Whenever I hear the word ‘pedagogy’ in HE, I reach for my gun. Again, institutions that have the ‘one hour lecture’ as their core ‘pedagogy’ need to have their heads examined, or at least read some basic psychology on attention, storage, practice and recall. In short, lectures go against everything we know about the psychology of learning. Of course, if you do question it, you need to duck as the stones from glass houses come at you like hailstorms. I know – I’ve been there. That’s why this Harvard study is a killer, but first some reflections.
University rankings are a lie
University ranking tables are perhaps the most mendacious form of marketing known to man. They are, quite simply, a lie. Why? They say nothing about ‘teaching’ the reason for most of this marketing effort is to attract students and funding (monetising). The reason they say nothing is that they don’t measure anything. It’s all proxies. The Times rankings are a case in point. They claim that their ranking scores include teaching. In fact, only 30% is based on teaching but they use NO direct metrics. The proxies include student/staff ratios (which is skewed by how much research is done) and, even more absurdly, the ratio of PhDs to BAs. It is therefore a self-fulfilling table, where the elite Universities are bound to rise to the top. There is no direct measurement of face to face time or student satisfaction. They don’t even measure how many students turn up to lectures, their primary form of delivery. Imagine a restaurant that doesn’t record the number of customers that eat its food or the film that doesn’t measure its box office numbers. This puts paid to the idea that HE is anywhere near the Big data world. It is closer to the no data world.
When you then ask why they don’t measure this stuff – the reason is clear – they’re scared. Studies on lecture attendance are rarer than dragon’s teeth. Even when you do find one, it is usually flawed by being self-reported data on both attendance and reasons for non-attendance. In addition, they are usually single courses and the selection of those courses does not eliminate bias in the selection process. In short – they’re fatally flawed.
We lecture because we always did
Schank, a major academic and learning expert, has been looking at this issue for over 30 years thinks he has the answer, and I agree. Fundamentally, we lecture “Because we always did. No one wants to change this really. We are all just used to it.”
Lectures are lazy
Beyond this “Lecturing is a lot less work for everyone….they are the lazy person’s approach to education. Both lectures and listeners agree that neither of them wants to do much work. Real work, and real doing, and real conversation, is all that matters for learning, but education is really not about learning”. Read this piece for further elaboration.
For once we have a solid study that covers a wide range of courses and relies, not on self-reporting but actual attendance. It’s smart, as they use a camera to identify and count the attendees. Go Pro cameras were used in four lecture halls on time lapse, with software that was verified as accurate in counting attendees. If you are in any doubt here, the count was validated against manually counted images and found to be astonishingly accurate.
10 courses were studied:
1. Only 60% (average) of students attended any given lecture
2. Attendance declined over the semester, from 79% to 43%.
3. Attendance declined over week2. Incredible variability between courses (38%-94%)
Why the difference between these two sets of courses? Attendance on the top three were graded.
Given the fact that Harvard has some of the best academics in the world, consistently hits a top spot in university rankings and that it costs somewhere north of $70,000 a year to attend, you’d think the students would be pretty full on when it comes to lecture attendance. If these numbers are true, imagine how bad the rest are!