The problems with lecture

The lecture-based model for instruction forces you to do the hardest learning tasks when you are by yourself outside of class. In this model, a teacher dedicates in-class time to low-level learning tasks. Specifically, in the lecture-based model for instruction, a student gets their first exposure to course content during in-class meetings via a live lecture delivered by the teacher to a room full of students. Such lectures are usually given in a monolog-style speech where the vast majority of the speaking is done by the teacher to the students. By the end of the lecture, teachers have presented a long list of technical content to the students sitting in the room. After the in-class meetings end, students are expected to engage in higher-level learning activities like sense making, problem solving, and creative work. In a lecture-based classroom, the out-of-class activities typically involve deeper thinking and harder intellectual tasks. But, because in-class meetings are filled by the teacher talking at you, this leaves no time for collaborative group work to support deeper learning. Thus, in a lecture-based classroom, you are expected to do the hardest part of learning when you are alone outside of class, isolated from your peers, and away from the teacher.  

In this post, we explore some of the problems with the lecture-based model for instruction. Identifying these issues is an important first step in creating learning routines that center deep learning and protect you against the harms caused by traditional lectures.

I have lots of evidence that lecture-based instruction is bad for learning. I saw this was true in every one of my classes during the 10 years of college that I survived. As a young instructor, I witnessed so much harm that I caused many of my students when I used traditional lectures to deliver content. I also am aware of research-based evidence that demonstrates lectures to be harmful for learning. For example, check out the paper Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics by Scott Freeman and company. That paper reviews 225 academic studies on examination scores and failure rates that compare student performance under traditional lecturing versus in courses that use active learning (of which flipped learning is one example). The authors show that students who engage in active learning do better on exams than students who are in classes that feature traditional lectures. Moreover, students in traditional lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that feature active learning. My favorite quote from that paper is:

“The results (in this paper) 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.”

Translation: Using lectures to inspire learning is like using cigarettes to promote physical health. Just like we have scientific evidence that cigarettes cause cancer, we also have scientific evidence that demonstrates that lectures are harmful for learning.

Let’s explore many different problems that arise from the lecture-based model for instruction.

Problem 1: The lecture-based model constrains your ability to process information

Students who are sitting in a live lecture are forced to process new content as fast as the teacher can talk. Sadly, teachers can talk much faster than students can write. Studies of human speaking and writing speeds have found that people can talk at around 100 – 130 words per minute. But most humans can write only 50 -100 legible letters per minute (translating into about 10 to 20 average-length legible words). Moreover, there is a lot more information available during a live lecture than just what the professor says or what is written on the board. There are tons of nonverbal information available in the room and a complex web of social relationships/contexts that exist among the people in the room. It is physically impossible to capture all that information in a way that supports long-term learning.

To minimize the harm caused by the imbalance between the large quantity of information being spewed by the lecturer and students’ limited capacity to capture/process that information, students often blindly take notes. This problem can be summed up by a famous quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, that goes like this: “College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight into the students’ lecture notes without passing through the brains of either.” If we are serious about helping you learn the course content, we must empower you to process new content at your own pace. You are the world’s leading expert on your own learning processes. You are only person who should decide the best pace at which to explore new content. By using a lecture-based model for instruction, the lecturer blocks your ability to pace yourself and thus limits your ability to process course content while in class.

Problem 2: The lecture-based model forces the hardest part of learning to happen in isolation.

The lecture-based model forces you to do the easiest learning work when you have access to the richest learning resources and the hardest learning work when you are most isolated from the learning communities that exist in your classes. In this class, we will explore a five-stage model for how deep learning works. You will also practice research-based techniques to progress through the five stages of deep learning. The goal of this work is to help you learn deeper, develop more effective study routines, and create more efficient learning habits that allow you to find a balance between your learning life and other parts of your identity.

Getting initial exposure to course content is the first and easiest stage in our five-stage model for deep learning processes. Listening, exploratory reading, and taking cursory notes are relatively low-level cognitive task. However, after you’ve discovered the course content for the first time, you can proceed to more advanced stages of learning including building deeper understanding. This includes mid-level learning tasks including sense making, slow thinking, creative processes, identifying connections between the new content and your previous learning, capturing ideas and questions that arise as you study, organizing new content in a system that allows for future retrieval, and exploring multiple dimensions the new knowledge you’re building. Perhaps the most advanced learning techniques you can use involves engaging in authentic dialog with other learners at various levels of mastery. This includes posing questions to your peers, trying to answer other peoples’ questions, engaging in group problem solving, and teaching others the content you’re studying. These powerful learning techniques lead to the deepest learning. The more time you spend on these types of mid- and high-level learning work, the deeper the learning you create. Let’s compare the various types of learning tasks described above with the context in which you might do that work.

