Wednesday, September 16, 2015

More lectures about how bad lectures are

In an Op-Ed in this weekend's New York Times entitled "Are College Lectures Unfair?", Annie Murphy Paul proposes that lectures disadvantage women and minorities.

...a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is... a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.
It's not the instructors themselves, but
 the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.
Given the dearth of courses consisting of lectures and no other instructional supports (no textbooks, no discussion sections, no teaching assistants), I'm curious what this "growing body of evidence" consists of.

Paul contrasts the lecture format with "active learning." The latter:
provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.
Apparently students who listen to lectures, take notes, and study their notes afterwards, aren't constructing their own knowledge--at least if they are women and/or minorities.

In contrast, "active learning," while it benefits everyone, especially benefits those who aren't "white males from more affluent, educated families."

One reason, Paul says, is background knowledge:
poor and minority students are disproportionately likely... to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates, thus arriving on campus with less background knowledge.
Background knowledge, in turn, helps us "learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess." And because "students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear," lectures are problematic for students with less of it.

But why single out lectures in particular? Presumably anything for which knowledge is "background" is problematic--"active learning" activities included. Plus, lectures are among the most efficient ways to consume background knowledge. If you're lacking in background knowledge about, say, the 1930s or the geologic eras, surely you'll gain that knowledge faster by attending to someone's oral or written prose rather than by doing some sort of "active learning" exercises.

As for the latter, many of these turn out to be either already commonplace, or easy to incorporate, in so-called "lecture" classes:
Active-learning courses deliberately structure in-class and out-of-class assignments to ensure that students repeatedly engage with the material. The instructors may pose questions about the week’s reading, for example, and require students to answer the questions online, for a grade, before coming to class.
Other active-learning courses administer frequent quizzes that oblige students to retrieve knowledge from memory rather than passively read it over in a textbook. Such quizzes have been shown to improve retention of factual material among all kinds of students.

One of the studies Paul refers to is one I blogged about earlier and about which an earlier New York Times article rhapsodized:
Surveys of students who had taken the class showed that those who had the more active approach [the graded questions about the reading] were far more likely to have done the reading, and they spent more hours on the work, participated more in class and were more likely to view the class as a community.
And as I noted in my earlier post:
Is it really newsworthy that many of today's students won't do the reading unless they are held accountable for it? Or that students are more likely to participate in class if they are given in-class activities to do?
The question, of course, is why these extrinsic incentives would motivate minorities and women more than white males.

Besides its supposed lack of active learning, another problem with the lecture is that it creates:
a high-pressure atmosphere that may discourage [minority, low-income, and first-generation students] from volunteering to answer questions, or impair their performance if they are called on. Research in psychology has found that academic performance is enhanced by a sense of belonging — a feeling that students from these groups often acutely lack.
Paul neglects to say how "active learning" classes, with graded reading questions and frequent tests, would foster lower pressure and a greater sense of belonging. One active learning environment is the discussion section, where white men famously do most of the talking.

It's at this point in the article that Paul addresses the much-begged question of why lectures are bad for the half of the population with two X chromosomes:
a 2014 study found that although women made up 60 percent of large introductory biology courses, they accounted for less than 40 percent of those responding to instructors’ questions.
Does this lower rate of in-class question answering affect how well the females learn biology (and what grades they get)? Paul does not say.

Females also apparently thrive in "flipped" classrooms:
In a study to be published later this year, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Yale University compare a course in physical chemistry taught in traditional lecture style to the same course taught in a “flipped” format, in which lectures were moved online and more time was devoted to in-class problem-solving activities. Exam performance over all was nearly 12 percent higher in the flipped class. Female students were among those who benefited the most, allowing them to perform at almost the same level as their male peers.
Since the study hasn't been published yet, I hesitate to draw conclusions. To what degree did the exam questions mirror the kinds of activities students did in class? To what degree did the exams test the knowledge imparted in the online lectures? And are women really more dependent on in-class learning exercises than men are?

And how does any of this "evidence," however "growing," show the lecture to be "a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others"?


Anonymous said...

I always get cranky when people claim that lectures are terrible. I mean, isn't the "active learning" piece the point of studying? Isn't it up to the student to figure out what "activities" work for them? Why should college instructors, and to a lesser extent high school teachers, have to scaffold the learning process to this extent?

momof4 said...

Agreed. If you aren't willing or able to do the work, you don't belong in college (or in HS college prep). ES and MS are supposed to teach the study skills you need to use for continued success. (my school started working that in 5th - outlining etc) In HS, figure out what methods work best for you, in each subject. I liked lectures and found undergrad discussion groups, until all were serious students with significant knowledge, to be a waste of time.

In college, I typically had at least 15 pages of notes for every 3 hr. class - outline format - and I would review each class ASAP to make sure they were clear and comprehensive and to make additions. I could be confident that I hadn't missed anything and that I had noted the prof's emphasis and any substantive comments from classmates. Lecture is the only way to cover that amount of material efficiently. My youngest had 90" block scheduling in early HS and said that half of every (honors) class was wasted because too many kids couldn't handle that amount of material - often because they hadn't read the assigned material beforehand.