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When Getting Rid of College Lectures Makes Sense 212

timothy writes "NPR reports that Harvard physicist and professor Eric Mazur has largely gotten rid of the lecture in his classes, after finding that in lecture-based classes, students tend to commit to memory formulae and heuristics, but fail to develop deep understanding of concepts. Mazur has tried — and seemingly succeeded — to cultivate deeper learning with a combination of small group peer-instruction and a tight feedback loop based on in-class polling about particular problems. Joe Redish also teaches physics, at the University of Maryland, and says, 'With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don't need faculty to do it. ... Get 'em to do it once, put it on the Web, and fire the faculty.'"
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When Getting Rid of College Lectures Makes Sense

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  • We cant have students memorizing formulas and heuristics.

    • by nwf ( 25607 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:49PM (#38577746)

      We cant have students memorizing formulas and heuristics.

      One way to do this, which is what my school did, was to test based on the theory. Teach the specifics and write the exam such that you are pretty much required to use the theory to solve the problems. It takes more work than the simple recite the formula tests that professors like since they don't have to think much to create them. We quickly weeded out the people who memorized things. Personally, I do much better learning the theory and applying it than memorization.

      • Also memorizing something doesn't mean you understand it, when people memorize things and draw conclusions from them that's different from just looking for a grade, but those people tend to be self-motivated to learn, thus the theory is better for them anyways, they'll learn the details themselves if interested. Also helps keep people who don't belong out of fields they wouldn't be happy in to begin with. Then again some people are just looking for a paycheck to feed their family, but still what about adv

        • by nwf ( 25607 )

          I think that's one of the points of the article: memorization as a learning strategy is doomed to fail.

          Just because one professor at a prestigious learning institution cannot teach in a way that fosters theoretical understanding doesn't mean we should throw out lectures. I found lectures helpful because I learn well in them, when backed up by other classwork.) I felt I had to be there regularly to learn. I suspect that many people who focus on memorization miss a lot of lectures. Plus, I don't think I'd lik

    • by Idbar ( 1034346 )
      I think this approach misses the point. Asking in context, every time a teacher teaches something it's going to be taught in a different way. Students will come up with different questions depending on the context.

      I always paid careful attention to the classes and asked as much as I could. Some people think it's annoying, but I think that's the fundamental part on why the professors are there. Otherwise, everyone can just read a book or watch a video.

      So my main concern about this is that we're focusin
      • It is annoying, and the correct solution to that is basically to have more seminars as a core part of the class. It's something that we had when I was in college and IIRC they also do them at Harvard as well. The basic idea is that it's structured time during which you can discuss the subject matter and often times you get to use the information you've been studying to see sort of how it works.

        Obviously that's inferior to actually using it in the real world, but it's significantly more useful than sitting t

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        The main point here is that lectures are less beneficial that peer study groups, many colleges call these groups normally led by post graduate students for undergraduate subjects tutorials. Well, duh, that why many colleges and universities have compulsory tutorial groups in the first place.

        So why lectures, when tutorial groups are more beneficial, lets call it right wing economics even though it doesn't really work that well it is cheaper to have a skilled person lecture 50 or more students that have th

  • My Father In Law has been getting classes on DVD for a while and loves them. I have watched a few and I think they're just as useful as any lecture I ever had. What they should do is provide the video lectures along with class notes and assignments and meet to ask questions and give details. If the videos are done well (I think a live studio audience with a few plants that ask common questions might be a good idea just to make it feel organic) then it should ultimately cut way down on professor time in l
    • by afidel ( 530433 )
      and give them more time to have individual or small group interactions

      Great except that last thing that many professors at a large number of research schools want to do is interact with underclassmen. Heck, most of them don't want to deal with masters students, if you're not a phd candidate or a postdoc then you're not worth their time. I know this is a broad generalization but talking to many of my friends that went to top tier schools or large public research universities this was a common problem, it's
    • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:14PM (#38578234)
      I've had some professors provide their standard lectures on video to watch at our convenience before a class. However what made this a vast improvement is that we still had classes, the class time was used for interaction between the professor and the students. The professor would discuss the lecture, call on students to offer comments, solve some problem, etc. The professor also fostered, directed and refereed discussion and debate between the students. This was so much better than listening to stock lectures that the professor had given many times before. The professors even preferred spending the time interacting, it wasn't just the students.

