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Transforming lectures to improve learning
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
Some of the most successful uses of EVS (Electronic Voting Systems) have
been associated with a major transformation of how "lectures" have been used
within a HE (Higher Education) course. Here we adopt the approach of asking
how in general we might make teaching in HE more effective, and keeping an
open mind about whether and how ICT (Information and Communication Technology)
could play a role in this. The aim then is to improve learning outcomes (in
quantity and quality) while only investing about the same, or even fewer,
teaching resources. More specifically, can we do this by transforming how
lectures are used.
The explicit function of lectures is exposition: communicating new
concepts and facts to learners. In fact lectures usually perform some
additional functions, as their defenders are quick to point out and as we shall
discuss below, but nevertheless in general most of the time is spent on
exposition and conversely most exposition (in courses based on lectures) is
performed by lectures. Clearly this could be done in other ways, such as
requiring learners to read a textbook. On the face of it, this must be not
only possible, but better. Remember, the best a speaker, whether face to face
or on video, can possibly do in the light of individual differences between
learners is to speak too fast for half the audience and too slowly for the
other half. Reading is self-paced, and is therefore the right speed for the
whole audience. Furthermore reading is in an important sense more interactive
than listening: the reader can pause when they like, re-read whatever and
whenever they like; pause to think and take notes at their own pace, before
going on to try to understand what is said next -- which is likely to assume
the audience has already understood what went before. So using another medium
for the function of exposition should be better. Can this be made to work in
actual undergraduate courses?
Yes. Here are several methods of replacing exposition and using the face to
face large group "lecture" periods for something else.
It seems clear that lectures are not needed for exposition: the Open University
(OU) has made this work for decades on a very big scale. Another recurring
theme is the use of questions designed not for accurate scores (summative
assessment), but to allow students to self-diagnose their understanding, and
even more, to get them thinking. A further theme is to channel that thinking
into discussion (whether with peers or teachers). This requires "interactivity"
from staff: that is, being ready to produce discussion not to some plan, but
at short notice in response to students' previous responses.
- The (UK) Open University of course is almost defined by not using lectures,
but mainly textbooks with some television. Their textbooks have, as part of
their standard format, Self-Assessment Questions (SAQs). However, unlike the
other methods below, there is no face to face class time.
- MacManaway (1968, 1970) published some small but carefully done trials in a
class on the sociology of education where he compared lecturing to handing out
a transcript of what he would have said, and repurposing the class time for
small group discussion of questions which he designed, followed by some
plenary whole class discussion. He showed, using independent "blind" coders,
that students made better notes from his lecture scripts than from oral
lectures; and gave on average better written exam answers. (His results look
as if he made no difference to the best and worst students, but moved a
substantial number of middling students up a grade.) No ICT is involved in
- "Interactive Engagement" (IE). The Mazur (1997) and Dufresne et al. (1996)
methods of using "brain teaser" questions to promote discussion are EVS
implementations of this general teaching method. They use major amounts of
class time in investigating and remediating student understanding of concepts.
This is successful in improving student performance, but tends to mean that
at least some material is not expounded orally but only through student
reading. It need not use ICT, and was originally introduced without it (Hake
1998), but EVS using
brain teaser questions are a very convenient implementation of it.
- In a further development, students could be required to read the material
before the class, and to send in advance to the teacher the issues and
questions they found hard to grasp and would like further discussed in class.
Class begins by a short quiz on the material, and the rest of the time is spent
on issues either already sent in to the teacher, or perhaps exposed as causing
the most errors in the quiz. This could be done without ICT, but email (or
other electronic posting) is convenient for sending in the questions in
advance, and using an EVS for the quiz is handy, does the marking even quicker
than having students exchange quiz papers, and shows the aggregated results
- In a method called "just in time teaching" (JITT) (Novak et al. 1999), this
is further refined. Engaging questions are posted by staff in advance, and
not just reading but answers are required shortly before class. Class time is
then spent addressing issues thrown up by the attempted responses. Again, ICT
is possibly not essential, but is certainly important given the short time
scales used (with deadlines for students only hours before class, and staff
committed to reviewing the submissions to decide on their agenda for the class
Should we expect to believe the reports of success with these methods, and
should we expect them to generalise to many subjects and contexts? Again the
answer is yes, which I'll arrive at by considering various types of theoretical
analysis in turn.
Many claims of novel learning success can be understood in terms of
three very simple factors.
- The time spent by the learner actually learning:
often called "time on task" by Americans.
The effect of MacManaway's approach is to double the amount of time each
learner spent (he studied how long they took reading his lecture scripts):
first they read the scripts, then they attended the classes anyway. In fact
they spent a little more than twice as long in total. Similarly JITT takes
the same teacher time, but twice the student time.
- Processing the material in different ways.
