Education Opinion

Preparing Students For Learning, Not Lectures, In College

By Justin Reich — February 09, 2015 3 min read
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“But in college, a lot of the learning happens in lecture halls, with professors talking behind a lectern and students taking notes. We need to prepare our students for that reality.”

As I’ve travelled to various school communities talking and listening about technology in classrooms, this comes up as one of the most common “Yeah, buts.” The argument goes like this: middle and high school teachers have to lecture and make students take notes because that is what college is like. I’ve never found the argument particular persuasive. I suspect that you could probably teach all of the skills for note-taking and sustained attention endurance in, at most, about a month, and if students had one class a year in secondary school that followed this model, that would probably be plenty of practice. That should unshackle the rest of the faculty from that particular demand.

All that said, college instruction--especially at elite institutions--is being closely re-examined. One of the positive effects of the MOOC hype cycle is that it has directed sustained attention on classroom instruction in higher education. There has never been a more exciting time at places like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford to be thinking about teaching. Harvard’s Initiative of Learning and Teaching hosted a well-attended conference this fall, and MIT conducted a sustained investigation of the future of education on campus. MOOCs shined a spotlight on teaching that has sparked serious reflection on the topic, and the emerging consensus is that the traditional lecture-based approaches demand serious reconsideration.

Research on classroom teaching in higher education is driving these changes as well.

Consider this article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” The researchers conducted a meta-analysis (a study of studies) of various forms of “active learning,” learning where students don’t just listen to lectures and take notes, but somehow engage in discussion and activities with peers and professors.

The authors believe that there is extensive evidence that active learning improves student learning outcomes. They argue that evidence from dozens of research studies suggests that students in traditional classes are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes with active learning components, and students earn one-third higher grade levels (B+ instead of B, etc) in the active learning condition.

Here is perhaps their strongest claim to be made about the traditional lecture: they argue that it is no longer ethical to conduct research on active learning where traditional lecture is the control condition. We now have such confidence that active learning is better, that researchers should compare different models of active learning to each other, but students should no longer be subjected to the traditional lecture. That’s a powerful position to take: that traditional lecture as a control condition is no longer ethical. We know that there are superior approaches out there.

The MIT Future of Education report builds on some of this research to propose bold changes in how students learn. They imagine a campus of makerspaces and sandboxes, where students are tinkering, sharing, and collaborating. They imagine breaking down longer courses into shorter modules. They imagine reconfiguring classroom spaces with fewer lecture halls and more labs and spaces for hands on work. How is your high school preparing students for learning like that?

The behemoth of higher education is not going to transform overnight, but there are compelling signs that change is afoot. If your high school wants to prepare students for college-level instruction, that no longer means preparing students to sit in lecture halls. Sure, for the foreseeable future, some professors will just be talking from behind the dais. But a student well-prepared for college also needs to be ready to be an active participant in her classroom learning, and many of those forms of participation will be mediated by technology that helps students collaborate and co-construct their understanding.

That’s one less “Yeah, but” to worry about.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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