How lectures prevent you from learning

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Have you ever walked away from a class feeling you haven’t learned a thing?

It’s not necessarily your fault, and you’re not alone. The conventional, lecture-based approach to teaching, which asks students to master concepts in only one way, slows understanding and makes learning difficult.

The problem isn’t the lectures themselves, but rather that relying on lectures alone limits many students’ abilities to process the information.  A more effective approach would be to diversify the way in which material is presented and incorporate multiple learning styles.

A recent study in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology supports this idea.

In the study, researchers at the University of South Florida taught groups of fourth graders how to calculate the dimensions of a prism. The researchers divided the kids into two groups. One group studied examples of only one type of equation. The other studied four different forms of calculation. Both groups solved the same problem sets by the end of the session, but the children that studied the mixed approaches scored 37 percent higher than their counterparts.

In a column for The New York Times, Benedict Carey further explains the results, “Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.”

In other words, variety is the key to understanding. Rather than studying a concept in the same manner over and over again, we should routinely change our perspective and approach the idea in a different manner.

But how feasible is this in a class of 500, where just covering a couple of concepts can be difficult? Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, an associate professor of English at UT, offers some possible solutions.

In classes of up to 400 students, Richmond-Garza integrates a medley of media to enhance her students’ understanding. These include posting a live Twitter feed in class, recording all lectures and visual supplements and creating a custom, media-based website for additional information and review.

Though they have made modern adaptations, Richmond-Garza and others’ emphasis on diversified learning is not a new idea. Richmond-Garza explains that her class is inspired by, among other things, 19th century poetry. “Howard Garner’s notion of multiple intelligences and various nineteenth-century poetry which says that students have multiple learning pathways… Many [professors] are using a hybridization, a number of these different learning styles,” Richmond-Garza said. 

According to Richmond-Garza, students love her class and find the additional tools useful especially before tests. And although she relies on technology in class, her students attest in anonymous surveys that her recorded lectures are helpful supplements, but not substitutes for the real thing.

She’s not the only professor at UT who recognizes the value of variety. In his classes of about 100 students, Special Education Adjunct Professor James Patton offers notes from volunteers, three types of test formats (oral, multiple choice and short answer) ten-minute video summaries of the day’s main points, and the option to use most forms of technology in class.

The effectiveness of these methods triggers a debate of its own. By providing students with such supports, some argue that professors like Patton and Richmond-Garza are hindering students’ ability to adapt to difficult situations, setting them up for failure later in life.

Patton disagrees, arguing that if the aim is to help students “acquire knowledge and skills … then I am definitely doing that because these are ways in which they can master what we are going to cover in ways that are conducive to their individual learning styles.”

After discovering which styles work best for them, students can seek them out later when they are not so readily available.

Overwhelming evidence supports a varied approach to teaching, and professors should alter their methods accordingly. After all, if they’re not teaching their courses in the most effective way possible, then we’re not getting our money’s worth.

Malik is a Plan II and Business Honors freshman from Austin.