      This interaction between professor and student and between students is what makes the university experience more valuable than just watching videos of lectures. I think it may also be getting back to a more classical university experience, more education, less factory.
      • I agree with you in part. Every class has easier material as well as review of topics thought to have been learned elsewhere. Those should be able to be on canned video. But I think once you get to the main content of the class there is something to be said for being able to interrupt the professor to ask questions or clarify a point. Writing them down while watching a video isn't the same. Not to mention that sometimes other students will ask something you had not considered. What I do think would b

  • Both is needed (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The very first contact is most easily done by lectures, you simply gather more information than by group work within the same time. Memorize stuff is important. Actually when teaching maths to fellow students I often discovered that they even lacked the formulas and never came far enough to use understanding to calculate something by quantity. The author is true on one point although: To gather real understanding you need to get involved into problems and discussion. Thats why normally you get homework afte

    • They probably don't care too much about math, can't change somebody who doesn't want to. To me though, I'm a kinetic learner, lectures are a real bore. I've been out of hs a while now and guess what, I haven't used a calculus formula yet! (Maybe to impress the opposite sex once or twice :P). I knew I wouldn't care going into IT or w/e so I learned the formulas, but never the underlying stuff, I can get back into it pretty quick this way, I used the book and a worksheet though, the teacher was great for q

  • by medv4380 ( 1604309 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:43PM (#38577642)
    Then Kahn Academy will replace all the schools given enough time.
    • What's it about. what's it mean.

      Some/Many though are write/copy or photocopy/blank stare exercises. Completely useless. The whole point of a human being is interaction.

      Just to say, Kahn Academy is a good and could become a fabulous resource, along with Project Gutenberg, Google Books, Wikibooks.

      One thing they are all missing is how the elements relate to one another, and to the real world. A complaint I have about conventional teaching as well.

      • One thing they are all missing is how the elements relate to one another, and to the real world. A complaint I have about conventional teaching as well.

        That's my point. If your options are Conventional Teaching vs Kahn Academy then Kahn Academy will replace Conventional Teaching. Small group peer instruction is far too expensive for anyone except the wealthy to implement, and they already get it and pay for it with private schools.

        • People seem to make this assumption that "conventional teaching" is just an idiot in front of the classroom reciting the same lecture from ten years ago. That's bullshit; the problem there isn't the lecture the problem is the professor. Even in a large overcrowded classroom for first year calculus the profs can keep the class engaged during a lecture. If some profs can't do this then dump those profs; you will just make things worse if you rely on prerecorded lectures.

      • Gutenberg is the right idea, but it has a fatal flaw - the need to abide by the ridiculous copyright laws.

        It basically has nothing written after 1920, which is when the Copyright gang has grudgingly admitted that prior works are public domain.

        The problem is, there are some 100,000 important books (and millions of "fun" ones) that were written in the 20th century, but they're all locked down by Copyright.

        My answer was just to buy stuff for a buck a book at sales, along with some specialized stuff at retail.

    • But no colleges do things this way except with bad profs. Sorry all you Kahn Academy fans. Good profs will not just recite the same old lecture, but they will ask questions of the class and tailor the lecture to the questions being asked (ie, if they don't understand one concept well the prof will spend more time discussing it but if no one has questions then the next topic is brought up).

      And if you do get pre-recorded lectures that's still less than half of a typical college class. Homework, lab assignm

  • by AlienSexist ( 686923 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:43PM (#38577656)
    I, for one, am an Aural learning type. Lectures have served me very well, even to the extent of "deep understanding of concepts." For those that share my learning type, Lecture is often all that we need to ace exams and retain important knowledge. During my studies at the University I attended every single lecture that I could attend and took excellent notes. No amount of reading assignments or labs (also appeal to different learning types) had the same educational impact on me as watching an expert describe the concepts, illustrate them in a live environment, and respond to questions that the students actually have on the subject. A little bit of homework to cement the knowledge was all that was necessary.

    Even amongst techies there are those that stay fresh by reading the latest books and others that stay fresh by attending conferences and just listening to what others are doing. There are still others that learn best by grinding away their own personal experiments.

    I realize that it is proposed to record lectures once and just make them available. That may help considerably. But my guess is that Humans are naturally tuned to listen to other Humans (oral traditions) and recordings may not bring the right level of engagement.
    • Actually I'm sorry to say but the whole auditory/visual learner thing was debunked a couple years ago. Huge upset in psychological research in recent times. []
      • Debunked may be a bit harsh, as they are mostly saying that the studies they reviewed lacked credible findings due to the methodology used. This leaves us with several possible explanations:

        1) the idea of different types of learners is not valid
        2) the idea is valid but we haven't figured out how to measure it scientifically
        3) the idea is close to, but not the actual explanation

        Being that our memories are combinations of our senses and that some people do seem to recall certain aspects easier than ot
      • ...have you never seen someone who learns more from hands on than lecture? Cause I have which is exactly the opposite from the way I am best at learning.
    • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:35PM (#38578594) Homepage

      I, for one, am an Aural learning type.

      This [] review of the literature finds no support for the notion of matching instruction to learning styles. The whole thing was hogwash and wishful thinking.

      Another issue here is that although the article is specifically about learning physics, you seem to be talking about learning in general. There is very strong evidence [] that lecturing is simply an ineffective way to teach physics in particular.

