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As I mentioned in Part 1, numerous attempts to improve the lecture have been proposed and implemented over the past 100 years. So much so that in some cases the “lecture” has disappeared – even if the learning is taking place in a lecture hall and some teacher talk is still happening. All of these attempted improvements reflect the need to overcome built-in limitations in the format.

I mentioned in the previous post that John Hattie, author of Visible Learning, was kind enough to respond with some thoughts after I emailed him. Here is the first part of what he notes from the research:

The traditional lecture should not be confused with the many alternative ways to complement and modify this traditional format- – use of clickers, quality of tutorials, constructive alignment of assignments, guided notes, etc. and some unbelievable creative ways of engagement via lectures.  Note, for example the Keller Plan (mastery learning d=.53) which is a powerful model based on the traditional lecture. [I describe the Keller plan, below]

Much can depend on the student preparation for the lecture – e.g., flip classrooms today are similar to the older times when students were expected to “read the chapter” before coming to class.  I observe that in more recent years there is much less expectation of asking students to prepare for the lecture and this reduces their effectiveness.

Most of the interesting tweaks to “complement and modify” the lecture have to do with remedying the key inherent defects in the format I discussed last time:

    • Lecturers are prone to be blind to the fact that they talk too much, too quickly, and for too long – all at one pace, in a lecture given once
    • Lecturers get little or no feedback as they speak
    • The students have little or no time to process/practice what is being said
    • Students get no feedback as to whether or not they understand what is being said
    • A lecture can never differentiate to address the varying needs and degree of understanding of many learners

Let’s start with basic and non-radical modifications related to the pacing, and length of lectures. Bligh, in his extraordinarily helpful book on the lecture, notes that the research is quite clear about delivery: the ideal pacing from the students’ point of view is far slower than the typical lecturer’s pace and – more importantly – includes substantive pauses after each lecture chunk for students to process what has just been said:

[The researchers] read passages at three different speeds and compared the proportion of time spent in phonation and in pauses… They found that as speakers speed their delivery, they disproportionately decrease the total pause time. Slower speeds with longer pauses permitted superior comprehension…” [Bligh also offers some great tips on student note-taking as part of this issue]

Research has also been clear for decades that attention tends to dip considerably after 20 minutes – hence, the TED talk being limited to 18 minutes (supported by the other Commandments). And research on memory has consistently stressed the point that significant ideas must not only be repeated in the lecture but in subsequent lectures, with increasing time elapsing between each reference. (i.e. so-called “spaced” practice vs. “massed practice” for moving material from short-term to long-term memory.)

Necessary but not sufficient. These improvements are necessary but not sufficient to overcome the other flaws mentioned, of course. Here is Bligh, on the value of pausing for student questions in the lecture: it not only addresses the issues of pace and processing, but feedback:

Gane and Taplin found that the use of questions to obtain feedback after each stage of a lecture prevented them as lecturers from racing ahead of the class. Indeed, it is to be expected that all feedback techniques will be possible solutions for this reason.

As I noted last time, I think the greatest weakness of the lecture format is that the lecturer cannot easily help but be egocentric – neither receiving nor soliciting feedback as to the effectiveness of the lecture (until it is far too late, i.e. on quizzes or papers).  Bligh notes:

One of the most serious criticisms of the lecture method is that the lecturer has no feedback on his or her performance, and students have no knowledge of the amount and accuracy of their learning…. However you measure it, studies show that that students learn less than half of what a lecturer says. McCeachie has shown that, up to a point, if you try to teach less, students learn more… [Bligh offers numerous ways to obtain feedback during and after the lecture]

Hattie in his email mentions the power of clickers (Learner Response Systems, or LRS) and anyone who has ever used them or seen them in action comes away greatly impressed with how they effectively address all four weaknesses in lecturing mentioned above. While Eric Mazur has become justly famous for his outstanding work in Peer Instruction where clickers play a vital role, the idea is an old one. Long before wireless handheld technology, Madeleine Hunter and others were encouraging teachers to have learners use a “thumbs up/thumbs down” formative assessment along with other such low-tech devices.

