Lecture Blues – the need for active involvement in the classroom

March 6, 2009

from Campus Technology March 2009: 0309_ct

Why the remarkable transformation in learning? No doubt the $2.5M spent on jazzy tech classrooms makes it more fun to learn. But don’t whine that you can’t find funding for hot technology; there’s more to it than that, according to Eric Mazur, a Harvard (MA) physicist and pioneer of the new teaching approach, and Carl Wieman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist at The University of British Columbia. Evidently, freshmen simply can’t retain more than a fraction of the deluge of information thrown at them during large, non-interactive lectures. In fact, without active involvement, no one can. Mazur claims it’s like trying to become a marathon runner by passively watching marathons on TV. And in an article published in 2007 in the magazine Change, Wieman revealed that the lengthy lectures are counterproductive, for the human brain “can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once.”

The article led me to a GREAT site showing how active engagement is used in the medical school classroom:

Even when, to both teachers and students, lecturing appears to be working, (students intently listening, nodding heads, taking notes), what’s going on in the minds of students probably looks a lot like what would be going on on the boat full of my friends – distraction, lack of interest, and only a vague recollection of what was said. Even though it can appear that lecture-based, PowerPoint-driven learning is effective, it rarely is, and is almost never as effective a use of time as the learning-by-doing approach that could be done in its stead. – Roger Schank

Students need to be actively involved mentally and/or physically in learning in order to move through the Learning Cycle. Out of every 100 items in a passive lecture, students will remember approximately 10. If you took the same amount of time to actively involve students, you might only cover 75 items, but students would remember approximately 15, also those 15 items are more likely to be linked storage that can be retrieved more effectively in the future.

Think about the goal of teaching; is the goal for you to transmit information or is the goal students remembering/understanding information? If you believe it is transmission, how do you know that what you say is learned?  – from: http://medicaleducation.wetpaint.com/page/Active+Engagement

At the bottom of this site are a list examples of active involvement teaching strategies for the classroom.

Both of the articles above reiterate the advice that Best Practices for Legal Education has offered for ILs: “The Socratic dialogue and casebook method should be used sparingly.” (p276)  Students learn best when actively engaged in the learning process. 

Technology, of course, provides many options for active student learning that we use here at Albany Law School (clickers, online discussions, webcam recorded simulations, interactive powerpopint games, etc) and many that we plan to implement in the future.