Lectures: as archaic as bloodletting in an era of modern medicine

If the outcomes of ‘active learning’ are so much better than those for traditional lectures, why stick with the old format? asks Simone Buitendijk

March 19, 2017
Interactive app at natural history museum
Source: Getty

The development of the teaching excellence framework has caused UK universities to do a lot of soul-searching. Our education, as well as our research, is in the spotlight. And rightly so.

At research-intensive universities such as my own, we know that progress is driven by discovery, innovation and a willingness to take risks. Our researchers probe the boundaries of knowledge every day. They consider evidence, experiment, adapt and discover. But often that same evidential rigour is not being applied to teaching.

The traditional lecture-based model of teaching is still very prevalent, despite a growing body of literature, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, indicating that it doesn’t work that well for students. Countless studies have now confirmed that lectures are less effective than more interactive methods across a wide range of outcomes. Undergraduate students in classes with traditional lectures are one and a half times more likely to fail exams than students in classes that use active learning methods.

Classroom sessions that use more active approaches, such as group discussions, in-class quizzes and clicker-questions, result in a deeper understanding of the concepts and in higher grades. Active learning in lab sessions, compared with the traditional “cookbook approaches”, also leads to more student engagement and better understanding. It seems, too, that active learning particularly benefits students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and female students in male-dominated fields.

Carl Wieman, a Nobel prizewinning physicist and active-learning advocate from Stanford Universitycompares belief in the value of traditional lecturing to belief in bloodletting in an era of modern, evidence-based medicine. Lecture theatres and classrooms, according to Wieman, should be places of interaction – where students can work with their professor and with fellow students to figure out problems – practising what they know, receiving feedback in real time, and actively engaging with the course material.

The University of British Columbia, inspired and helped by Wieman, has long been leading the way in this area, developing and implementing an evidence-based, interactive, faculty-wide science curriculum.

I visited UBC recently to see how we at Imperial College London could embed that approach in our own teaching. We will be looking at our learning and teaching with fresh eyes, considering the evidence and pushing beyond it by asking our own questions. Most importantly, we will be working with our students as partners, co-innovators and teaching assistants.

Imperial has many examples of great and innovative teaching, but now we are looking for new ways to create the space for them to grow and be implemented across our institution so that all our students will have the best possible learning experience.

We’re already making great strides. We recently awarded our first Excellence Fund for Learning and Teaching Innovation grants. These are grants of up to £50,000 to support innovation in the use of technology-enhanced learning and innovation in assessment and feedback.

It is time for UK universities to build on existing research and take it to the next level. They should innovate in ways that fit their unique profile and needs, rigorously evaluate student outcomes and contribute to the next wave of evidence in interactive teaching.

I have no doubt that the direct benefits to our students will be significant, but the long-term effects will go much deeper. Our world desperately needs innovative, bright minds to help tackle the challenges it is facing and will continue to face in the coming decades. It is no longer enough to just teach our students to pass exams. We need to equip them to be the future leaders our world needs, to teach them the critical thinking, problem-solving and group-work skills that they will need as modern graduates.

All this starts with excellent teaching. It is time for UK universities to make this a priority.

Simone Buitendijk is vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London.

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Reader's comments (2)

The comparison of lectures to some kind of outdated methodology in another discipline (e.g. bloodletting) is something I always find ridiculous. Consider that in every discipline/field/subject/topic/lab/workplace etc. having an expert explain something to you in person is *still* a central way that knowledge is transferred. I say "still" because weirdly people somehow expect too readily that things that have been around for a long time will now be obsolete in this great modern age. But "despite" huge advances in technology since the dawn of language, one of the most useful experiences for any learner is to be able to have something explained to them face-to-face by someone who knows better. More generally, and as always , these `articles' in THE are so thin that there is almost nothing there. There is no explanation in the article of what these magical "more interactive" methods are. More crucially, when one follows the link to "countless studies" one finds a much more balanced, more skeptical take on the position that lectures are terrible when compared with these (still somewhat vague) other methods. In the linked article we learn that: "the research summarised had a fairly narrow conception of the range of things that lectures are used for" "It is much harder to research the way lectures fulfil [sic] multiple and subtle roles in complex pedagogic patterns. " "the limitations of studies in this area is that they usually consider lectures in isolation and compare them with other methods, also in isolation. In practice, lectures are only one component of a pedagogic system that includes study, assignments, exams and other classes. " These criticisms are so fundamental so as to invalidate any broad brush stroke conclusion based on such studies. Nobody for one second realistically believes that students should just sit and passively listen to a few 50 minute lectures in order to master a subject well. The model of 'teacher standing in front of group of students' is the same model I have in my lectures (50 students), my discussion groups (12 students) and my office hours (sometimes 2 or 1 student). Should we compare the lecture to the office hours as two different approaches to learning? Of course not. And then of course I have assignments and exams and in the lectures I reference the assignments or the assignments help to flesh out the lectures etc. etc. I've also watched the infamous Carl Wieman teach and (surprise, surprise) it is like a normal lecture plus some bells and whistles such as a few clicker questions and discussion time between students etc. Admittedly he does this extremely well and sees good results, but is it better than what would be achieved by any teacher focussing as much as he has on the quality of their teaching, but ultimately within the broad context of standing in front of a group of students and talking? Another thing that's ridiculous is to consider all this without mentioning resources. Lectures are essentially very cheap and require next to nothing in terms of additional equipment or infrastructure. To compare lectures to other forms of learning, one certainly needs to 'weight' things to take this into account. e.g. Oxbridge tutorial/supervision system: It's obviously great to have such small group teaching for every student as standard but your institution essentially needs to be rich enough to employ large numbers of qualified supervisors. Don't get me started on the last couple of paragraphs. Genuinely laughable. Has so many of the cliches that are all too common with the bureaucratic leaders of universities that it's almost a parody of itself. Do they think that the academics and teachers on the ground find this kind of language convincing?
This article also assumes that the teacher is in a well funded school where there seems to be a preponderance of funds and ft faculty. I do half and half: I lecture and I require group discussions, and I actually see benefits to both sides. (This generation has a serious, overwhelming problem with listening comprehension and to tell them that listening is too hard so we should forgo lectures ALL THE TIME is actually failing them in the long run). As the higher education model is becoming bloated with contingent and adjunct faculty, guess what? Lectures will likely predominant. For an adjunct faculty member who has to teach sometimes double the courses of an FTer just to make ends meet or take multiple side jobs and adjunct, lectures are easy and practical. (Discussions can be as well, but let's face it, if you are teaching a night class after working all day and hopping from school to school, moderating a discussion can be tiring). I understand disadvantaged students, but what about disadvantaged teachers in a crumbling higher education system? If you want interactive learning, then you have to give your teachers more job stability, better offices to plan than just "adjunct suites" and access to the same quality PD that FTers have--and no, I don't just mean the free PD, I means things such as conferences where we can discuss learning and share findings.

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