Lectures Are Ineffective

“Active learning” hit the news this week with the publication of a study suggesting that undergraduate students generally do better in classes that engage them through activities or discussion than in lecture-based courses.

Scott Freeman (University of Washington) and his colleagues describe their results in the paper “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Freeman and his team analyzed 225 studies conducted between 1942 and 2010 that reported data on exam scores or failure rates when comparing traditional lecturing versus active learning in undergraduate science, engineering, and mathematics courses. The compiled results indicated that average examination scores improved by about 6 percent in active learning situations, the researchers reported. Moreover, students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail.

“The results raise questions about the continued use of traditional lecturing as a control in research studies, and support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms,” the researchers concluded.

Doubts about the efficacy of lectures are not new. Samuel Johnson, as quoted by James Boswell, remarked on the topic centuries ago.

In an entry from 1766, Boswell noted:

Talking of education, “People have now-a-days, (said he,) got a strange opinion that every thing should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymstry by lectures; —You might teach making of shoes by lectures!”

Boswell returned to the subject in a 1781 account:

We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford and that in those colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON, “Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.”

Over the years, I have attended hundreds of lectures, in classrooms and at meetings. Most were not particularly inspiring; many induced drowsiness. But some succeeded remarkably well. The key, I think, was the care that a speaker took to engage his or her audience—to turn a passive situation into a more active one.

For the last seven years, the MAA has been presenting public lectures at its Carriage House conference center in Washington, D.C. You can see a sample of different lecture styles and topics at https://www.maa.org/meetings/calendar-events/maa-distinguished-lecture-series/lecture-videos, then decide for yourself what seems to work and try to tease out the elements that contribute to that success.

And, I have to admit, there are times when I prefer taking in a lecture passively—when I want to glean what I can from a talk without my active participation. That’s just the observer in me; perhaps it’s a different kind of learning, with somewhat different goals.—Ivars Peterson