Dear student (why I don’t want to lecture)

Is this your brain during lecture?

Student’s electrodermal activity From “A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity” (by Poh, M.Z., Swenson, N.C., Picard, R.W. in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol.57, no.5)

Note that the electrodermal activity for this particular student shows the same flatline during class as while watching TV. While the paper does not indicate what went on during this student’s classes, in all likelihood they were lectures from a professor standing in front of the class, probably using Powerpoint.

But, you say, this isn’t you. Maybe you are one of the diminishing fraction of students who take notes. But are you really as mentally engaged, even taking notes, as while you’re studying, or doing homework? Study after study has shown that students attending lectures learn the least. If you are interested in looking into these studies, these articles or links reflect the current state of pedagogical thinking about lectures versus other modes of active learning. The first article (now a free ebook) from 30 years ago already provides plenty of references, and these findings have been amply confirmed since.

Gibbs: Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing

And here are a couple of the latest studies published in Science, with college biology and physics classes. Unfortunately, they are pay-walled and you’ll need either a personal subscription or access them through an institutional subscription (like the Georgia Tech library).

Haak, DC, J HilleRisLambers, E Pitre and S Freeman 2011. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science 332:1213-1216

Deslauriers L, E Schelew and C Wieman, 2011. Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science 332:862-864

Regardless of method, however, I firmly believe that the strongest indicator of student learning is the student’s desire to learn, and willingness to engage in the hard work and struggle to learn. It is work. Some of it will be hard. And you may struggle to even know what you know and know what you don’t know. And that’s what I think class time should be used; for you to discover how good your understanding is, and learn by discussing with your peers who are going through the same process of discovery.

So I’m not saying that no one learns from lecture. Some people do. But I think I can safely say that everyone learns more from using and applying the concepts and ideas. Science is a skill, that requires the learner to practice and exercise. How well can you learn to play a piano or basketball, just by attending lectures or watching videos?


About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
This entry was posted in Teaching and learning biology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dear student (why I don’t want to lecture)

  1. Pingback: Bumble Bee Paradox | Assignment 1: Question 2

  2. jchoigt says:

    Here’s another article by Tony Bates on why lectures may soon be dead:

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