    • by brillow ( 917507 )

      The theory of "learning types" has been dubunked, there is no evidence of (and is evidence against) the idea that some people absorb information better depending on format.

      The thing is the standard used to be that given some readings, a lecture, and the ability to ask questions, you could learn something.

      This article restates that standard into saying given readings, and some required class-time where you are forced to do the kind of work and thinking you used to do in your own time, you can learn something

    • The problem with the original article is that it has a flawed assumption that lectures are the only thing in education. It even says "if all there is is lectures". That's just stupid. A typical college class is lectures AND sections AND discussion groups AND labs. The lecture hour itself usually involves much more than droning on, the prof is deriving formulas, working out problems, answering student questions, discussing issues with students, etc. You can not replace that with a video taped lecture!


  • My favorite class in college was, where the professor assigned us a chapter or two to read, and a few things to pay attention to. Then in class we discussed them, and asked questions. It was a lot better than simply listening to him lecture on the topic.
    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      Much more common in the soft sciences and liberal arts than in hard science classes.

      I had a history class and an English lit class like that.

      The history prof just came out and told us that reading the text out loud would be a better lecture than anything the prof could say, or at least thats what his boss, coincidentally the dept chair and author of the text, told him. We all had a laugh over that one. So we were basically forbidden by dilbertian management from having a lecture in that class.

    • That's not a lecture course. That's a discussion course. A fair bit of research shows that it's the best way of learning. The problem is bang for your buck. U's want large lecture sections to provide students "contact" hours with professor-rank faculty. Having a faculty member drone away at 200 students is a good way to tell your dean that you're giving general education students access to your research faculty. Without actually giving non-majors access to your research faculty. To be fair to departments, i
      • You can have discussions and lectures in the same class. These are not mutually exclusive, and I have never been in a class that was pure lecture with no student feedback. It sounds like the author of the article is just disgruntled about poor profs.

  • Careful (Score:5, Interesting)

    by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:46PM (#38577700) Homepage Journal

    Some professors engage their classes in discussion of questions raised during lectures, others just throw up overheads and blab the same speech as the past five years.

    I've always been a proponent of class discussion and group learning as opposed to the dissemination of information from on high as being fact.

    The most important things you can do in University are to take courses in Logic, Philosophy, and Critical Thinking. Those will teach you to learn and to argue like a civilized human being, preparing you to convince your boss to implement your ideas, your customers to engage your services, and the government to hear your concerns.

    • by Lando ( 9348 )

      When I teach classes, the coursework tends to vary based on the students in the class. I suppose for teachers that don't know their material or have to go by a strict line by line teaching method, eg some schools prescribe exactly what must be taught and how it has to be taught, just recording the lecture once would be fine. For me, my classes, though they do try to teach the same concepts, I try to structure the information in such a way that they students can relate to them.

      Is this always possible? No

  • dating from the 18th century in their current form, except the slide projector/powerpoint. Ever since my college days 10 years ago, many students were recording sound in lectures rather than take notes. The better of our lecturers put their slides on our network before class, as students who are copying the slides from the screen are really not listening to the lecturer. Now I teach my own classes, this approach allows me to talk around the slides, in a much more open style, following the message rather tha
    • by afidel ( 530433 )
      as students who are copying the slides from the screen are really not listening to the lecturer

      Please, I beg you, since you say you are now teaching, take a class on learning modalities! There are MANY students for whom listening and transcribing is going to be a very positive way of reinforcing what they heard. Audio and Visual are not the only ways to learn. Heck in some classes I learned best by putting my head down and listening and then visualizing the concept, to an uninformed teacher or professor i
  • by Bananatree3 ( 872975 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:53PM (#38577826)
    Why not get all the passive shit done at home - like watching a lecture and taking notes. Then come to class and do all the hard shit in class? Anything not finished in class is then required to be taken home.
    • by supercrisp ( 936036 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:10PM (#38578164)
      As a professor, allow me to say "Ha ha ha!" Or, "Yes, that sounds great, but...." The most common question asked during the last final exams I gave was "Do you have a pencil I can borrow?" Sadly, we're not allowed to treat students as responsible adults who will "get all the passive shit done at home." I wish we could. Otherwise the good students are being penalized by the slow-down necessitated by the chuckleheads.
    • by brillow ( 917507 )

      Thats why they have the assigned reading in the textbooks (which are like lectures which are written down, amazing!)

      Problem is students don't read them, and if you had video lectures, no one would watch those.

      What's so wrong with failing students?

      • Depends on the quality. Lots of people have watched Prof. Andrew Ng's (Stanford) Machine Learning video lectures. The latest version (2011) are much better than the 2008/2009 version as one would expect from someone who refines his methods. Highly recommended.
  • by eepok ( 545733 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:54PM (#38577852) Homepage

    Look-- the vast majority of students learn because they have no choice. Slashdoters that say "public education only held me back as a child" and "I learned more outside of the classroom" are not the norm. The normal person "accidentally" gets caught up with friends, watching movies, and trolling Facebook instead of watching these lecture videos. Those normal people then fail (or worse, cheat).

    Too bad for them? No... because if they end up being useless, YOU will feel the consequences. Be it in skilled labor shortages, increase poverty/crime rates, dumbed down video classes to make up for the poor previous education of your cohort, or the removal of funding due to the low passing scores, YOU WILL FEEL THEIR FAILURE.

    Real education isn't a plug-and-play option. It's work. Teachers need to work in the classroom and do their best to make sure the students learn as much as possible. It's adaptive, changing, and sometimes will digress to related, but more entertaining, topics to keep long-term interest. These things cannot be done by video.

    Get it through your heads. The education of the masses must be done in person by skilled individuals. Preferably in smaller groups.

    Qualifier: Distance/video learning can help to enlighten. It can even help to educate people who genuinely want to learn (typically, this works better with adults). Just please understand that kids 4-25 are crap learners on their own. They NEED others to help them learn or else they just won't bother.

    • But what we can do is dramatically change the providers and costs of education.

      With technology, there is almost no reason teachers should be doing their own lesson plans... I've been a teacher. Do people really think every grade 9 Math class is custom tailored? Trust me... it's not. There's a lot of bullcrap to make it seem like they're doing that work. But in the classroom, it's not like that.

      The material/tests/activities... are pretty generic.
      As a result, you really don't need very 'skilled' people i

      • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:26PM (#38578434) Homepage Journal

        Children are voracious learners. Given the chance, they will learn anything and everything they can get their hands on. If you don't disabuse them of the practice, they will carry it on into adulthood.

        As homeschool parents know, give the child access to materials - the internet, a CD of dinosaur books, an electronics experimenter's kit - and they will happily figure it out at their own pace, on their own schedule, and in a sequence that makes sense to them.

        Forcing kids to learn your subjects at your pace by forcing them to sit still and quiet while you drone on is hard work, and it only teaches one thing: learning is not fun.

        For example: How many English classes require students to write book reports, on works which are considered "classic" but not really relevant or interesting? This only makes an association between reading and hard work. It's rare to see an adult who likes to read for enjoyment after a highschools' worth of treatment this way.

        I see this all the time in adults. The vast majority think of any type of learning as "tough", "boring", and "not worth the effort". They won't try anything new unless it's forced on them by life circumstances. They have lost the joy of learning.

        Learning new things is an evolutionary survival trait, yet we spend 13+ years of a kids life teaching them not to enjoy it.

        The standard teaching approach by lecturing has been in use for over 2000 years. Do you suppose that maybe there are more effective ways? Perhaps by experimenting or using our new technology we can raise our adult productivity.

        Some professor is experimenting with different methods. I applaud his attempts and eagerly await the results.

        • Whatever works is great. No where do I say the premade stuff should just be lectures. It also includes activities and games and experiments...

          But what technology allows is for any new lecture, experiment, activity to be quickly used by almost anyone on the planet.

          Suffice to say I don't subscribe to the idea that children are capable of making their own decisions. The older they get, the more choice they should have of course.

          I do think most things are taught... some will use the term 'indoctrinated'... I

    • You seem to be thinking that the method they're talking about involves replacing live lectures with canned videos of lectures. I can see how you might get that impression from the slashdot summary, but the actual article does a significantly better job of explaining what it's about. It's about replacing traditional lectures, where students sit passively and take notes, with classes where the students interact with each other and/or with the professor.


      The teaching method described in the article isn't new (i

      • by eepok ( 545733 )

        You are 100% right... because this was supposed to reply to a post about distance learning not be a post on its own. /shame

        However, in regards to the article itself, the guy is doing nothing new. He's having a discussion session in which he makes sure students learn fewer things in class to a higher degree of success instead of more things learned very lightly. This is why most universities have lecture and discussion sessions for the majority of their courses. The only thing that's even remotely novel is t

    • by brillow ( 917507 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @08:02PM (#38579774)

      I think a hidden problem is that these people are not fundamentally capable of doing the things the economy needs. All the jobs these people could do are now done by machines, and the phase-space of things a machine cannot do is shrinking rapidly.

      What we are currently doing is forcing the incapable into systems they cannot compete in and compensating by lowering standards. These people end up with degrees, but no robust competence.

      What we will have to do in the next 30 years or so, when machines are able to do very advanced things (like diagnose disease and perform surgery), is rethink our economic paradigms.

  • by Valacosa ( 863657 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:55PM (#38577864)

    "With modern technology, if all there is is music, we don't need musicians to do it. ... Get 'em to do it once, put it on the Web, and fire the musicians."

    Careful where you go with that line of thinking. And if anyone says, "there's a difference between a physics lecture, and something creative like music," I would respond that you've never had a good physics teacher. Physics is very creative, once you start getting into the upper levels.

    Eric Mazur gave a talk here at the University of Waterloo, and his talk was not about getting rid of lectures, per se. That's something the NPR reporter seems to assume, to the point where (s)he inserted soundbytes from an entirely different physics prof. Mazur's focus is about making the classtime much more interactive, to give students feedback about whether or not they really grasp the concepts. Again, it's about guided creativity. And no, you can't get rid of the professor in that situation.

    (Yes, I was a physics major.)

    • Perhaps the lecture format in question is where there are 100+ students sitting in a lecture hall listening to the information the professor is madly trying to get through. In many of these classes, there is little if any time for questions, and certainly little time to review or repeat.

      But then, there are good lecturers and bad lecturers. Most people fall into the latter category. The good lecturers engage and even entertain the audience. They move at a pace where both the slower students would be able to

      • You have good profs and bad profs. You also have good students and bad students. A good student can not just sit by passively and a good prof can not allow a student to just sit by passively. Even if the lecture is the most boring thing in the world the student has the responsibility to do something with the time before the next lecture; do the homework, go to the prof's or TA's office to ask questions, read the text book, etc. Even with a bad professor much of the responsibility for the failure to lear

    • Anecdote, not sure about the veracity: supposedly David Hilbert had a mathematics PhD student who quit, and changed his major to poetry.

      Hilbert's response?

      "Good, he didn't have enough imagination for mathematics."

      (Translated from the German, of course)

  • agree and disagree (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rish87 ( 2460742 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:03PM (#38578008)
    Personally I hated a lot of "alternative" teaching methods some of my professors tried during my undegrad years. Small "group work" was the most painful, useless time wasting exercise in my academic life. These "peer learning sessions" usually consisted of the smart students doing everything while the dumb or just slower kids sat there. It was times like these when I wondered why I was paying $20k a year to teach myself and have useless students piggyback off my grades.

    That being said, I had a lot of equally frustrating classes where the professor did the exact opposite and taught in the classical face-to-blackboard lecture style. I would sit there frantically copying notes for an hour and realize I had no idea what I just listened to, again wondering why I was paying $20k a year to read condensed notes taken directly from a textbook.

    The best classes, however, were a mix of these techniques. One class would dedicate about 1/2 to 3/4 of each lecture to slow, explanatory and engaging lecture with the rest of the time being dedicated to class-wide example problem solving. Another class would dedicate an entire lecture or two each week to solving a number of representative problems from the homework as a class, introducing or reinforcing the thought processes needed to go about learning HOW to solve the problems. These professors took the time to engage the students and walk them through the problem solving, not just quickly write down decades old lecture notes with their backs to the students.
  • Just buy in someone else's video, spend the savings on better dorm rooms for the Chinese and Korean students who are funding your Dean's yacht. It's not like he really cares whether they learn anything, as long as they (or superficially similar professional exam-sitters) get good passes and keep the school's 'reputation' up.
  • by ravenscar ( 1662985 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:05PM (#38578058)

    I attended a small, private university and most of my 3rd and 4th year courses had 7-9 students + the professor. Many of those classes were structured into 3 hour blocks. It was great. There was plenty of time to explore topics together, and in a way that resulted in everyone gaining a fairly thorough understanding of the material.

    That school couldn't provide the kind of resources necessary for grad work, but it was great for undergrad.

  • by afabbro ( 33948 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:08PM (#38578114) Homepage

    Discussion sections were the biggest waste of time in college. Get 20 undergrads and one grad student in a room to "discuss". I was a history major and every class had the same two or three hours a week devoted to these tedious discussions.

    I did not care what my fellow undergrads thought. I cared what the guy with the PhD thought. My fellow undergrads were spouting off their own ill-informed ideas (as was I, to get credit). Complete waste of time. We'd have been better served to spend those 8-10 hours a week reading.

  • fire the faculty? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cyfer2000 ( 548592 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:23PM (#38578396) Journal
    I thought their are in universities to write research proposals and get money from public or private funding source like NSF, DOD, DOE, Green Peace, big oils... So the universities can cut a overhead (~40%) from those funding. Teaching and students are just pretentious facades.
  • by Ben_R_R ( 1177533 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:30PM (#38578508)
    As a college senior, I've taken my share of lectures in various disciplines. One thing I've noticed with lectures, especially math lectures, is that when you are sitting there watching the professor walk you through the problem steps, it is very easy to overestimate your grasp of the subject. You follow all the lectures and do well on the homework, so you figure your good to go for the final. Then there comes the exam, and you find out all you really knew how to do was some textbook assisted string manipulation, and you are screwed on the questions that would be easy if you understood the intuition better. It's difficult to teach the intuition behind things to a room full of students, because each one will have a different "Ah-Ha!" conceptual explanation. For example Partial Differentiation. I got it when it was explained as a cross section of a higher dimensional shape. My friend, when working with gradients and vector fields in physics. (It boils down to the same thing, but it's the way you start to attack the problem that matters) There is no way to give a room full of students individual intuitions, so most professors default to proofs. (Which are probably intuitive enough for the professor anyway...) But since you can get the proofs from the book, there is not really a good reason to go to proof lectures, unless you like things read to you. (Which is probably helpful to some, but useless for me)
  • It's nothing new. It has been around for years and it has been (correctly) advocated as a much better way to teach and learn over conventional lecturing.
  • by StupendousMan ( 69768 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:39PM (#38578670) Homepage

    ... and it's okay.

    At RIT, we switched from the traditional lecture + lab approach to the "workshop" approach about six years ago. The students meet in a room with small tables and maximum class size of 42, three times a week for two hours each. The room has equipment at all the tables, so that students can quickly set up small experiments which may not take the entire 2-hour meeting.

    I taught in the traditional manner for about seven years, and in this manner for an equal duration. Does the workshop have advantages? Sure: students are less likely to fall asleep because they are often working examples, and because they are in a small, well-lit room. I can walk around and talk to individual students for a minute or two at a time, so I can find those who are having problems and try to help them. It's easy to introduce a concept, give one simple example, then ask the students to do another example, within a span of 20 or 40 minutes. In some cases, this cycle of introduction - observation - action may help students to understand or remember the material.

    But there are disadvantages, too: in a workshop, it's difficult to move away from the median student. I can't go too much faster or deeper, because it's clear that many students are not getting it; so some students are held back. I can't slow down for the slowest learners, either, because it becomes obvious that the majority of the class is bored. This approach is MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE than the traditional one, because we need to offer 10 or 15 sections of the class each quarter; that means a lot more faculty time. The rooms can't be used for any other classes, and the AV requirements are pretty steep -- we need to spend around $10K just on projectors each year. We need more equipment than we would have in traditional labs, and that stuff isn't cheap.

    It's not clear that this approach causes students to learn any better; some are helped, some are hurt. It's difficult to compare student achievement in workshops vs. lectures, because at the same time that workshops were introduced, we changed the content of our classes as well.

    My summary, after years of experience: not a silver bullet, a lot more fun to teach, more expensive overall.

    • There's a happy medium that uses a lot less staff time. I'm trying to push this out in the Intelligent Book [] (sorry, gratuitous plug). And that's to make the lecture interactive, without having to redesign the whole course. The first few slides are my same slides from last year to give you a quick intro to what we're talking about today. But my next slide is a quiz that happens on the main screen and you interact using your phone/iPad/laptop and there's a live Twitter-like on the lecture screen as well a

    • Thanks for your post! I teach at a community college in California where the maximum class size is 25 anyway. (Lecture and lab are in the same room, with the same students and teacher.) I use mostly interactive engagement techniques, mixed with snippets of straight lectures, demos, etc. We don't use any techniques that require expensive AV stuff; what techniques that you use require that?

      At RIT, we switched from the traditional lecture + lab approach to the "workshop" approach about six years ago.

      Does this mean that you've completely eliminated traditional labs? (IMO that would be a shame.)

      Do you have any data on ho

      • The "expensive AV stuff" is 2 projectors per room (we need to project onto opposite walls because students sitting at tables aren't all facing in the same direction), times 7 workshop rooms. 14 projectors cost a lot to maintain.

        Yes, we've completely eliminated traditional labs from the introductory physics sequence.

        There is a small amount of data on how students did on the FCI before and after the switch, but not enough to be significant. I don't think that the FCI is a very good way to measure the knowle

        • Hmmm...sounds like you're simply finding that you have to do your teaching within a system that's poorly designed. Why not fix the bad design?

          I don't think that the FCI is a very good way to measure the knowledge of a student in physics, by the way.

          Are you talking about false positives, or false negatives?

          In other words, suppose that class A has a very low average on the FCI, while B has a very high one.

          I would maintain that the teacher of class A is incompetent, and is in denial if he won't admit that fact and try to change; the FCI is ridiculously basic, and any student who's at all competent should score very

  • We don't need universities or schools anymore. I have learned more about historic European and Russian firearms (something I find iteresting) and Linux (something that helps me earn a living) from youtube videos and online blogs and meetups than I have from countless books and experts who have come out of academia.
  • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @07:16PM (#38579200) Homepage

    The slashot summary isn't terribly accurate, and even if you violate the social norms of /. and click through to read the article, the article is pretty sketchy as well. We're already getting comments from people who think this is about substituting video lectures for live lectures, and that's totally inaccurate.

    This method is not new. I teach physics at a community college (not at Hahvahd like Mazur, alas), and I've been using methods similar to his for about 15 years. I learned about them from Mazur's book [], which was published in 1996.

    It's also not just some guy's opinion about how to teach. It's solidly backed up by research.

    Let's start from the evidence. There is very strong evidence [] that lecturing is a terrible way to teach physics. The classic studies work like this. You give students a multiple-choice test at the beginning of the semester on very simple, basic concepts of physics. What hits the ground first, a larger rock or a smaller rock? What forces act on a book that's lying on a table? They do badly, but you expect that, because most of them haven't had high school physics. Then you teach a semester's worth of physics to them and give them the test again to measure how much they've improved. The usual statistic used to measure their improvement is the gain, G, defined as G=(final score-initial score)/(100%-initial score). In other words, if they haven't improved at all, G=0, and if they've improved as much as it was possible for them to improve, G=1. With classes that use traditional lecturing -- even by experienced, award-winning teachers who get glowing reviews from their students, are enthusiastic, and put a great deal of effort into their lectures -- you get about G=0.25. In other words, the students have developed very little conceptual understanding beyond what they came in with. On the other hand, if you use interactive teaching techniques that force students to participate actively and talk about concepts, you can usually get much higher G's.

    The evidence is that it doesn't really matter very much what specific interactive technique you use, as long as it's interactive and deals with concepts. Mazur pioneered a technique called peer instruction []. Just to be concrete, I'll describe his specific technique. You require the students to read the book *before* they come to class. You enforce this with reading quizzes given when they walk into lecture. The class consists basically of a bunch of multiple-choice conceptual questions. You pop up one of the questions on the screen and ask students to show you their initial opinion about which answer is right. This can be done with expensive electornic "clickers" or with cheap pieces of cardboard marked A, B, C, and D. If you see that almost everyone got it right, you briefly confirm that, and then move on. If they didn't, you have them break up into small groups and discuss the question. You walk around and listen a lot without saying much. Then you have them vote again again. The theory is that the right answer is supposed to win out over the wrong answers in the discussion. When it's time to give a test, you make sure that the test includes some purely conceptual questions, because otherwise students will tend to resist dropping the "plug and chug" approach they're used to and switching to focusing on concepts.

    Mazur's book shows data where he got G~0.5 with this method. Nobody has ever gotten a G that high with traditional lecturing. Over the years since 1996, many of us who use interactive techniques have refined what we do, and it's not uncommon to significantly higher G's. The average for three of us who teach freshman calc-based physics at my school last semester was 0.7.

    A common concern is that if the teacher d

    • The class consists basically of a bunch of multiple-choice conceptual questions. You pop up one of the questions on the screen and ask students to show you their initial opinion about which answer is right. This can be done with expensive electornic "clickers" or with cheap pieces of cardboard marked A, B, C, and D.

      Or live on the lecture screen from students' phones, iPads, tablets, etc [], with live discussion alongside it if you want (for the things students aren't game to say in person). As it's live, and there is an option to let students move their votes, I've found it's sometimes entertaining revealing the votes and then watching them change as the discussion happens -- for instance all flocking to a common misconception that has the most votes on first reveal, and then shifting to the right answer as the discussi

    • Your comment reminds me why I preferred seminar to lecture: we came to class to discuss the state of each student's paper, got an opportunity for feedback from instructor and peers, and got an extra dollop of subject expertise from the instructor.

      Lecture gave me 'waaaaay too much leeway to how much material I elected to mentally engage with, or not, and too few opportunities to (literally and figuratively) test my comprehension, and address knowledge gaps.

      That there is a weeding out process of freshmen is v

  • by erikwestlund ( 1003368 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @07:23PM (#38579260) Homepage

    They note the importance of reading before the class in the article but don't follow up much on that. This is crucial.

    This problem presents itself when teaching interactively: If students don't prepare ahead of time, the lesson totally stalls. Then they are trying to figure out problems with no basis for it. What happens? The professor often ends up lecturing. Then no time is left.

    My intuition (based upon TAing Statistics as a PhD student and being a high school teacher of history, philosophy, and information technology) is that very few students read before lecture. I often didn't as an undergrad. Why? Because as long as the lectures re-tread text material, student can get away with using the text only as a reference, not as a primarily source of information. If students are required to be active participants, they HAVE to read ahead of time. Otherwise they have no way of actually figuring out how to use the knowledge from the reading.

    I agree with the poster who mentioned the importance of assessing theoretically. A lot of students think that theoretical assessment is easy -- they don't have to remember a lot and can just use their brain to figure out the test. At least in the Stats class I helped teach, this simply wasn't true. Whenever we had problems sets or exam problems which were more or less plug and chug, the students did GREAT. However, when we started asking theoretical questions (which statistical test is appropriate here? Why? How do you test assumptions...? Critique this statistically informed research piece.), students really struggled -- which means they don't get it. That tells me they weren't really ready to use statistics.

    I bet this could have been alleviated significantly if we had spent more time in class really working through problems which asked tough theoretical questions in groups as a class. But alas, we lectured, then I had 50 minutes weekly to try to answer their questions -- never enough -- and the quality of work struggled. Many students never really seemed ready to work independently with the concepts: I think a big reason for this is they were taught by being talked at... so when it was time to show they knew stats, the brightest did fine but the majority freaked out.

  • I cautiously agree to reducing lectures. I found that in getting my BSEE I learned much more doing hands on labs in small groups than I did in the lectures for the class. Further, what I learned in labs and doing student jobs on various programs stuck much better than the lecture material, and cemented the lecture material better.

    Sadly, lab are less and less hands on these days, and most new engineering grads have never held a soldering iron and had pathetically little hands on lab work. I would argue th

  • by brillow ( 917507 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @07:58PM (#38579736)

    While these were all smart people, and not average, my point is that while lectures maybe aren't the best for all disciplines, they are a proven method.

    I think an unappreciated point is that with the increased societal goals of getting everyone into college, the average IQ of college graduates is steadily declining. Used to be, only very intelligent people went to college, now everyone is expected to go. Therefore teaching methods have to adapt to teach to lower and lower students. What I am unsure of in this article is if after these methods the students still have deep understanding, or are just better at answering questions they've already been asked before and been given the answers to in these discussions. Essentially it seems these discussion based methods are just out-sourcing the teaching to the students who do read the material.

    I've heard someone say that intelligence means that someone is able to absorb and grok information in the form it is given. College education has been based loosely around this. There is some required reading, there is a lecture where you can ask questions, there are office hours/labs/recitations where you can ask more questions, then there is an exam. In this situation the burden is open the student to assess their own learning. Competent students can do this, and do. This new idea seems based around forcing students to think about the material and assess their own understanding through required discussion groups rather than learning to do this on their own. Consequently, I studied like a freak and spent a lot of introspective time asking myself if I understood this material.

    In general I think the goal of the university should not be vocational. The goal is not to teach in such a strong way, but to merely make information available and have students learn how to learn. They've always done this with required readings, problem sets, etc. I'd be interested to see how many of these physics students who do so poorly actually do all their homework to the point in which they understand it. I had a labmate once (who was not cut out for physics) complain at how he did all the homework, but wasn't able to get the right answers. To me it seemed that he didn't really do it at all. (note: I am not a genius, but I am appropriately intelligent for college.)

    What was once studying is now part of class time. When I was in school we worked in groups to independently form study/discussion groups, we didn't get our hands held by having teachers FORCE us to think about the material. This new method is interesting, but makes you think about what standards we expect of a college graduate. Does a degree mean that you know the material? Or should it mean that you have demonstrated the capability to learn the material? It would seem that in a job-environment they won't hold discussion groups to teach you how to do something, and a better skill would be to be able to learn on your own.

    When I was in undergrad at the beginning of the past decade, the average grade in my physics class was a D, and this was normal. The average grade in organic chemistry was a C, and this was normal. The fact was that these were just very complex subjects and most people would not grasp all of it. The grades were adjusted upwards of course, but it was understood by the faculty that a course which covers the expected amount of material would be very difficult and the average student's raw score would be low, but that was ok.

  • This is the same issue across all age ranges. Larger classes results in less time for teacher student feedback. But thanks to never ending MBA/economist efficiency demands the classes grows larger and larger...

  • by brillow ( 917507 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @08:17PM (#38579952)

    Why is it such a surprise that the average grade in a university physics class is a D?

    If you took a random sampling of the population and tried to teach them a complex subject, do you expect that most of them would pass?

    The fact that a lot of students fail, does not mean the teacher is bad. It could be so, but it could also be that the subject matter is difficult and most people are not smart enough to grasp it.

    People fail classes. In fact, 50% of the students SHOULD fail (with modern grading paradigms).

    Is the goal to have a university where everyone passes, or one where only the capable pass?

    • by Moof123 ( 1292134 ) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @09:06PM (#38580328)

      The goal should be that a high percentage learn the material. Folks that don't learn the material should get a failing grade, those that do should get a passing grade.

      If a technique increases the number of people in a class that can learn the material, and increases the proficiency of those that would have learned it anyway this is a win/win.

      So given that a pass should indicate that a student learned the material, yes it should be the goal of a university to have a high pass rate. We have advanced degrees and harder curricula for those that need softer classes to be able to pass (i.e. if an artsy type ends up in a hard physics class, the failure has already occurred elsewhere).

  • Different people learn in different ways. Some are verbal (lectures), some are visual (textbooks), others learn best from tactile experiences. Reinforcing each of these are different applications of performing some task (homework) or discussion groups to rehash the learned knowledge. These are both learning techniques as well as a demonstration of the comprehension of the material.

    It would probably be inadvisable to eliminate one avenue of learning that suits a significant group of students. On the other h

Thus spake the master programmer: "When a program is being tested, it is too late to make design changes." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"