It probably isn't only total time, but (re)processing the concepts in more
than one way e.g. not only listening and understanding, but then re-expressing
in an essay. That is why so many courses require students not just to listen
or read, but to write essays, solve written problems etc. However these
methods are usually strongly constrained by the amount of staff time available
to mark them. Here MacManaway got students to discuss the issues with each
other, as do the IE and JITT schemes. Discussion requires producing reasons
and parrying the conflicting opinions and reasons produced by others.
Thinking about reasons and what evidence supports what conclusions is a
different kind of mental processing than simply selecting or calculating the
right answer or conclusion.
- Metacognition in the basic sense of monitoring one's
degree of knowledge and recognising when you don't know or understand
something. We are prone to feeling we understand something when we don't, and
it isn't always easy to tell. The best established results on "metacognition"
(Hunt, 1982; Resnick, 1989) show that monitoring one's own understanding
effectively and substantially improves learning. Discussion with peers tests
one's understanding and often leads to changing one's mind. The quizzes in
the OU, JITT and the IE methods also perform this function, because eventually
the teacher announces the right answer, and each student then knows whether
they had got it right.
Brain teaser questions also do this, partly because they frequently draw wrong
answers and so force the learner to reassess their grasp of a concept, but for
good learners the degree of uncertainty they create, even without the correct
solution being announced, is alone enough to show them their grasp isn't as
good as it should be.
The Laurillard (1993) model
asserts that for satisfactory teaching and learning, 12
distinct activities must be covered somehow. Exposition is the first; and in
considering its wider place, we are concerned with the first 4 activities: not
only exposition by the teacher, but re-expression by the learner, and
sufficient iteration between the two to achieve convergence of the learner's
understanding with the teacher's conception.
Re-expression by learners (Laurillard activity 2) is achieved in peer
discussion in the MacManaway and Interactive Engagement schemes, and by the
quizzes in the OU and JITT schemes. Feedback on correctness (Laurillard
activity 3) is provided by peer responses in the IE schemes and by the quiz in
the JITT and IE schemes. Remediation more specifically targeted at student
problems by the teacher (a fuller instantiation of Laurillard activity 3) is
provided in the JITT scheme (because class time is given to questions sent in
in advance), and often in the IE schemes in response to the voting results.
Thus in terms of the Laurillard model, instead of only covering activity 1 as a
strictly expository lecture does, these schemes offer some substantial
provision of activities 2,3 and 4 in quantities and frequency approaching that
allocated to activity 1, while using only large group occasions and without
extra staff time.
that the Laurillard model needs to be augmented by a layer parallel to the one
of strictly learning activities: one that describes how the decisions are made
about what activities are performed. At least in HE, learning is not
automatic but on the contrary, highly intentional and is managed by a whole
series of decisions and agreements about what will be done. Students are
continually deciding how much and what work to do, and learning outcomes
depend on this more than on anything else. In many cases lectures are
important in this role, and a major reason for students attending lectures is
often to find out what the curriculum really is, and what they are required to
do, and what they estimate they really need to do. One reason that simply
telling students to read the textbook and come back for the exam often doesn't
work well is that, while it covers the function of exposition, it neglects
this learning management aspect. Lectures are very widely used to cover it,
with many class announcements being made in lectures, and the majority of
student questions often being about administrative issues such as deadlines.
The schemes discussed here (apart from the OU) do not neglect this aspect, so
again we can expect them to succeed on these grounds. They do not abolish
classes, so management and administrative functions can be covered there as
before. In fact the quizzes and to some extent the peer discussion offer
better information than either standard lectures, a textbook or lecture script
about how a student is doing both in relation to the teacher's expectations and
to the rest of the class. They also do this not just absolutely (do you
understand X which you need to know before the exam) but in terms of the
timeline (you should have understood this by today).
In addition to this, these schemes also give much superior feedback to the
teacher about how the whole course is going for this particular class of
students. This equally is part of the management layer. However standard
lectures are never very good for this. While a new, nervous, or uncaring
lecturer may pick up nothing about a classes' understanding, even a highly
skilled one has difficulty since at best the only information is a few facial
expressions and how the self-selected one student answers each question from
the lecturer. In contrast most of the above methods get feedback from every
student, and formative feedback for the teacher is crucial to good teaching and
learning. What I have found in interviewing adopters of EVS is that while many
introduced it in order to increase student engagement, the heaviest users now
most value the way it keeps them in much better touch with each particular
class than they ever had without it.
This formative feedback to teachers is important for debugging an exposition
they have authored, but is also important for adapting the course for each
class, dwelling on the points that this particlar set find difficult.
