Lectures Do Not Work: Student Performance in Lecture

By Matthew Grattan (ChE ’19)

Despite their widespread use in higher education, lectures may contribute to poor student performance. The lecture tends to present topics as unquestionable facts, quite contradictory to the thorough questioning by which the arts and sciences are developed. And while there is little debate concerning well established principles, questions and open discussion certainly do not inhibit student comprehension.

Without a strong basis of knowledge, the lecture may have little foundation to build on, leading to poor student success. The discrepancy between the material taught and knowledge gained has been a pervasive problem as long as lecture classes have existed. The competence of both instructors and students have likely been questioned, but what about the instruction format itself?

David Hestenes, a professor of physics at Arizona State University, has pursued this problem since the late eighties. As he writes in his 1987 publication in the American Journal of Physics, “[instructors] practice in the classroom what they would never tolerate in the laboratory. In the laboratory they are keen to understand the phenomena and critically evaluate reasonable alternative hypotheses. But their teaching is guided by unsubstantiated beliefs about students and learning which are often wrong or partial truths at best. This kind of behavior would be as disastrous in the laboratory as it is in the classroom.”

Faced with poor student performance in introductory physics courses at Arizona State, Hestenes posed questions about a system for which many alternatives to encourage student involvement have been considered. Collectively, these methods are referred to as active learning.

A meta-analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared science, technology, engineering, and math courses taught in traditional lecture setting to those taught with various active learning approaches. The active learning courses included aspects such as cooperative assignments and interactive classes.

The study found that students in active learning style courses performed better in some areas than traditional lecture-based classes. While active learning only increases average test scores by 6%, student failure rates are diminished 55% compared to lecture style classes. In other words, the larger benefit of active learning classes lies in the decreased rate of failure rather than the increased grades.

Fortunately, the size of Cooper Union circumvents the widespread need for large lecture style classes. Even so, could there still be problems with instruction methods lurking beneath the surface? Such an answer would require feedback from all sides of the classroom.

Course structure merely represents one of many factors which impact student learning. The “best” learning experience may always be elusive, but improvement—like learning itself—is something to strive for.

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