Indeed, Bligh noted the explosion in such techniques in higher education over 40 years ago:

Taplin (1969) supplied US Air Force trainees with two-and-a-half-inch cubes with different colored faces so that answers to multiple choice questions could be shown privately… Sun (1969) has used colored cards for the same purpose with medical students. Harder, Wayne, and Donald (1968) devised an ‘audience response card’ with five colors covered by paper flaps which could be shown in 14 combinations”

Some history of flipping the class. “Flipping the class” is an old idea, in other words. Mazur’s Peer Instruction is a powerful version of it: all five defects of the lecture format are addressed: the pace is slowed; processing time is provided by the questions and the small-group student discussions; professors get needed feedback as they see the results of answers on the real-time graph (as well as by listening in on some discussions); and students get differentiated feedback repeatedly – from their small-group peers, from the bar graphs of all student responses visible onscreen, and from learning about which is the correct answer to each question. In addition, as Mazur says in the video clip showing the method in action, students increasingly request which lectures or mini-lectures they wish to hear in response to their questions.

I first heard of this idea of the lecture on demand – another precursor to flipping the classroom – from Haverford Emeritus Professor Doug Heath at my first educational conference 30 years ago. He described how with the advent of  “modern” devices – the VHS cassette and camera! – he no longer lectured in class. He videotaped all his former lectures, put them in the library on reserve, and asked students to listen to any lecture, as needed, with one stipulation: that they go in pairs, so that they could discuss what they were hearing. Class was then devoted to a discussion of the lectures, practice in using the methods cited in lectures, and feedback from Professor and peers about student understanding (and later, student research).

As Hattie mentioned, the Keller Plan emerged in the late ‘60s in large college classes to try to address the inherent limitations of the lecture as well. The Keller Plan is basically a complete flip of the large lecture class: Mastery-learning, Individualized Pacing System leading to a flipped classroom. Here is a brief summary from Keller, a Professor at Arizona State University, of the key characteristics of the system (though I recommend that you read the entire paper – it is a clear and interesting history of the Plan’s genesis and development):

(1) The go-at-your-own-pace feature, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.

(2) The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.

(3) The use of lectures and demonstrations as vehicles of motivation, rather than sources of critical information.

(4) The related stress upon the written word in teacher-student communication; and, finally:

(5) The use of proctors, which permits repeated testing, immediate scoring, almost unavoidable tutoring, and a marked enhancement of the personal-social aspect of the educational process.”

The system declined fairly quickly in popularity in higher education, due to the constant struggles in all Mastery Learning programs to define Mastery, and due to cost-logistics issues over the Proctors. Nonetheless, the Keller Plan, like today’s flipped classroom, underscores the message of these two posts: the lecture struggles against inherent limitations as pedagogy in the modern world.

In my last post, I’ll circle back to the key issue: what our different educational goals demand logically for instructional approaches. I’ll remind us of a 30-year-old model that deserves our renewed attention: Adler’s Paideia Program with its distinction between teaching, facilitation, and coaching as befits our three different goal types in education. And I’ll show how Understanding by Design builds off that idea to better suggest what pedagogies are needed for the development of understanding.

Helpful Resources. Beyond the articles I noted in the previous post, the following books represent the most rich and helpful resources I have found on how to improve the lecture and/or the use of “lecture” time:

What’s the Use of Lectures? Donald Bligh, Jossey-Bass

Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities. MacGregor, Cooper, Smith, Robinson , editors Jossey-Bass

“Successful Lecturing” in Applying the Science of Learning to University Teaching and Beyond. Halpern & Hakel, editors

“Lectures and Other Forms of Instructive Speech” in How To Speak, How to Listen, Mortimer Adler, Collier Books.

Peer Instruction – A User’s Manual, Eric Mazur, Prentice Hall

What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain, Harvard University Press

And a nice blog piece in Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/how-to-build-dynamic-lecture-todd-finley