Arguments attacking the use of lectures have been made before
(Laurillard, 1993). Those seeking to defend them generally stress the other
functions than simple exposition that they may perform. One of these is
learning management, as discussed in the previous section. Some others are:
- Inspiration. The most frequently mentioned reason for retaining some
lectures is the notion of a speaker being inspiring. A charming rebuttal of
the relative importance of this compared to using an effective and soundly
based method for teaching is in the introduction of a paper by Hake (1991):
"The results showed quite clearly that my brilliant lectures and exciting
demonstrations on Newtonian mechanics had passed through the students' minds
leaving no measurable trace. To make matters worse, in a student evaluation
given shortly after the exam, some students rated me as among the worst
instructors they had ever experienced at our university. Knowing something of
the teaching effectiveness of my colleagues, I was severely shaken."
At the least this shows that someone who cares about teaching and takes
unusual pains can still be very ineffective.
Despite Hake, we should not ignore the fact that "inspiration" is indeed an
important factor: a pervasive characteristic of humans is to pay attention to
what others are paying attention to, and if one person is enthusiastic that
influences us; conversely, we are less likely to buy from someone who can't
show any enthusiasm for what they are selling (whether material goods or
intellectual ones). This is clearly important in religion, in commerce, in
entertainment, in science. But it is not clear that face to face contact is
particularly special as a medium for passing on this information about
enthusiasm: on the contrary, we know the written word has been and is
important for this in all those spheres.
We should also consider reports of being inspired by individuals e.g. Ghandi,
Mother Teresa. Frequently this is in fact done not by meeting the person but
reading about them. Personal inspiration can be by written medium, not only
by face to face contact. When I think of whom I most admire, it is people I
have read about, not met.
In any case, the schemes for transforming lectures discussed here still have
face to face classes. In other words, inspiration is no argument for
lectures: firstly, inspiration is much less important than effective teaching
methods; secondly, for millennia it has been transmitted by other media as
well; and thirdly in any case it can be transmitted in repurposed face to face
classes that are not devoted to exposition.
- One of the puzzles for those attacking lectures is that almost all academics
in their research life choose to listen to monologue expositions at
conferences, and do not arrange to have these abolished in favour of more
effective learning occasions. Why do these remain popular, and how are they
really used? To a considerable extent, we go to these to "have a look": at the
speaker, at their ideas, to gauge others' responses from the question session
at the end. If we are really serious about learning their ideas, we'll get
hold of the written paper and read it. All of this is consistent, not with
distance learning, but with the re-purposing of large group "lectures" in the
schemes discussed above. As long as there is some meeting where you get to see
and hear the author/teacher in action, these functions are not lost.
- This is probably the point to discuss the painful reality that in many
lectures, students do not learn, but only collect material for later learning.
In fact this is not unlike many conference research presentations. Much of the
audience is essentially there to take learning management decisions about
whether to pursue this further. They get a rough idea of what is on offer,
make judgements about its value to them, and pick up pointers and handouts to
pursue later. Many students are essentially doing this too. It is not a very
good use of a student's time (although at conferences where so many different
things are on offer, it may be). At least once a student has committed to a
course, this is not a function that need be covered by lectures any more.
- Another claim about the functions of lectures are that they can or should
be demonstrations of thinking in that field: in effect, the lecturer teaches
by demonstration, and students learn like apprentices by observation and
imitation. If this is true, then the re-purposing of lectures in the schemes
discussed here are likely to perform this function better, since responding at
short or no notice to student questions and problems is much more likely to
elicit spontaneous, and so revealing, behaviour from the lecturer.
- Finally, a very important claim about the role of lectures is that they
sustain community. This function is widely though to be very important.
However in reality, and perhaps contrary to (at least my) naive commonsense,
talking to students at my university shows that large lectures (200-300 say)
are actually very bad at this. Unless a student has already a close friend
whom they arranged to meet outside the lecture, in advance, then entering a
huge room full of people they don't know well means they cannot face crossing
it to sit with an acquaintance they know slightly. Consequently they do not
make any new acquaintances there. A monologue by the lecturer gives no
opportunity to get any sense of other students. In contrast, the schemes
discussed here all involve student activity, and shared activity in some sense
stronger than mere passive sitting together is a sound basis for forming a
community. So these schemes are likely to perform this important function
much better than traditional lectures. Furthermore the schemes that require
all to do specific work before each class keep the group in step, whereas a
lecture course where much of the work is only done in time for exams means
that students may do important learning at quite different times (months
apart) from each other. This is in practice quite a problem for the formation
of study groups etc. exactly because the class is in fact not a community at a
common place in the overall activity.
We began by considering some schemes for replacing the main function of
lectures -- exposition -- and then used various pieces of theory to discuss
whether the proposed schemes would be likely to be successful at replacing all
the functions of a lecture. Overall, while providing exposition in other media
alone might be worse than lectures because of neglecting other functions, the
proposed schemes should be better because they address all the identified
functions and address some important ones better than standard lectures do.
