It’s not difficult to critique the traditional college lecture; anyone who has sat in one can attest to how they are generally passive, impersonal, and still centred on the person at the front disseminating information to the crowd. How much a student absorbs depends on their capacity to retain information on a given day, their interest level, how much they connect to the instructor, and how capable the instructor is at communicating information.
"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." - Benjamin Franklin
Even more pressing though, as this New York times piece points out, research is showing that the large lecture is not only a poor way to learn, but the format also discriminates against those who are already disadvantaged. These groups include first-generation college students, low-income students, women and minorities. Although the reasons for this aren’t completely clear, some possibilities include the difference in quality and methods used in the schools these students attended prior to post-secondary ed; the background knowledge they are (or are not) bringing with them; and the (dis)comfort in speaking up in large classes.
One solution to improving the lecture format in education circles these days (also mentioned in the New York Times piece) is “Active Learning”, a catch all term to represent more engaged learning, involving students in the process, and strategies to make this happen. This is not a new concept, as greek philosophers as far back as Socrates emphasized the need for individual learning, for engagement and questioning to draw out what is already within the learner. But the term Active Learning is a re-brand of sorts, and it is picking up steam with academics in higher ed (such as at STLHE), due to its accessibility and simple strategies. For trained teachers in elementary and secondary ed, active learning is basically just effective teaching!
While teaching large undergraduate classes, I tried to introduce active learning strategies in my classrooms. I incorporated ideas including “think-pair-share” questions, application questions to check for understanding, and open discussion to weave in student experiences. But these efforts felt limited; the more active learning I included, the less content in each class I was able to cover.
As the “curve of forgetting” from the University of Waterloo shows above, a month after hearing something, students only retain 2 minutes for each hour of lecture. (At Laurier we used to say students forget 80% of what they hear within a day). If we accept these figures as valid, why do we generally stick with the same content-filled lecture format?! I still haven’t totally figured this out. (To be fair, there are courses that focus on case work and more student-driven learning, but they are not the norm.) Here are three key areas I feel need to be addressed at the undergraduate level in order to establish a higher quality of learning:
In an age where we pride ourselves on innovation and creativity, it’s time we shift our university classrooms to meet our students’ and our societies' needs. Although I am not ready to go full-on Khan Academy on learning (Khan himself has mentioned how online resources can complement rather than replace in-class learning), we need to up our offering for students, parents, and society, who continue spending time investing into these (expensive) multi-year experiences.
Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching at University of Michigan:
Active learning strategy examples:
Curve of forgetting:
Globe and mail piece on flipped classrooms:
NY times piece:
A passionate educator.. on a quest for a schooling model to love!