Lecture courses create passive education

Back in elementary school, lessons were interspersed with storytime, recesses and activities because teachers understood that students needed variety to stay engaged. In college, it has been assumed that we’re capable of paying attention for longer periods of time.

No activities. No recesses. Just lectures.

Salman Kahn, in Time, calls this structure “ineffective,” pointing to Indiana University findings that cite a 1976 study on college attention spans. “Students needed a three- to five-minute period of settling down, which would be followed by 10 to 18 minutes of optimal focus.” That’s where learning peaks.

Kahn wonders, as should we, if the average attention span of any student is so short, regardless of the subject, why are we still using a lengthy lecture-based format?

Asking such a variety of personalities, learning styles and attention spans to adapt to a lecture format conflicts with the goal of education. Lecture-based learning squeezes a diverse group of people into a classroom and asks that they all learn the same way. It is, as Kahn points out, the “economical” way to educate, but it isn’t the best way.

Some students are kinesthetic learners, needing hands-on work to learn. Some are socially anxious or just plain shy, and in a lecture environment, being called upon to answer questions off-the-cuff in front of the class is crippling. Even if they know the answer, some have trouble verbalizing it, frequently resulting in docked participation points.

Some might say our lack of attention is a symptom of our instant-gratification age and students just need to be more disciplined. However, there’s a difference between coddling and doing the utmost to both engage students and develop their critical thinking skills.

Lecture courses are already coddling students, stuck in a vicious cycle in which information is repeated and students are inattentive. Wrestling with concepts of depth requires direct contact with material. Kahn calls it “replacing passivity with interactivity.”

I call it trusting students to think on their own.

Online courses offer one alternative way to engage students. Lacking lecture halls, the courses are often taught through intensive reading, followed by analytical discussion questions, allowing everyone sufficient time to think critically before responding.

Regurgitating readings during lecture does not foster such skills, but rather makes the connections for students.

But online education shouldn’t be the only option focusing on personal responsibility and individual learning, especially considering some extra fees for iCourses. In-class education should equally emphasize versatile engagement with material and target multiple learning styles. Too many courses are based on the assumption that students won’t think on their own, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We don’t want to go to class and be talked at. We don’t want to go to class worried about shyness being viewed as laziness. We want to be both stimulated and challenged.

Our education system should have the same priority.


Reach the writer at Esther.Drown@asu.edu or follow her at @EMDrown


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