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Who Would Choose a Lecture as Their Primary Mode of Learning?

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Given all the press around the Flipped Classroom, Khan Academy, and Ted-Ed, long overdue discussions around the use of lectures in the classroom have evolved.  Educators are questioning when, how, and what types of lectures best serve and address student learning.

Along with this development, research is being conducted with students about how they want to be taught and what they learn via a lecture model of education. For example, according to “Learn Now, Lecture Later,” a new report released by CDW-G, only 23% of students are satisfied with the way the teachers spend their class time.

Along with surveying students about their preferences, educators are examining best classroom practices. Eric Mazur, a Harvard Physics professor, has been promoting the removal of  lectures from the college classroom.

In 1990, after seven years of teaching at Harvard, Eric Mazur, was delivering clear, polished lectures and demonstrations and getting high student evaluations for his introductory Physics 11 course, populated mainly by premed and engineering students who were successfully solving complicated problems. Then he discovered that his success as a teacher “was a complete illusion, a house of cards.”

The epiphany came via an article in the American Journal of Physics by Arizona State professor David Hestenes. He had devised a very simple test, couched in everyday language, to check students’ understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts of physics—force—and had administered it to thousands of undergraduates in the southwestern United States. Astonishingly, the test showed that their introductory courses had taught them next to nothing,  After a semester of physics, they still held the same misconceptions as they had at the beginning of the term. (

This is part of a movement as Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool, and Mazur has become a type of ambassador for losing the lecture in higher education settings.

At an educational technology conference, Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference, Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur used a simple experiment to drive home his point that lecturing is an outdated—and largely ineffective—strategy for imparting knowledge. He participants to think of a skill they were good at, then explain how they mastered this skill. While the responses from the crowd varied—some cited practice or experience, while others said trial and error—no one answered “lecture,” Mazur noted wryly.

I believe that given the choice of learning modalities (for any topic), few folks would choose the lecture.  A sub-premise I hold is that many of those is high school, college, and adult education would choose lectures from a list of options because that is the manner in which they were trained in formal schooling.  They have developed a mindset (an illusion?) that learning comes through lectures.

Lectures do have a purpose within the learning environment by not as the primary method of learning content delivery:

  • To learn what the experts have to say
  • To learn a skill or process
  • To inspire

Video Lectures to Learn What the Experts Believe

In The Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture, I propose that the use of video lectures should fall within a larger framework of a learning cycle, one driven by student-centric, hands-on experiences.  The videos are used to assist learners in understanding the concepts being covered via experts in that field.  Almost any topic, content area, discussion, process . . . any lecture can be found for free via Internet videos by experts in their fields who can often communicate their messages and ideas better than classroom teachers. The expertise of the educator should be in facilitation, coaching, mentoring, and resource provider. As Chris Anderson, TED curator, stated:

For the first time in human history talented students don’t have to have their potential and their dreams written out of history by lousy teachers. They can sit two feet in front of the world’s finest.

Video “Lectures” to Demonstrate Processes, Experiments or Skills

We are living in the age of instant access to information and how-to tutorials via the Internet.  Just today, I wanted to know how to cover the ugly chain link fence in the backyard.  Because of an Internet search that led to website and video how-to’s, by the evening I had a fence covered with bamboo fencing.  Most any person, especially if under 3o years old, could tell a similar story of learning how to do something from a Youtube video.   Video, in this case, is used to demonstrate a process or teach a skill.  It affords the learners personalized interactions with the media – where they can review parts of the videos on their own to gain further understanding.

Video Lectures As Inspiration

Jeff Utecht discusses lectures as a source of inspiration in his blog post, Lectures For Content Delivery Are Dead:

Content is free, open, and accessible to all then we need to rethink what lectures should be used for and delivering content or knowledge is not a good use. Let kids go find the content….what we need to use the lecture for is to inspire them to go learn the content, create understanding, and apply that new knowledge to other areas.

We don’t need to deliver content, we need to inspire students to go out and find it for themselves. What inspires you to do a search? Why do you search for this or for that on the web? It’s because you want to know it….you need to know it. It pains you not to know it. That’s what we need to do and that’s the role of the lecture in today’s world. Not to deliver content but to inspire, tell stories, and push ideas to the point we want to go learn the “stuff” on our own.

But given any of the scenarios above, the lecture plays a supporting, sometimes minor, role in the learning process. Isn’t it time for educators to seriously examine why they continue to use lecture as the primary mode of instruction?

A second question that should evolve from this thread of thinking is, Given that videos are easily accessible online by anybody at anyone, why is the lecture still being used in whole group settings at a time when the teacher, not the learner, believes it should be transmitted?  This is a in-case-it-might-be-useful model of teaching rather than a just-in-time-when-it-is-needed model of learning, one that is driving informal learning in this information, participatory age of learning.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm

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