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Research Proves College Lectures Need to Go the Way of the Dinosaur

A recent experiment proves what we all know: Talking at college students is a terrible way of teaching.

I signed up for a calculus class my freshman year of college that had almost 100 other students. Our professor talked into the whiteboard the entire class. I had a hard time staying awake, and had pretty much no clue what was going on. Too many professors feel right at home talking at students instead of fostering an engaging and interactive learning environment. Students are expected to sit there, take notes, and find some way to stay awake. The suck-it-up-and-endure-a-mind-numbing-lecture mindset is so ingrained in college, schools even assign room names like "Lecture Hall 4".

We know anecdotally that this is a terrible way of teaching, but now a recent experiment has proved that the lecture method really does need to go the way of the dinosaur. Science reports that a team of researchers, led by physics Nobelist Carl Wieman, recently conducted experiments in classes at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver and at the University of Colorado at Boulder which proves that "students learn much better through an active, iterative process that involves working through their misconceptions with fellow students and getting immediate feedback from the instructor."

The researchers let each of the class sections spend the first 11 weeks of the semester with the typical lecture-based model of teaching. In week 12, both groups kept the same reading material and assignments, but that's where the similarities end. One group, the control group, stayed in the lecture format we know so well. The other group, the intervention group, was taught using a method called "deliberate practice," which featured small group discussions, tasks where the students were asked to think like scientists and daily quizzes on assigned reading. Students were also able to respond to questions using an interactive electronic clicker that gave the instructors instant feedback on student comprehension.

Unsurprisingly, in the intervention group, student attendance skyrocketed 20 percent. Engagement doubled, and so did test scores. When given a 12-question multiple-choice test on the content taught, the control group only got 41 percent of the questions correct, but the intervention group got 74 percent correct. And for professors obsessed with what students write on course evaluations, more than 90 percent said they preferred the interactive method of teaching.

So why do colleges persist with the lecture model despite research proving that it doesn't work? One, it's cheaper to pack dozens of students into a lecture hall instead of hiring more staff to teach smaller class sections. Two, there's a pervasive attitude that higher education is exempt from the methods K-12 teachers need to employ to ensure students learn. And, in college, students are seen as responsible for learning, no matter what kind of style of instruction comes their way. That said, the researchers are upbeat about the possibility of colleges being able to change their lecturing ways. Let's hope so for the sake of the next generation of students.

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