Why do we still lecture?

woman lecturing

Rhizome Journal Club

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Every one of us remembers their favorite teacher in school. They were the ones able to spark our interest, with compelling storytelling and passion for their subject. Unless we were lucky enough to have access to innovative programs, our favorite teacher most likely delivered their classes as a lecture.

Lecturing is an oral presentation where an expert (or at least someone more knowledgeable than their audience) explains a certain subject in front of the audience. Everyone has attended lectures, and that’s probably the most common form of knowledge transfer we have experienced in our formal education.

Lecturing as teaching, then and now

Lectures were very convenient back in the days, when scholars had knowledge that they wanted to share in the fastest way to as many wanting to learn about their new discoveries as possible.

Fast forward to 2020… when hundreds of world universities offer thousands of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to millions of learners, educational YouTube channels use creative ways to create video content for every age group, and even entire diploma-granting programs are delivered online. All of these are heavily relying on something we all know so well – lectures. But how effective are lectures for transmitting knowledge?

“Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the fountain pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.” Edwin E. Slosson, 1910. in “Great American Universities”

One of the most cited research articles that addresses this question in STEM fields was published in 2014 by Freeman et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article compiles the findings from 225 previous studies that compared “traditional lecturing” with “active learning” and how these two different approaches impact “student performance”. 

Active learning wins over lecturing

As the definitions have become the major peer complaint to this article, it is essential to understand how they have defined these three concepts. The traditional lecturing definition was adopted from Bligh (2000) as transmission-intensive teacher-centric approach to knowledge transmission – “Lecturing is continuous exposition by the teacher.” Active learning is a constructivist, student-centric approach, and the authors contacted hundreds of North American (biology) scholars to attempt defining it. The consensus yielded this definition – “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.” Student performance was measured as the examination scores and failure rates of students who attended classes that were either 100% lecture-based, or had 10% to 100% of active learning time built into face-to-face class hours.

Relying on the diversity of previously published studies, covering many STEM disciplines, the authors concluded that employing active learning decreases student failure by 12% on average. When it comes to assessment of knowledge, active learning methods also showed to be more effective than lecturing, both in instructor-created exams, and especially when using concept inventories designed to diagnose known misconceptions and measure how well the students have learned to think like scientists. 

Why don’t we all teach using active learning

So why do we still lecture our STEM students, if we know that active learning will help them integrate the knowledge much better? One of the major complaints to implementing active learning is the argument that it won’t work for large class sizes. Conveniently, the authors also examined how class size affects the student performance. And even though active learning has the highest impact on courses with less than 50 students, the impact is still visible even for classes larger than 100 students.

Without going as far as Carl E. Wieman in his commentary about this article, and stating that lectures are “the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting”, it’s worthwhile to consider several dimensions on why lecturing still prevails, and why active learning might not be the optimal method for every situation.

First of all, the majority of the analysed studies are focusing on North American undergraduate courses and student population. It would be unwise to say that similar studies in other countries and social and scientific cultures around the world would yield the same results. Secondly, certain topics or levels of complexity might still be best delivered as lectures. Finally, lecturing is the default modus operandi where both students and teachers usually have sufficient experience and skills to achieve reasonable results. Active learning requires thorough rethinking of pedagogical aspects, development of new skills and mindsets that might be hard to achieve in a reasonable time frame.

And while we are all struggling with moving our lives into the virtual world of conference calls and remote working, the main obstacles for any learning community remain the same – increasing the skills of those who teach and helping those who learn adopt the lifelong learning mindset. The most appropriate methods would depend not only on the well researched studies, but also on the human aspects and the local environment.

Hopefully more and more educators will take the current constraints as an opportunity to try out some new active learning methods, receive valuable feedback from their audience, and adapt their approach in the next iteration of their courses.  

Rhizome Association fully embraces active learning

Rhizome’s vision of future education is based on active learning, skills development and interdisciplinary projects in science, arts and civic engagement. All of our projects and educational programs rely on employing diverse active learning methods. If you are interested in knowing more about them, check out our past and current projects and programs here.

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Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio