by Diana Senechal
I am fond of the old-fashioned lecture. It gives me something to sink into, something to think about. It’s often supplemented with discussions and labs, so students don’t just sit and listen. If it is taught well, it can be intriguing, even rousing, even lingering. I remember those packed lecture halls in college, and other superb lecture courses as well.
But I must defer to research-based research. Research has just shown that certain research-based methods bring greater learning gains in physics than the lecture approach. Sarah D. Sparks describes the study in an Education Week blog, but I got curious and decided to read the report for myself (Science, May 13, 2011, available by subscription or purchase only).
Yes, indeed. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver conducted a week-long experiment near the end of a year-long physics course. They found—
Wait—for a week? Near the end of a full year?
Don’t interrupt. This blog doesn’t get interactive until I’m done.
Yes, ahem, as I was saying, the students had been taking a lecture course in physics. The lectures were supplemented throughout the year with labs, tutorials, recitations, and assignments. In week 12 of the second semester, the researchers conducted an experiment with two of the three sections of this course. There was a control section (267 students) and an experimental section (271 students). The instructor of the control section continued teaching through lectures. The instructors of the experimental section used “deliberate practice”—in this case, “a series of challenging questions and tasks that require the students to practice physicist-like reasoning and problem solving during class time while provided with frequent feedback.
The experimental group did much better than the control group on the test, which was administered in the first class session of week 13. All students were informed that this test would not affect their grade but would serve as good practice for the final exam. (Wait—what? —No interruptions. This is your second warning.) In the control section, 171 of the 267 students (64 percent) attended class on the day of the test; 211 out of the 271 students in the experimental section (78 percent) attended. The control section scored an average of 41 percent on the test; the experimental section, 74 percent. Victory for experimental things! Students in both sections took an average of 20 minutes to complete the test. (All this stir over a twenty-minute quizzy-poo that doesn’t affect the grade? —I’ve already warned you. If you interrupt again, I’m calling your parents).
The researchers state confidently at the end:
“In conclusion, we show that use of deliberate practice teaching strategies can improve both learning and engagement in a large introductory physics course as compared with what was obtained with the lecture method. Our study compares similar students, and teachers with the same learning objectives and the same instructional time and tests. This result is likely to generalize to a variety of postsecondary courses.”
Or, as they put it succinctly in the abstract: “We found increased student attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in the section taught using research-based instruction.”
I am convinced. It doesn’t matter that all of the students had been learning through lecture, lab, tutorial, and recitation all year long. What matters is what happened in this one week. The present is now. What happened was magical. There was learning. Even more learning in the experimental group—oh, much more—than in the control group. What this means—if you can just hold your horses for a moment—I’m telling you, I’m serious, I’ve got my cell phone here—what this means is that we should expand the findings to other courses. We should expand it everywhere! We should get rid of lectures altogether, or, at the very least, insult them.
Sarah D. Sparks seems to agree with the researchers: “While the study focused only on one section of college students, it gives yet more support for educators moving away from lecture-based instruction.” (One does this just as one might slide away from a misfit at a party.) According to Sparks, this study suggests that “interactive learning can be more than twice as effective as lecturing.” Take that, lecture!
Well, anything can be anything, except when it can’t. But that isn’t the point. The point is that lots of people are excited about this, and we really shouldn’t let them down. If I were to be reasonable about it, I’d suggest that “deliberate practice” of this sort works well when students already have a strong foundation. They need to know what they’re practicing. To get rid of the lectures would be simply reckless. But why be reasonable? Insulting can be fun. Bad lecture! Good experiment! More effective! Chopped thoughts! Research-based!
Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November 2011.