Science of Learning: Lecture Enhancements

Any discussion about lecturing in higher education is bound to become passionate with proponents going to great lengths to defend their practice but with little or no evidence to support their assertions.

The most effective argument for continuing to lecture is about the enhancement of traditional lectures with various methods (active learning) to engage students. Many of the enhancements stretch the definition of lecturing, to the point where I would not call the teaching lecturing at all. In general, well planned and executed active learning leads to better learning.

The failure rates with traditional lectures are 55% higher than teaching using enhanced techniques – speaking for no longer than ten minutes at a stretch. It will also significantly increase test results (6% on average). This all sounds great until we realize that Bok’s research found that fewer than 5% of higher education faculty will engage in any type of continued professional development over the next year. That begs the question – how many lecturers are doing anything other than traditional lectures? Most of you who belong to forums like, The Teaching Professor, or Learning {Re}Imagined are among the 5% who are interested in enhancing their teaching and engaging in discussions about learning in the classroom. Who knows how to engage the other 95%?

The fundamental problems with studying active learning, is defining exactly what is taking place, and how the effectiveness of the enhancement is being measured. There is a generally accepted view, backed by some pretty robust research, that active learning works to improve student-learning outcomes. The primary caveat surrounding the effectiveness of active learning is the variability in what constitutes active learning and the way active learning is applied in the classroom.

I’ll look at some of the most common ways active learning is taking place along with the shortcomings and strengths below. Several of the points listed below come from Halpern’s: 25 Learning Principles to Guide Pedagogy.

One of the most talked about active learning enhancements today is the flipped classroom. Thai, De Weaver, and Valcke report that this leads to better learning outcomes, but needs some tweaking in order to be perceived as more flexible by the students. In order to foster the learning of higher order thinking skills, flipped classrooms, teachers need to ensure that the activities allow for recursive discussion. The success of flipped classrooms is largely dependent on what the students are asked to do when the teacher is not lecturing.

Discussions, problem-solving, and short writing assignments. These tend to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of the material. The primary problem is (as above) to foster the learning of higher order thinking skills, teachers need to ensure that the activities allow for recursive discussion and debates. Discussions in a lecture-based setting tend to be short and non-recursive. These may lead to a better understanding of a point, but do not usually lead to the development of any higher order thinking skills.

If discussions are regular and can be allowed to play a significant role in the learning process, cognitive flexibility can be fostered. Cognitive flexibility increases when there are multiple viewpoints, perspectives, and points of view about a phenomenon. It also increases when there multiple layers of knowledge that interconnect facts, rules, skills, procedures, plans, and deep conceptual principles. The cognitive complexity and multiple viewpoints are helpful when learners face tasks that have unique complexities that cannot be anticipated proactively.

Teachers and learning environments promote cognitive flexibility by having students work on problems that vary in content and complexity. In addition to multiple varied cases, there needs to be training that points out connections between the layers of facts, procedural knowledge, functional explanations, and deep principles.

Questions and answers between students and teachers are great for clarifying information but rarely lead to the necessary exchange embodied in an academic debate that leads to the development of higher order thinking skills.

Deep explanations of material and reasoning are elicited by questions such as why, how, what-if-and what-if not, as opposed to shallow questions that require the learner to simply fill in missing words, such as who, what, where, and when. Training students to ask deep questions facilitates comprehension of material from text and classroom lectures. The learner gets into the mindset of having deeper standards of comprehension and the resulting representations are more elaborate.

Teachers and students need to be trained on good question asking skills because most questions that get asked are shallow questions. Deeper questions lead to improved comprehension and learning at deeper levels of mastery.

Thinking games can come close to developing higher order thinking skills if they are done right. However, these games take some time and are rarely used because of the time constraints imposed by a curriculum overflowing with facts to remember.

A good thinking game that will lead to the development of some higher order thinking skill would be the introduction of cognitive disequilibrium. Cognitive disequilibrium stimulates inquiry, curiosity, thinking, and deep questions, which in turn lead to deeper learning. Cognitive disequilibrium occurs when there are obstacles to goals, contradictions, conflicts, anomalous events, breakdown scenarios, salient gaps in knowledge, uncertainty, equally attractive alternatives, and other types of impasses. When these impasses occur, the learners or groups of learners need to engage in reasoning, thought, problem-solving, and planning in route to restoring cognitive equilibrium. There is a higher incidence of deep questions, thought, reasoning, and study efforts when learners undergo cognitive disequilibrium.

With dual coding and multimedia effects, information is encoded and remembered better when it is delivered in multiple modes (verbal and pictorial), sensory modalities (auditory and visual), or media (computers and discussions) than when delivered in only a singe mode, modality, or medium. Dual codes provide richer and more varied representations that allow more memory retrieval routes. However, the amount of information should not overwhelm the learner because attention is split or cognitive capacities are overloaded.

Design the learning materials so that information gets delivered in multiple modes, modalities, and media often overwhelms the learner with too much to learn or too much to attend to, two primary causes of cognitive overload.

Formative quizzes contribute to the memorization of material through the use of the testing effect. There are direct and indirect effects of taking frequent tests. One indirect benefit is that frequent testing keeps students constantly engaged in the material. Although students will learn from testing without receiving feedback, there is less forgetting if students receive informative feedback about their performance. Multiple tests slow forgetting better than a single test. Formative assessment refers to the use of testing results to guide teachers in making decisions about what to teach. Learners also benefit if they use test results as a guide for their own learning.

Use frequent testing to enhance learning and memory. This practice will encourage learners to study continuously throughout the semester. Use testing results to guide teaching and learning.

Student discussions can be directed toward explanations of material that needs to be learned. Explanations consist of causal analyses of events, logical justifications of claims, and functional rationales for actions. Explanations provide coherence to the material and justify why information is relevant and important. Students may be prompted to give self-explanations of the material through think aloud protocols or questioning tasks that elicit explanations that connect the material to what they already know. Self-explanations and the activity of studying good explanations facilitate deeper comprehension, learning, memory, and transfer.

Teachers and learning environments should deliver good explanations of ideas and elicit self-explanations from the learners. These explanations promote deeper learning of complex mechanisms, causal and functional analyses, links between claims and evidence, and logical reasoning.

Students engaging in outlining, integrating, and synthesizing information produce better learning than re-reading materials or other more passive strategies. Students frequently report that when they study they re-read materials they already read once. Strategies that require learners to be actively engaged with the material to-be-learned produce better long-term retention than the passive act of reading. Learners should develop their own mini-testing situations as they review, such as stating the information in their own words (without viewing the text) and synthesizing information from multiple sources, such as from class and textbooks.

A classroom activity that would help the students understand material would be for the students to work in groups to organize material that they have been given and outline the main points that need to be remembered. Something that is rarely done in the day of PowerPoint and pre-printed notes.

Active learning lecture enhancements can be very effective in promoting learning but must be well planned and executed. In addition, the talking components should be in the form of briefing students and not take more than ten minutes.

If this type of teaching is done, I can’t see how it could be called lecturing. Using The Science of Learning principles to inform and carry out active learning in classrooms would be the ideal for all of us, both students and teachers.

Just to remind you, since you are the 5% who engage in improving your teaching, there are CPD discussions taking place on-line through the Academy for the Scholarship of Learning focussing on The Science of Learning and how that can be incorporated into your teaching.

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