Thus we can replace some or all exposition in lectures. Furthermore, we can
re-purpose these large group meetings to cover other learning activities
significantly better than usual. We can feel some confidence in this by a
careful analysis of the functions covered by traditional lectures, and the ones
thought important in general, and show how these are each covered in proposed
new teaching schemes. This in turn leads to two further issues to address.
Firstly: which functions can in fact be effectively covered in large group
teaching with the economies of scale that allows, and which others must be
covered in other ways? Besides exposition, and the way the schemes above
address Laurillard's activities 1 to 4, other functions that can be addressed
in large groups in lecture theatres include:
- Contingent teaching: using a large bank of diagnostic questions to zero
in on what this group needs further discussion of. Essentially revision
lectures made more effective by improved selection of topics and level of
- Exam practice. Formative class tests.
- Demonstration problem solving (Meltzer & Manivannan; 1996).
Here the working of a problem is broken down into (say) 10 steps, and students
use EVS to enter their solution for each step. Thus all students do the
problem, and get feedback as necessary as comments on each step responding to
the class vote. Traditionally this is done in small group tutorials.
Secondly, some aspects of a course can use large group teaching (see above),
but all the rest must be done in smaller groups. How small, and how to
organise them? One of the most interesting functions to notice is that many of
the schemes above use peer discussion, coordinated by the teacher but
otherwise not supervised or facilitated by staff. For this the effective size
is no more than 5 learners, and 2 or 4 may often be best. Both our experience
and published research on group dynamics and conversation structures support
this. Instead of clinging to group sizes dictated either by current resources
or by what staff are used to (which often leads to "tutorial" group sizes of
6, 10, or 20), we should consider what is effective. When the learning
benefit is in the student generating an utterance, then 2 is the best size,
since then at any given moment half the students are generating utterances.
Where spontaneous and flowing group interaction is required, then 5 is the
maximum number. For creating and coordinating a community, then it can be as
large as you like provided an appropriate method is used e.g. using EVS to
show everyone the degree of agreement and diversity on a question, or having
the lecturer summarise written responses submitted earlier.
However forming groups simply by dividing the number of students by the number
of staff is a foolish administrative response, not a pedagogic one. What is
the point of groups of 10 or 20? Not much. If the model is for a series of
short one to one interactions (which may be relevant for pastoral and
counselling functions), then consider how to organise this. Putting a group
of students in the same room is obviously inappropriate for this, and ICT
makes this less and less necessary. If the model is for more personalised
topics e.g. all the students with trouble over subtopic X go to one group,
then we need NOT to assign permanent groups, but should organise ad hoc ones
based on that subtopic. In general, what the schemes above suggest for the
future is to consider a course as involving groups of all sizes, not
necessarily permanent, not necessarily supervised; and organised in a variety
of ways, including possibly pyramids and unsupervised groups. This is after
all only an extension of the eternal expectation that learners will do some
work alone: the ultimate small unsupervised group.
In the end, we should consider:
- What is the set of desirable learning activities, and how to cover them
- Which of these can be done by big group teaching (with any useful modern
technology to extend what works). Do as much as possible in this way.
- Design the structure of the other activities in groups of appropriate size.
Don't be afraid to design with un-supervised groups as part of it.
Draper, S.W. (1997) Adding (negotiated) learning management to models
of teaching and learning
(visited 24 Feb 2005)
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Classtalk: A Classroom Communication System for Active Learning
Journal of Computing in Higher Education vol.7 pp.3-47
Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional
methods: A six-thousand student survey of mechanics data for
introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66,
R.R. Hake (1991)
"My Conversion To The Arons-Advocated Method Of Science Education"
Teaching Education vol.3 no.2 pp.109-111
online pdf copy
Hunt, D. (1982) "Effects of human self-assessment responding on learning"
Journal of Applied Psychology vol.67 pp.75-82.
Laurillard, D. (1993), Rethinking university teaching
MacManaway,M.A. (1968) "Using lecture scripts"
Universities Quarterly vol.22 no.June pp.327-336
MacManaway,M.A. (1970) "Teaching methods in HE -- innovation and research"
Universities Quarterly vol.24 no.3 pp.321-329
Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction: A Users Manual.
Upper Saddle River, NJ:Prentice-Hall.
Meltzer,D.E. & Manivannan,K. (1996)
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The physics teacher vol.34 no.2 p.72-76 especially p.74
Novak,G.M., Gavrin,A.D., Christian,W. & Patterson,E.T. (1999)
Just-in-time teaching: Blending Active Learning and Web Technology
(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice- Hall)
Novak,G.M., Gavrin,A.D., Christian,W. & Patterson,E.T. (1999)
http://www.jitt.org/ Just in Time Teaching (visited 20 Feb 2005)
Resnick,L.B. (1989) "Introduction" ch.1 pp.1-24 in L.B.Resnick (Ed.)
Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser
(Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).
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