It’s in Science: Interaction beats Lecture

May 16, 2011 at 11:32 am 14 comments

AP, Washington Post, NYTimes, and NPR covered this story this week — Carl Weiman has an article in Science showing that two grad students with an interactive learner-engagement method beats out a highly-rated veteran lecturer in terms of student learning in a large class.  This is a cool piece, and I buy it — that’s why I’m doing peer-interaction in my class.  I still believe that lecture can work, the evidence is strong that learner-engagement beats lecture, especially in large STEM classes. I think that this result is particularly disconcerting for the open learning movement.  If lectures aren’t worth much for most learners, what is it that iTunes-U and MIT Open Courseware are offering?

Who’s better at teaching difficult physics to a class of more than 250 college students: the highly rated veteran professor using time-tested lecturing, or the inexperienced graduate students interacting with kids via devices that look like TV remotes? The answer could rattle ivy on college walls.

A study by Nobel Prize winning physicist Carl Wieman at the university found that students learned better from inexperienced teachers using an interactive method _ including the clicker _ than a veteran professor giving a traditional lecture. Student answers to questions and quizzes are displayed instantly on the professor’s presentation.

He found that in nearly identical classes, Canadian college students learned a lot more from teaching assistants using interactive tools than they did from a veteran professor giving a traditional lecture. The students who had to engage interactively using the TV remote-like devices scored about twice as high on a test compared to those who heard the normal lecture, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

via In college, it’s not so much who lectures as how the teaching is done, Nobelist’s study finds – The Washington Post.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Beth Simon  |  May 16, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    As anyone who has ever been interviewed knows, sometimes reporters leave out some key information in the quest for the “pithy punch”.

    Clearly, here, the key is not only in the interactive engagement, but also in the content and design of the materials students were engaging around. Their clicker questions were developed around common problems or misconceptions students have about materials. There’s no way they got the almost double learning gains (41% vs 74% if students were doing questions asking them to memorize terms, or some such.

    I agree that lecture can be valuable. One way interactive engagement can be effective is to use a clicker question to help students “experience” the same problem — or set up a common experience in which they can connect or integrate soem new knowledge you are about to lecture on. In the parlance of teaching teaching and understanding understanding: building a tic-tac-toe board for a specific topic.

  • 2. Stephen Downes  |  May 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    The study is so small in scope, and dealing with such an unrepresentative sample, that it should never have been published, much less widely cited as proof that lectures should not be used.

  • 3. Luis Espinal  |  May 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    “If lectures aren’t worth much for most learners, what is it that iTunes-U and MIT Open Courseware are offering?”

    This question is predicated on the assumption that lectures aren’t worth much for most learners. That is still not supported by these findings. It only supports that interactive learning is more efficient than traditional lecturing. The later does not imply the former.

    And even then, I would like to see more quantification (bigger sampling in the number of courses and disciplines) before drawing more solid conclusions.

    Abandoning that point for a moment, one can argue that open courseware helps to supplement exiting lectures (be it interactive or traditional) or to supply a means for someone to self-study when a class is not available or accessible.

    As it is, the findings of this article hardly have sufficient meat to question the usability of open courseware material.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 16, 2011 at 1:10 pm

      You’re right, Luis — what I quoted doesn’t support that claim. Wieman’s later quote makes the claim more strongly: “This is clearly more effective learning. Everybody should be doing this. … You’re practicing bad teaching if you are not doing this.” That would suggest that open learning materials that do not offer interactivity are “practicing bad teaching.”

      Would a 6000 student study be more convincing? Richard Hake’s study in the American Journal of Physics had similar results, across multiple institutions, with that large a subject pool.

      • 5. Luis Espinal  |  May 16, 2011 at 11:01 pm

        Yes, it will be more convincing… to prove that interactive methods are better than traditional lectures. And although both studies concerned themselves with Physics – there is sure way to tell if this applies to, say Mathematics, Sociology, Philosophy or Fine Arts courses for instance – intuitively, it might make sense that they do (though interactivity will depend greatly on the nature of the subject.)

        Even if we were to conclude that the findings in these studies apply universally, that is still different from the statement that “lectures aren’t worth much for most learners.”

        That is a very strong premise, and it is one that does not follow from the conclusions of both studies. I mean, how could we quantify/qualify such a premise? How would one measure usefulness? With respect to what?

        My understanding – and common sense – tells me that open course ware material as one made available in iTunes and MIT are as reference material for self-learning and/or supplemental material for an student to use in addition to her actual classroom experience (independent of the nature of it.)

        Since that is the nature of such material – I cannot imagine anyone sane to consider such material as complete replacement to an actual class – I still don’t see how this ties with the findings in these two studies.

        Thanks for the link btw 🙂

  • 6. Titus Brown  |  May 20, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Is this the science link?

    I didn’t see it in your post.

  • 7. Titus Brown  |  May 20, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I’d also be interested in links to examples or discussions of how to make courses more interactive. Want to try this in the fall.

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  • 13. Make lectures compulsory? - reestheskin  |  April 28, 2013 at 6:37 am

    […] this over at with links to citations. Similar debate about lectures over at computing education blog but without the compulsion […]

  • […] I received had a great article about Carl Wieman, whom I have written about previously (here and here and here, for just three).  The story (online here: Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds […]


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