do with all these professors who still need to teach courses? Mazur’s take is to change the way the classroom is run:

[…] I have begun to turn this traditional information transfer model of education upside down. The responsibility for gathering information now rests squarely on the shoulders of the students. They must read material before coming to class, so that class time can be devoted to discussions, peer interactions, and time to assimilate and think. Instead of teaching by telling, I am teaching by questioning.

I’ve had a couple of profs over the years who have taken this approach, and I have always felt it works so much better than the traditional method. The only problem is that it is most effective in the small class setting such as upper-level undergraduate courses. It can be implemented in a large introductory class through the use of so-called “clickers”, but the implementation is key. Quoating Mazur again:

I often meet people who tell me they have implemented this “clicker method” in their classes, viewing my approach as simply a technological innovation. However, it is not the technology but the pedagogy that matters. Unfortunately, the majority of uses of technology in education consist of nothing more than a new implementation of old approaches, and therefore technology is not the magic bullet it is often presumed to be.

Are any of our readers using clickers and changing their teaching methodology (I think Rosie has used them in her courses)? If so, I’d love to hear your feedback on how they were received by students, and whether it was more or less work to prepare for the course. I fear (but appreciate) that the effort involved will be a deciding factor on whether these new teaching tools (implemented properly!) will be embraced.

* I don’t agree that science is somehow different from other subjects when it comes to traditional lectures and their relevance to learning. No subject is just a collection of facts to be regurgitated on an exam.

  1. Alex    3516 days ago    #

    Danger, Will Robinson!

    The Physics Education Research community is right in all of its criticisms of the traditional lecture. But look a little deeper into what they offer in its place. You have to value the exact same intellectual skills and aspects of the subject that they value. They give a lot less emphasis to math than most physicists. They feel that labs are primarily a place to reinforce conceptual understanding of physics, which means experiments that are very transparent and involve few indirect measurements, as opposed to a place to learn data analysis skills (the sort of thing that you learn from experiments that involve a lot of indirect measurements).

    They aren’t just about changing how you teach, but also what you teach. Their idea of what physics should be about has a lot of important elements, but it is also somewhat narrow and often dogmatic.

    Finally, be very, very, VERY cautious at any workshop organized by PER people. They all have a book to sell, and they use some of the tactics of car salesmen, religious missionaries, and time share salesmen.

  2. C. Bailey    3496 days ago    #

    While I agree that learning is best when it is interactive, I’m not sure that the lecture method is as evil as everyone makes it out to be. I go to a smaller institution where its largest classes are areound 100 (as opposed to, say, 500), so I have never experienced the clicker, but I have friends at larger institutions who have. They give me the impression that it ends up being a way for the TA to inflate your grade by taking attendance and people don’t take it very seriously. I had a professor who tried out having colored answer cards with numbers on them for multiple choice questions in my introductory physics class, and we hated it! It feels really artificial and interupts the flow of the lecture.

    The real problem is if people think that a lecture is the primary place where things are to be learned. Unless you have a really fantastic lecturer (and some lecturers are), and even sometimes if that is the case, the student needs to interact with the material outside of class. Reading textbooks, re-reading notes, re-organizing lecture notes and incorperating them with the book notes, doing problem sets and additional practice problems, etc. It’s not as if going to lecture is a replacement for studying, it’s a complement to studying and a chance to get a quick overview before digging into the material. I usually spend 3 hours a week per class but much much more time studying. It’s not like going to class and doing the homework that you need to turn in should be all that is expected of you. As you said, teaching yourself is an element of taking a class.

    Also, I think the way of conveying introductory information is inherently flawed just because there’s so much basic stuff you need to learn before digging into the real meat and bones of a discipline. There’s no good way to teach a class of 500 people. I much prefer upper level classes where even lectures are more interactive and where the prof asks questions quizzing you in the middle of lecture (if you have ten people there it’s hard for it to not be interactive).

    Anyway, this is my take as a current undergrad.

  3. DizzyIntellect    3479 days ago    #

    I saw an article recently in the times education supplement about a class of children who were taught a GCSE biology module in one hour, sat the exam and got a pretty high grade average (higher than a different set of equal ability who were taught conventionally).

    The method used in this lesson was to blast the students with the full syllabus in 15 minutes. 7 or 8 slides a minute.

    Then go and do some basket ball excercises.

    This was repeated 3 times.

    I agree that normal lectures are dull. I have forgotten much.

    I always like to have a framework and then it becomes easier to remember stuff.

    Here’s a thought: How about charging through the syllabus at a million miles in one lesson to help students get the lay of the land.

    Then spend two lessons going through the whole syllabus a bit slower.

    Then Four lessons.

    So the nature of each lecture changes as students become more familiar with the material.

    then two or three lessons talking about it and completing problems.

    If you see what I mean.

    Just an idea


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  5. writing expert    32 days ago    #

    I think the main issue is that it is best in the little class setting, for example, upper-level college classes. It can be actualized in a vast initial class using supposed “clickers”, yet the execution is vital.

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