4 Key Ideas From the Research

(Excerpt from Linda Hodges new title, Teaching Undergraduate Science)

What are lectures good for, and what are they not good for? A good lecture can inspire students. It can also show them how we think. That said, a good lecture cannot do the thinking for students. Mathematician and blogger Robert Talbert nicely captured the key advantages of lecture in “Four Things Lecture Is Good For” (2012):

  • Exemplifying ways experts think—that is, thought processes
  • Providing ways to simplify complex ideas—that is, cognitive structures
  • Providing context and relationships of ideas being presented
  • Telling stories to not only promote analogical thinking (as he describes), but also, I would add, humanize our disciplines

Talbert goes on to say—as have many others (Bligh, 2000, is the classic example)—that lecture is not a particularly good vehicle for transferring understanding. Various studies have documented the low retention of information from lecture alone (Wieman, 2007). Given all the other venues students have for gaining access to content, is lecturing to students the best use of that valuable contact time we have with them? Can we engage students with “first exposure” to material some other way, so that we faculty can employ our considerable talent and expertise in helping students process complex information and apply their knowledge to new situations? In other words, can we use class time to engage them in deliberate practice, as I discussed in chapter 1?

Four key ideas from research on human learning help explain the challenge in learning from lecture.

  1. Complex information does not transfer to long-term memory without processing. This finding helps us see why lecture alone doesn’t efficiently promote learning. Students must process complex information as they receive it; otherwise, they will very likely forget it. One popular theory of information processing points us to this conclusion. In the working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974), working memory is the cognitive space or the process we use to make sense of new information by consciously connecting it to our prior knowledge. Via working memory, novice learners select input from what they hear or see, mix in information from prior experience and long-term memory, and start to make new meaning—their own personal meaning. This meaning may or may not resemble what we have said. If new ideas conflict with old ideas or if prior knowledge is missing or inaccurate, the new information may be discarded or garbled.
  2. Working memory capacity is easily overloaded. Humans cannot keep very many ideas under conscious consideration at once. As working memory becomes overloaded, earlier information is replaced before it has time to be processed and transferred into long-term memory. As we cover content in lecture, incoming ideas are constantly displacing what we said before. If earlier ideas do not get processed and moved toward long-term memory, they are lost.
  3. Focusing attention is critical for memory. Underlying this apparently simplistic statement is the real challenge that humans have in maintaining attention for any length of time. Working memory may really just reflect our attentional focus (Jonides, Lewis, Nee, Lustig, Berman, & Moore, 2008). Our working memory capacity may indicate the number of concurrent ideas to which we can pay attention as much as it reflects units of information we can keep in play simultaneously (Miller, 2011). Measuring human attention in the classroom is actually rather difficult to do. The classic wisdom, based largely on work by Johnstone and Percival (1976) drawing on observations of chemistry classes, has been that 20 minutes represents an upper limit for students’ attention in lecture. Wilson and Korn (2007) challenged the findings of studies that used student behaviors as evidence for their attention and posited that students may maintain prolonged attention as long as the classroom demands require it and they are sufficiently stimulated. Bunce, Flens, and Neiles (2010) compiled results from student self-reports in introductory chemistry classes that suggested that student attention drifts in and out in fairly short intervals even in periods of overall concentration. Basically, the HELPING STUDENTS LEARN DURING CLASS 19 human mind simply cannot pay focused attention to very many things at once—and without attention, learning stops.
  4. All information is stored in long-term memory along with contextual cues that can limit its accessibility. We essentially “file” information in memory tagged with identifiers from the context in which it was learned. As experts we have worked with information for so long and in so many different contexts that we have a robust fi ling system of interconnected, easily accessible chunks of knowledge related to our fields. Our novice students do not. Their disjointed fi ling system, so to speak, makes it difficult for them to access information in a timely way during lecture or to store the information from lecture in an easily retrievable way. For students to be able to apply information in new situations, termed transfer of learning, they must use that information in multiple contexts and diverse ways. This practice in using knowledge in different settings, representing it in different forms, and associating it with different perspectives allows students to generate cognitive connections with multiple cues to related pieces of information. Thus, when we ask students to use ideas in novel ways, they will have a richer network of knowledge to draw upon.

Linda Hodges is the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Director of the Faculty Development Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She publishes and presents widely on a variety of topics in faculty development, engaged student learning, and effective teaching practices.

Teaching Undergraduate Science: A Guide to Overcoming Obstacles to Student Learning, Linda Hodges, August 2015, 256 pp., 6″ x 9″, paper, 978 1 62036 176 4, $29.95 (AVAILABLE NOW)

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