Saturday, July 16, 2011

Re: Lecture Isn't Effective: More Evidence #2

Some blog followers might be interested in a discussion-list post “Re: Lecture Isn't Effective: More Evidence #2” [Hake (2011)].

The abstract reads:

ABSTRACT: In reply to my post “Re: Lecture Isn't Effective: More Evidence” at , Ed Laughbaum of the MathEdCC list wrote at : “My guess is that of the nearly 6 billion people on earth who have been (are being) educated, learned through lecture. . . . . Is lecture a common practice in China? In India? In Thailand? In Brazil? Canada, etc.? My guess is yes.”

To which Alain Schremmer replied “Yes, most people in the world learn from lectures but this is only because, in most of the world, there just are no textbooks: the teacher writes the book on the board and the students copy what's on the board in their notebook.”

A MUST-READ all-time classic in this regard is the hilarious “The Lecture System in Teaching Science” [Morrison (1986)] online at

Laughbaum went on to point out that the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of lectures is related to the neurobiology of human memory as discussed by Gerald Edelman, Terry McDermott, and Richard Restak .

To access the complete 13 kB post please click on

Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University
Honorary Member, Curmudgeon Lodge of Deventer, The Netherlands
President, PEdants for Definitive Academic References which
Recognize the Invention of the Internet (PEDARRII)

“Like the entomologist in search of brightly colored butterflies, my attention hunted, in the garden of gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul.”
- Santiago Ramon y Cajal, quoted on p. 12 of
Edelman (2006)

REFERENCES [URL’s shortened by and accessed on 16 July 2011.]
Edelman, G.M. 2006. Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge. Yale University Press. Publisher's information at information a

Hake, R.R. 2011. “Re: Lecture Isn't Effective: More Evidence #2,” online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at The abstract and link to the complete post are being transmitted to various discussion lists.


Gerald Grow said...

Richard, it is my working hypothesis that lecture is not effective for many current students for the simple reason that they have not learned how to learn from a lecture.

The problem lies not in the lecture as a method, but in the learner's lack of skills.

Instead of retraining teachers to keep adjusting their methods to chase the moving target of student interests, why not train each class of incoming students in what it takes to learn, and learn very well indeed, from the methods used by their teachers, including lectures.

Different courses will require students to apply themselves in different ways. Some will require students to do independent study. Some will require students to learn effectively from lectures, even if the lectures strike the student as long and boring. Indeed, it would be helpful if the very concept of "boring" was confronted the first day of college, so students learn that to the bored, all things are boring, and to people with a lively interest in learning, nothing is boring.

In a larger sense, why not impress students with the aim, and the responsibility, of being able to learn well under any circumstances, no matter how well or badly they think the material is being presented to them.

Such an approach would shift the burden of learning to a position where the weight is carried not by the teacher alone, but by teacher and student, and, indeed, more by student than by teacher. After all, universities are not about teachers teaching; they are about learners learning, and teachers are only one of the resources learners have -- a limited one at that.

There is a limit to what can be taught, no matter how advanced the methods used. There is no comparable limit to what can be learned.

Anyway, what's what the last 25 years of teaching led me to think about. I'm glad to see you continue to pursue these topics.

All the best,

Gerald Grow
Professor of Journalism (retired)

Doug Holton said...

I agree with Hake. For the majority of lectures, students just tune them out (like they do many videos and text, too). The instruction doesn't answer a question: why do I need to learn this?

However, there are certain contexts where a lecture (or text instruction) can be very effective. Examples of these contexts might be right after a frog dissection lab, or after a field trip activity, or after trying out a simulation or experiment, or after (and during) some design/modeling activity.

Students do some messy/complex/open-ended (i.e. more constructivist or problem-based or interactive) activity, and it (hopefully) engages them, but also may bring up many questions (and possible confusions). Going into a lecture or reading some instructional text afterward they have a 'need to know'. They have gaps in knowledge they may want filled etc.

Search for articles titled 'What comes first, the simulation or the lecture' (Brant, Hooper et al, 1991) and 'Time for telling' (Schwartz, Bransford, 1998).