Lectures and Learning

I like to learn new things but, I wonder if lectures are the best way to do it. In the lecture format, the professor dispenses pearls of wisdom and we, as receptacles of this knowledge, gratefully imbibe the wisdom of our elders. I wish knowledge flowed this seamlessly.

In the inimitable phrasing of Slosson, “Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the fountain pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.”

The Professor’s Lecture Notes Go Straight to the Students’ Lecture Notes

In real life, I just cannot absorb a lot of new concepts at once. My short-term memory is short and I can only juggle so many ideas at once. Taking notes almost feels like an act of desperation. I write frantically trying to capture every precious word while not really processing what is being said[^this is the antithesis of learning].

Trying to capture ideas as a float across the ether into your brain, but never having the opportunity to process the idea is painful and inefficient. It is like treading water next to a whirlpool. If there is one way to kill curiosity and interest – this is it.

Ideas need to be connected in your head; one building upon the other and for complex material if you miss one idea, your mind is swimming in sea of facts without any connections. When learning new material it is better to build a scaffolding of understanding, one fact at a time, rather than trying to reconstruct it later by filling in the gaps of a rather tenuous mental map.

An excerpt from the book Chalkboard illustrates the inefficiency of lectures

The true level of efficiency – whatever it is – cannot be very high since students who skip lectures suffer no ill effects when given instructor’s notes. This was the finding of one classic experiment. Groups of students viewed a 20-minute lecture – one group took notes while another group listened. A third group did not attend the lecture at all. Two days later, all students were given 25 minutes to study from a set of instructor’s notes before taking a test. Scores were the same, regardless of whether students had attended the lecture. In other words, the original lecture had been a complete waste of time.

Another study, with a similar protocol, arrived at the same conclusion with a 30-minute lecture followed one week later by a 15-minute review of instructor’s notes. Once again, the lecture was a complete waste of time. The authors concluded, “The present data raise a question about the function of the lecture itself. Since students who did not attend performed as well as those who did … the lecture per se may be a redundant vehicle for communicating substantive information.”

The live lecture format does not lend itself to repetition. Lectures are a relic from an era without books. It’s no use pretending we do not have books, computers, or the web. Why do we continue to use lectures as a major form of information dissemination? Are there ways to improve it ?

The best lecture experience that I had was when my friend would record a lecture for me once a week. I liked listening to the lecture and if there was a part that I missed, I could listen to it again as soon as I lost the thread of the discourse. My notes and understanding were better because I did not have to play “fill in the gaps”. I did not seem to miss the magical information transfer of the live lecture either.

I suppose one argument is that it is the student’s job to pay attention. That is absolutely true. Often repeated advice is to read the textbook before the lecture. That is great advice, but unfocussed reading accomplishes nothing. I think there is belief that learning occurs when information is passively presented or the act of transcribing etches the facts in memory.

Facts do not become knowledge without providing context and utility. Without knowing how and why you are learning something prevents turning facts into knowledge. There are better tools to use than the standard lecture format to create understanding.

I’m not the only one that has noticed that lectures really are poor form of information dissemination. In the 1970s David Hess Dennis and his graduate student Abraham alone developed multiple-choice test known as the force concept inventory [FCI]. This test was designed to explore students conceptual understanding of physics. Students took the test for the beginning of the semester. They were in a variety of classes with teachers using different teaching methods. At the end of the semester, they took the test again. The course only improved the test results by 14%. Most professors did not pay any attention to the findings. But, Eric Mazur did.

Eric Mazur started his career wanted to be an astronomer. But,

“focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost.”

He eventually became a physics professor and loved lecturing. He was sure that his students would do much better and did not have the problems that David Hess Chris had described. When he gave his students the FCI tests, they did not do much better.

Eric Mazur eventually created “peer instruction”. His method is well worth reading about. Essentially, he assigned material before class. The student then had to answer some web-based questions, ensuring that he has read the material before coming class. In class Mazur gave a very brief introduction to the concepts. He then gave a multiple-choice question. The student answered the question. Then he allowed the students to discuss the question with their neighbour. They are then allowed to answer the question again. So, even though this is a slower method of processing the ideas, he has found his students understand 3 times as much. I find it better to have had a more efficient funnelling system so even though there is a slower flow of knowledge into the bottle, at least the knowledge gets into the bottle as opposed to jerking off the sides and falling on the floor.

What I like about Eric Mazur,s system is that the students are given the “lecture” material before the class. Since they to answer a multiple choice questions based on their reading , they are more focussed because they have a goal or a problem than needs answering. The questions, if crafted well could also highlight subtleties in the material that may not be readily apparent.

The students are forming their mental scaffolding before coming to class. Then their learning is reinforced or corrected through discussions with their peers and the teacher during class. I also like its use of testing to reinforce learning rather that to evaluate learning.

This method is a lot slower that the traditional lecture, but at least there is no delusion that people are understanding the concepts rather than hearing the lecture. This system also uses the teacher’s expertise to the best advantage. A teachers job is guide understanding. They are better used to help students to use their knowledge rather than regurgitating the same knowledge on the blackboard.

The way to really learn something is to apply it to solve a problem.Nothing highlights knowledge gaps than trying to use your recently acquired understanding or explain it to another person. I can read about a subject online or in a textbook. The real use of a live teacher, is not the initial presentation of the material, but rather to guide the student into a more critical[^What information is truly relevant, in what order and under what circumstances.] evaluation of the material.


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