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Commentary Post - Matt Bloom

Lectures: Not just boring, but useless, too?

February 10, 2012

A former student sent me this NPR story that describes how physics professors are learning (!) that a lecture-only approach produces a lot less learning. These professors have discovered more than new stars and black holes: they also found that small group discussions and active learning tasks work better. Compared to lectures, these approaches create much deeper understanding and ensure that students not only remember, but can actually use, the information they acquire. Of course, that is what true learning is all about: new knowledge that is turned into new thinking or action.

Then I found out about a research study that showed much the same thing. Researchers at the University of British Columbia put physics students into two groups. The first received lectures only. The second got no lectures. That’s right, no lectures whatsoever. Instead, these students took part in a series of small groups discussions, group-based learning activities, quizzes on pre-class reading, and got lots of instructor feedback on what they did. Remember, there was no formal lecturing. The results were pretty striking. The no-lecture group averaged 74% correct on tests whereas the lecture-only group averaged 41% correct. The researchers concluded that “deliberate practice teaching strategies can improve both learning and engagement in a large laboratory physics course…(and) [t]his result is likely to generalize to a variety of postsecondary courses.”

This serendipitous confluence of events really got me to thinking about the way we help people “learn” in other contexts. Professors (me included) still lecture a lot to students, clergy preach to people in churches, health care professionals tell patients how to be healthier, and parents often really do lecture their kids on a range of issues (my kids used to call it “yelling” at them. Even when my voiced was quiet, my lecturing must have felt like a yell). Compare that to how aerobics instructors teach, how people are taught to play an instrument, or how cooking & hobby classes are usually structured.

For me, this new information reinforces an old assumption: it’s hard to change behavior by just telling someone what to do. Now, I wonder how I will include this in my own classes, and in the way I lead my staff, and the way I parent. Good heavens, I might actually have to change my own behavior !

Matt Bloom conducts research in the area of the improvement of the human condition at work, with a focus on intrinsic motivation, happiness and meaning, and innovation. He writes about his research on his "Well-Being at Work" blog.