Growing evidence that lectures disadvantage underprivileged students

September 18, 2015 at 8:44 am 5 comments

The New York Times weighs in on the argument about active learning versus passive lecture.  The article linked below supports the proposition that college lectures unfairly advantage those students who are already privileged. (See the post about Miranda Parker’s work for a definition of what is meant by privilege.)

The argument that we should promote active learning over passive lecture has been a regular theme for me for a few weeks now:

  •  I argued in Blog@CACM that hiring ads and RPT requirements should be changed explicitly to say that teaching statements that emphasize active learning would be more heavily weighted (see post here).
  • The pushback against this idea was much greater than I anticipated. I asked on Facebook if we could do this at Georgia Tech. The Dean of the College of Engineering was supportive. Other colleagues were strongly against it. I wrote a blog post about that pushback here.
  • I wrote a Blog@CACM post over the summer about the top ten myths of computing education, which was the top-visited page at CACM during the month of July (see post here).  I wrote that post in response to a long email thread on a College of Computing faculty mailing list, where I experienced that authority was able to sway CS faculty more than research results (blog post about that story here).

The NYTimes piece pushes on the point that this is not just an argument about quality of education.  The argument is about what is ethical and just.  If we value broadening participation in computing, we should use active learning methods and avoid lecture. If we lecture, we bias the class in favor of those who have already had significant advantages.

Thanks to both Jeff Gray and Briana Morrison who brought this article to my attention.

Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

Source: Are College Lectures Unfair? – The New York Times

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  September 18, 2015 at 9:23 am

    This is at least interesting as a comment on the purposes of college, and how the attempts at leveling have gradually moved to college, even as high school education has moved to college. (As the proper British lady said to me 30+ years ago: “You Americans have the best high school education in the world — what a pity you have to go to college to get it”.)

    McLuhan had a great observation that is relevant. He pointed out that university education in the 14th century consisted of going to a room with other students and copying what one person read (this was in fact how most “publication runs” of popular books were manufactured). The printing press came along and revolutionized both learning and conceptions of self/identity, opinion, science and governance. But he said “In the 20th century if you go into any school in the northern hemisphere, what do you find? A bunch of students copying down what someone else is saying!”

    One way to understand this is that lectures generally do not really help anyone compared to what fluent reading can do (this perspective has been left out of the comparison tests).

    If you go to the NAEP website and look at what they call “proficient reading” (we’d call it “a bit less than fluent”), then the latest assessment of “proficient reading” in graduates of four year colleges is only 31% (down about 11% from the previous look in the 90s).

    In other words, what has been happening is much much worse than “diversity” and “leveling” — the leveling overall is downward and has been accommodated so that things look normal to anyone but those who have stayed with the real demands of our era.

    I very strongly feel that what has happened with reading is also going on elsewhere — and especially in computing. Note that the big picture is not helping anyone: the large “leveling down” affects all, including the privileged. This is “the ebbing tide lowers all boats”.

    What is the real societal cost of “feeling good” without merit?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 19, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      I recognize that the empirical findings about active learning are more about K-12 schooling in the United States and our cultural attitudes about education, than they are about how people learn. There is no psychological limitation that prevents undergraduate STEM students from learning from lecture. However, there is empirical evidence (strong, consistent, across multiple domains) that they do not. The most effective thing to do would be to change K-12 school, but that is complex for social, cultural, and political reasons. So, we change what we do at Universities to make them as effective as we can, which is to teach via active learning.

      I’ve been thinking about the low level of “proficient reading” in the United States, Alan. Can we only learn to read well (and mathematics well, and basic reasoning well) as children? Can these be learned as adults? Under what conditions?

      I realize that adult learning is difficult to fit into our culture and work lives, but one could imagine a scenario where it might fit. Lifespans are much longer today. There is enough time for more than one career. Maybe we might work until (say) 45, then take a 3 year sabbatical to re-train, then launch into a second career into one’s 70’s or later. What might be learned in “second college”? How would college be different with more mature learners? What are the inherent limitations of having much older learners, and what are the inherent advantages of having learners who have 20+ years of real world experience?

      • 3. alanone1  |  September 19, 2015 at 4:46 pm

        HI Mark

        Re your second paragraph: there is a lot of data about second language learning as an adult — and some about first language learning after childhood. For the latter the small evidence is bleak — there seems likely to be a “critical period” for first language learning. For second language learning — as you know — there is a wide spread, but the learning is done best with the parts of language usage that has the most utility and frequency. For most people, there is a critical period for phonemes, so new ones are rarely learned well in adulthood.

        And we have some genetic wiring for spoken language learning.

        The other topics you mention are all inventions — and I think the question turns on what you mean by “well” or “fluent”. I haven’t seen any studies on this question — and it’s an important one.

        I started learning classical keyboards at age 40, and I had been a reasonably deep musician on other instruments earlier. I found it very challenging with a tradeoff between not ever feeling really comfortable but with being able to play quite a few pieces in the literature. Listening to recordings, I sounded more fluent than I felt.

        However, an anecdote won’t suffice here.

        The other consideration is that adult life is often very full of “required distractions”, and this can make it very difficult to get in the hours of connected focus.

        All the indications I know (but this is far from exhaustive) point to childhood being the best place to start with any skilled learning.

  • 4. Mature students | Gas station without pumps  |  October 12, 2015 at 1:42 am

    […] a comment on his post Growing evidence that lectures disadvantage underprivileged students, Mark Guzdial […]

  • […] In particular, lecture-based learning (which is what much of online learning attempts to replicate) works best for the most privileged students.  Our society depends on teachers who motivate students to persevere and learn. Does serving high […]


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