Lectures Suck

A friend sent me this link to a New York Times article on improving lectures in university physics classrooms. A Toronto Star article based on the same research (led by University of British Columbia Nobel laureate Carl Wieman) is here.

I would not be surprised if, after further testing, Wieman’s methods prove to be an improvement over “standard” lectures.

The main problem with lectures is that within a few weeks of the beginning of a course, most students have fallen behind, and therefore lectures are of very limited value to them, no matter how brilliant the lecturer is. Although Wieman’s methods sound good, I think that their value is also limited, for the same reason.

Consider me. If I were to try to run a marathon tomorrow, it would be a life-threatening endeavour. However, if I trained properly for a couple of years, I might be able to complete a marathon. Universities effectively expect students to run marathons without proper training. Worse, universities expect everyone to keep to the same pace. When the stragglers struggle, their spirits are further dampened by having low grades hurled at them!

How on earth would anyone get the impression that this is an effective way to educate our youngsters? Why then do we do it? Because it’s cheap. Apparently it’s all we can afford.

What we need are systematic methods for:

  • ensuring that students are properly prepared before they begin each course; this involves assessing incoming students and then compelling them to complete training programs and demonstrate mastery of prerequisites before being allowed to begin courses
  • requiring mastery in each course before credit is awarded
  • allowing each student the amount of time he or she needs for mastery; this requires a change in the structure of courses, from a fixed time (12 weeks in our case) and a variable level of understanding, to a variable time and a fixed (minimum) level of understanding

We must also incorporate instruction in how to effectively learn/study into each program. Leaving this process up to students is ineffective, as they demonstrably don’t do what is necessary to learn effectively. Most students have not been trained properly in elementary and high school, so they have no idea how to conduct themselves effectively as students. Others have time constraints because they have work or family commitments. Others are too timid or ashamed to ask for help, and to make full use of the available resources.

Most students are constantly scrambling to catch up, and end up feeling stupid when their results are less than they desired. Sure, some students don’t work hard enough because they don’t care enough. But some of these only appear not to care; they are just don’t know how to organize their efforts.

Unless universities makes some changes, tough programs such as mathematics and science will continue to find it difficult to attract majors. Conversely, there is an opportunity here to create programs that will graduate highly competent graduates, no matter what the level of preparation of the entrants.

But it seems to be very difficult to effect significant changes in the way our universities work. So we will have to effect change outside the university system.

Update: I do think that there is a role for lectures, but they ought to be less frequent, and more resources should be devoted to creating effective learning communities, where groups of students learn together at different levels, and at their own paces. Kind of like a karate dojo, or a weight-lifting gym, where everyone does their thing, helps each other, and there are guides along to help those that need it. Lectures can play important roles: inspiration, providing “big picture,” helping to tie together the subject by helping students make connections, etc. But to teach basic technical or factual material in a lecture (as I admit I have done many, many times) seems silly.

So I was definitely not trying to imply that lecturers suck, particularly since I’ve had some great teachers over the years. What sucks is our over-reliance on them within a system that is ineffective and causes students unnecessary suffering.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 22 January 2021.)