In-class meetings can be extremely valuable experiences. When you are physically present in class, you have access to the best group of people on earth to support your learning. You are in the physical presence of a large group of other learners who are working on, thinking about, and struggling with the same content that you are. You have easy access to a resident expert (the teacher) who is physically available to you.

However, when you are outside of class, it becomes much more difficult to get access to this rich support network. You are separated from other students and the teacher by space. Everyone in the class likely has many other time commitments that block synchronous communication outside of the scheduled class time. In fact, in-class time may be the only weekly time blocks in which every member of the class is available to engage in shared learning. When you try to recreate this type of environment outside of class, you are responsible coordinating meeting times, determine how to communicate, and find spaces to work. That places an almost unsurmountable burden on each individual student to find help for their higher-level learning needs. This issue is so complex that many students end up learning alone, in isolation from their peers. In the lecture-based model for instruction, students engage in the lowest-level learning tasks exactly when they have access to the richest support resources. Then, after the lecture ends, students are tasked to do higher-level learning work when the best resources to support those tasks are no longer easily accessible.

Problem 3: The lecture-based deprioritizes time for active, guided, social learning experiences

In the lecture-based model for instruction, the vast majority of in-class time is dedicated to the teacher delivering monologues to the students. In contrast, relatively little time is spent on activities other than lecture. Students are not shown how to prioritize question and answer sessions, social problem solving, or peer instruction. The implicit message sent to students in a lecture-based classroom is that the most important part of the learning experience is what the teacher is saying not what the student does with that new knowledge. This leads to a distorted model for learning in which students come to believe that the most important learning happens when the teacher is talking. The exact opposite is true. The most important part of learning happens when students struggle with material, work to make sense of new ideas, and engage in peer instruction with learners at various levels of mastery. In a lecture-based classroom, these types of activities are deprioritized. Each student is forced to do this important work on their own time outside of class where support resources are not readily available.

Problem 4: The lecture-based model does not center meta-learning.

Meta-learning is a process by which you become aware of and learn to control of your own learning habits. When you engage in meta-learning, you pay careful attention to all the following:

  • how you perceive new information
  • what you do to capture and organize your growing expertise
  • what inquiry habits you use to track questions and concerns while you learn
  • how you find and develop compelling answers to your questions
  • how self-aware you are of your learning processes
  • what self-assessment techniques you use to measure progress in your learning
  • how you discipline yourself to produce your desired results
  • how you take responsibility for your own learning
  • what motivations you have for learning
  • why you engage in learning
  • why you value your learning
  • how you plan to use your new skills/knowledge to empower your local communities

Meta-learning is about being aware of and taking control of your own learning processes. In short, meta-learning is learning how to learn.

It is possible to engage in meta-learning while in a class taught using a lecture-based model. Indeed, students who thrive in lecture-based classrooms often leverage meta-learning to accomplish their goals. However, such self-reflective behavior usually happens to counteract the harm of in-class lectures rather than being inspired by them. The lecture-based model for instruction almost never puts an explicit focus on meta-learning as part of the in-class experience. Indeed, the entire in-class lectures position the instructor as the source and gatekeeper of knowledge and the omniscient judge of learning. By centering the lecturer in this way, many students never explicitly strengthen their meta-learning skills. Instead, students are constantly trying to figure out what the teacher is saying, what the teacher wants, and what they must do to prove they have learned. This type of external focus on the actions, thoughts, and desires of the lecturer short circuits the type of introspection needed to practice meta-learning routines and undermines students in developing their self-directed learning skills.

Problem 5: The lecture-based model inhibits dialog and blocks authentic learning relationships.

