In a recent debate with Stephen Downes, I spent some time going through dozens of papers and meta-studies showing that the lecture is a largely disastrous pedagogic technique, devoid of formative assessment, diagnosis of student understanding, actual teaching or inspiration.
I wasn’t surprised at the qualitative nature of Stephen’s response, as I’ve heard it many times before 1) that lectures are not about ‘teaching’ but ‘showing practice ’i.e. what it’s like to be a physicist, whatever, 2) some lectures are good e.g. Martin Luther King’s speech etc. and 3) lectures must be good as they’ve been around for so long.
I don’t buy any of these arguments as 1) that’s not what lecturers or students think, expect or require, 2) the fact that a chosen few can do something well (like surgery or any other form of expertise) doesn’t mean that it should be done by everyone 3) slavery was around for millennia but it doesn’t make it right – you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In any case, I’ll beaver on uncovering the evidence where I find it.
In this week’s Science, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Carl Wieman, along with researchers Louis Deslauriers and Ellen Schelew, published a paper ‘Improved Learning in a Large Enrolment Physics Class’ that shows improvements in attainment, attendance and attitudes in students when lectures delivered by senior experienced academics are abandoned in favour of approaches where postdocs, interactive techniques and formative assessments are used.
As the authors say, even in good lectures, with good student reviews, student attainment can be poor. So they cut through the qualitative stuff and compared:
1. Control group (267 students) taught by experienced faculty member with years of experience teaching the physics course and good student evaluations.
2. Experimental group (271 students) taught by a postdoc with almost no teaching experience in introductory physics, using proven, researched, learning techniques.
The groups were taught a module in a physics course, in three one hour sessions in one week. In short; attendance increased, measured attitudes were better (students enjoyed the experience (90%) and thought that the whole course would be better if taught this way (77%)). More importantly students in the experimental group outperformed the control group, doing more than twice as well in assessment than the control group.
Academics will go to great lengths to defend traditional lectures, even abuse, (see my Don’t lecture me! ALT talk complete with abusive Tweets). However, there comes appoint when the evidence (surely a fundamental tenet in HE) must win out. This paper points towards something that decades of research have confirmed, that there must be a rethink on lectures. We may then have a chance to dramatically change teaching in Higher Education for the better, also making to cheaper. In other words, get good teachers to teach and let researchers research. The two competences may overlap but they are not congruent.