The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lecture Fail

A debate is raging in The Chronicles of Higher Education regarding lectures. There are many laudable points on both sides.

However, I'm chagrined at the faculty members who aren't asking: do we know the optimal way for students to learn? What are the principles? What do we know about human development, and how is that relevant to our problem? What skills do these students need to benefit from the way we're teaching?

What's most unrealistic to me is the faculty member's belief that what students need to do is concentrate for 90 minutes on her lecture, i.e. apply their will. That's the solution?

It seems as if faculty favor lectures for a variety of reasons. I won't visit the non-productive ones, such as the fact that it may be a lot less work for a professor. Let's just look at positive reasons. A lecture can skillfully condense the essentials the student needs to learn about a subject, and faculty are often concerned that students learn what's fundamental and essential.

It's also personally satisfying to many faculty members to demonstrate their superior knowledge. And faculty are often the kind of people who really enjoy sharing knowledge with others. But most students aren't necessarily motivated to do so, or to be the recipient of knowledge summarized and shared, rather than acquired by first-hand experience. In the latter types of experience the student can enjoy the feeling of gaining competence - "look what I did myself!"

What the Flow research highlights is the limits of attention. It takes huge amounts of mental energy to concentrate, i.e. to pay attention, to information that arrives in a form which is difficult to mentally ingest. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Abstract ideas generally take more energy to attend to because they don't engage the senses or body or, often, the listener's deepest motivation. Instead, on their own the listener has to come up with imaginary objects or instances to embody what the lecturer is saying. That's why aids such as visuals or demonstrations are good to use. And, unless the listener is naturally interested in the subject, he has to cheerlead himself into continuing to pay attention. In the case of most students and most lectures, I'm betting they must cheerlead with a stick ("I'll fail!") rather than a carrot ("This stuff is cool to know!").
  2. Listening while sitting still in a seat is extremely difficult because it doesn't engage the senses or the body.
  3. If the listener gets confused, or stops paying attention for a bit of time, he or she has no opportunity to ask questions or re-start the lecture; the rest of the presentation may be worthless or, at the least, less than optimal as a learning experience because it can't be followed well.
  4. Optimal human attention span is about 20 minutes (in other words, the length of TED talks) - 90 is almost impossible unless it's a full-body-and-mind engaging activity, like a sport or watching a movie, in which the emotions are engaged. OR unless it's a Flow activity for that person. Lecturing can easily be a Flow activity, especially if the lecturer finds the material interesting.
  5. A good listener has an internal dialogue with the lecturer, pondering the truth of comments, asking questions about what is said, and trying to find the data in memory to answer them. Some people do this naturally, but the vast majority have no natural skill: they need to be taught how to "actively listen." And they're not getting that in the lower grades - so no wonder they're abyssmal at it in college.
  6. Neither are most students in lower education given the activities, materials, or opportunities to learn how to concentrate. And then they're expected to figure out how to do it on their own when they arrive at college? (Developing the ability to concentrate is something Montessori classroom do well, because the materials are designed to trigger Flow for students. )
See the summary, student comments, and faculty responses and videos here.

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