The most transformative learning experiences are grounded in authentic and meaningful relationships. These include the student-teacher relationship and peer-to-peer relationships. Academic research in the fields of communication, psychology, and sociology affirms that students are most engaged, motivated, and interested in learning when they are part of a supportive classroom environment that features meaningful positive relationships with their teacher and their peers. Moreover, perhaps the very best activities that students can engage in to make deep learning happen and to remember complex ideas is to explain those ideas to other students. This includes summarizing your learning, developing highly intuitive, nontechnical language to encode new ideas, answering questions, addressing critiques, working through sticky points, identifying misconceptions, making mistakes, iteratively improving your understanding, and engaging in shared problem solving by applying your learning to new contexts. We’ll call theses forms of student-to-student interactions peer instruction which is perhaps the most powerful mechanism for inspiring deep learning. Peer instruction has the added benefit of building friendship, solidarity, and respect among students.

To engage in peer instruction and build positive relationships requires time, space, patience, and practice. Strong professional learning relationships should honor your full humanity. These types of bonds should respect your lived experience, celebrate the person you are today, and revere the person you seek to become. To create these types of relationships requires ample time to engage in dialog. You need to be invited you to bring your full self into the space and to participate in meaningful learning tasks with other learners (including the teacher). Lecture denies you these opportunities. During a lecture, it is considered rude and disruptive to speak with other people in the room. Ironically, the best thing you can do to learn new concepts is to engage in dialog about those ideas. Lecture stops you from doing that. Lecture denies students the chance to be in dialog about their learning, to immerse themselves in peer instruction, and to deepen their learning relationships with other members of the classroom community. The choice to lecture circumvents what should be the most important part of the learning process: dialog and relationship building to support learning.

Problem 6: The lecture-based model propagates a banking model for education.

The banking model for education posits that students’ brains are like empty bank accounts and the job of the teacher is to make deposits. Instead of depositing money, the teacher simply needs to pour knowledge into the student. This banking model presumes that when a teacher lectures, they fill students with knowledge. This is a dehumanizing model for how learning works since it is premised on the inaccurate assumption that students are passive, meek receptacles of knowledge rather than complex, creative, intelligent human beings. As discussed in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the lecture-based model for education includes all of the following assumptions:

  • The teacher “teaches” and the students are taught.
  • The teacher knows everything, and the students know nothing.
  • The teacher thinks and the students are thought about.
  • The teacher talks and the student listens in meek, passive, submissive ways.
  • The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined
  • The teacher chooses knowledge and enforces his choices while student comply with the teacher’s choices.
  • The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.
  • The teacher chooses almost all curriculum, content, and course material. The students (who are not consulted about the material) adapt to this content. This leads to a learning environment in which teachers expound on topics completely alien to the existential experience of the students.
  • The teacher confuses their authority of knowledge (expertise) with his own professional authority (power to set classroom policies). Thus, the teacher creates policies that undermine and oppress the freedom of the students.
  • The teacher is the subject, the central character, and the active participant of the learning process while the students are mere objects for the teacher to manipulate.

All these features are designed to centralize authority in the teacher and oppress the free will of the students. This mirrors larger oppressive systems in society. The banking model of education is a mechanism of domination and control, serving the interests of the oppressors by controlling the thinking, action, and learning of the students. This inhibits the students’ creative power and indoctrinates students into a world of oppression.

Why do lectures cause all these issues?

It’s natural to wonder why the lecture-based model is so harmful. The answer to this question is about power and the ability to set policies to allocate resources in the service of learning. Some of the most important resources that effect how students learn are the ways time and space are used within the context of a college course. One of my favorite quotes is relevant here:

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”–Herbert A. Simon

If you dive deeper into that quote, you might come to realize that what you do and what you think are dependent on the spaces in which you are located and the ways you spend time in those spaces. The lecture-based model for learning allows the lecturer to monopolize your time and to dominate the shared space within the classroom. This crowds out your unique identity and detracts from your ability to customize your learning experiences to meet your own needs.

Community Challenge

  1. Think about your experience with lectures. Recall your memories of sitting through lectures as a student. Which of the problems described above have been true for you? Why? As you think about this, identify specific memories that highlight specific problems.

  2. Some learners protest: I do really well in lectures. Perhaps this is you. Before you dismiss this post outright, I ask you to reflect on what you do outside of class to make this true. Many students who are not completely clueless in lectures have sophisticated learning habits. Outside of the in-class lecture, these learners will do deep thinking about the course content and have systems to make sure they fully understand ideas presented in lecture. What systems do you have outside of lecture time that help you learn? For one hour of in-class lecture, how many hours outside of class do you spend studying and thinking about that content?

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