The Perils of Lecture Class

Intentional LearningSince I don’t have enough going on (apparently), I recently started another newsletter. It’s called Intentional Learning, and it’s focused on strategies for learning and academic success at college. I spend most of my professional life talking with faculty and other instructors about teaching and learning, and I thought it was time to take that conversation to students.

The Intentional Learning newsletter comes out every Wednesday on LinkedIn. You can read it right here, and, if you’re a LinkedIn user, you can subscribe there, too. It’s written for students, so if you have students in your life that you care about, feel free to share it with them!

The latest issue on lecturing and active learning has gotten a fair amount of attention on LinkedIn, so I thought I would cross-post it here on my blog. 

The Perils of Lecture Class

“I wish Bruff would just work problems at the chalk board like other math professors.”

Ask any professor who has been teaching for a while about the student evaluations they receive at the end of each course, and they will immediately recall a few choice comments. Some of the comments are positive, like this one I received a few years ago: “I was so excited about this course’s podcast project that I shared my episode with my grandmother!” Some are hard to interpret, like “excessively politically correct” (in a math course?) or “Bruff Riders 4 Ever!” (I think that was positive.) And some are just frustrating to read, like the one above wishing for more chalk-and-talk.

That comment came from a student in a statistics course I taught with about a hundred students, mostly engineering students who were taking the course to fulfill a requirement for their major. They weren’t overly excited to be there, but I knew that going in, and I tried to make the course both relevant to their future careers as engineers and engaging as a learning experience. That meant I didn’t just work problems at the chalk board. Every class session asked students to actively participate in their own learning.

A typical class might involve a pre-class assignment with a few textbook pages to read and a couple of simple math questions to answer. Class would start with polling questions, where I asked students to respond to multiple-choice questions about the concepts for the day using their digital devices and to discuss some of the harder questions with their neighbors. Then we might move into group work for a while, maybe tackling a worksheet full of math problems or creating a data visualization with a partner. When I did work a problem at the chalk board, it was only after the students had a chance to try the problem themselves, so they could better understand my solution.

I was practicing what’s called “active learning instruction.” It’s usually held in contrast to traditional lecturing, aka “continuous exposition by the instructor.” Professors don’t practice active learning instruction just to make classes more lively. There’s a ton of educational research showing that these practices lead to greater student learning and student success, whether you measure that by course grades or persistence in the major or graduation rates. The student asking me to work more problems at the board? They were requesting an instructional approach that’s demonstrably inferior.

But I can’t get too frustrated with this student. This student probably thrived in chalk-and-talk classes, both in high school and college. That’s what they were expecting, and I asked them to do something very different, something that involved more work during class, and maybe something that didn’t feel all that useful to the student. And this student is hardly alone in viewing active learning instruction this way.

A team of researchers at Harvard University led by Louis Deslauriers ran an experiment where students were randomly assigned to one of two class sessions, one taught via traditional lecture and one taught via active learning. Same topics, same physics problems, same worked examples, just different instruction. The researchers quizzed students over the material and surveyed the students about how they felt about the classes. The result? Students learned more in the active learning classes but they felt they learned more in the lecture classes!

Here’s how the researchers put it in their article about the study: “Students rated the quality of instruction in passive lectures more highly, and they expressed a preference to have ‘all of their physics classes taught this way,’ even though their scores on independent tests of learning were lower than those in actively taught classrooms.” Does that sound familiar? My stats student said basically the same thing.

Should we generalize from this Harvard study? Maybe not. Harvard students aren’t like students elsewhere. But wouldn’t you expect Harvard students to be pretty savvy about learning? If they can be led astray by the comforting familiarity of traditional lecturing, I think anyone can. And I certainly hear from faculty colleagues at other institutions (that aren’t Harvard) that they encounter the same student pushback about active learning instruction.

What’s the takeaway here for college students? One, learning is hard work. If it feels super easy, it’s probably not actually changing your brain in useful ways. Two, we’re often pretty poor judges of how well we learn, especially when we’re newbies in a particular area. Three, if you show up to class and there’s not much to do other than listen to someone else talk and maybe take some notes, then you might not actually be learning much.

But you knew that, right? You took a bunch of Zoom classes during COVID where all you had to do was listen to a talking head, and you realized that wasn’t working for you. And now you’re back in a physical classroom and the talking heads are talking and you’re wondering if it’s worth your time to show to class. Next week in the newsletter, we bring this conversation about active learning and traditional lecturing into 2023 to see what it means for showing up to class in college today.

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