Deep and Interactive Learning in Lectures
Written by Glen O’Grady and Frederick Chew, The Australian National University
The idea that lectures can foster deep learning through interactivity challenges the misnomer that lectures are, or should be, essentially didactic in nature.
A series of studies led by the renown Physicist and Nobel award winner Carl Wieman (Wieman, 2017; Deslauriers et.al, 2011), found that students engaged in active learning did twice as well on knowledge tests than those undertaking a traditional lecture and were more likely to attend a lecture that was interactive.
These studies were intended to explore the effects of active learning, but they have also been used to dismiss lectures and criticize them for being outdated and ineffective in learning. This can create an unfortunate binary way of thinking about modes of teaching – with certain modes being described as inherently active and fostering deep learning and others that are essentially didactic resulting in student passivity.
Indeed, some would contend that a “good lecture” need not be interactive; suggesting that lectures are the time for lecturers to speak to their students (ideally in an inspirational and informative manner) and that it’s tutorials where interactivity can occur:
…if lectures are to be supplemented by other teaching methods that focus on active learning, higher-order thinking and applying theory to practice to solve problems, then it seems odd that lectures become that which has to supplement them (Matheson, 2008).
However, when we consider studies about lectures that have shown a sharp decline in attention after 15 – 20 minutes, leading to a poor recall – with one study showing a 5% retention rate in lectures against 10% for reading and 50% for group discussion (Petty, 2004) – it is hard to support this way of thinking.
Perhaps it is more productive to ask – given what we know about interactivity and the positive impact it has upon the quality of learning (Huxham, 2005) – shouldn’t all learning and teaching events have elements of interactivity? (Notwithstanding factors like the objective of the lesson, the nature of the content, the number of students, the layout of the classroom and the availability of technologies that might shape the nature of the interaction).
Donald Bligh’s (1998) seminal work on teaching and learning through lectures, has argued that a fundamental principle of good lecturing is that students have the opportunity to use/apply new information as soon as possible –ideally with this happening in the lecture.
A number of concerns can arise when thinking of making lectures more interactive such as:
- the loss of “teaching time” (Lammers & Murphy, 2002),
- reduction in factual content (Murray & Brightman, 1996),
- the accuracy of transmission,
- and the loss of control by lecturers over the class (Huxham, 2005).
These concerns can reflect broader theoretical positions and beliefs about teaching. On Day 3, we will explore how our beliefs about teaching and learning shape how we might regard and organize interactivity in our lectures.
When you attend a lecture what’s your experience of it? For instance:
- Is the lecturer asking students questions?
- Are students asking the lecturer questions?
- Are students discussing with each other ideas raised in the lecture?
Would you regard this as a “lecture” or something else?
What constitutes interactivity in a lecture?
This is a question we will look at in more detail on Day 2. However, we will preface this discussion by sharing what Murphy & Sharma (2010) have said about interactions in lectures:
The question of what could possibly make a lecture ‘interactive’ is clearly quite a complex one, because individuals passively listening to a lecture, which they find fascinating, might in all sorts of ways be interacting with the lecturer’s ideas in ways which stimulate all sorts of thought patterns, new ideas, and deep learning. Generally, that type of interaction is not what people have in mind when they talk about ‘interactive lecturing’. The more normal understanding of ‘interactive lecturing’ is where some form of communication occurs in both directions between the lecturer and their audience.
One way to categorise interactivity is:
- the activities between the lecturer and the students,
- between students,
- and between the students and the content (Brown & Manogue 2001).
But before we jump headlong into looking at interactive activities in lectures, it is worth pausing and critically reflecting on interactivity (Bucy, 2004). We believe it’s not sufficient to simply insert interactive activities into any class even when the evidence for doing so may seem compelling. To teach effectively in higher education it is necessary to understand why interaction can affect learning.
From our experiences interactivity in a lecture does not guarantee learning. Whilst empirical studies have found positive outcomes when they are interactive, every teaching and learning event is unique and deeply contextual. It is understanding how interactivity influences learning so we can adjust the processes to suit the specific needs of the students and contexts we teach in. Edith Ackermann once coined the term “hands-on” won’t do without “heads-in” – and clearly students need to be more than busy, they need to be cognitively engaged for deep learning to occur.
Dillenbourg (1999), suggests learning from “collaborative” settings just doesn’t happen because you put two people together, rather it occurs when specific cognitive learning mechanisms are triggered.
These cognitive learning mechanisms include:
- What do you imagine would have to happen in an interaction for these cognitive learning mechanisms to be triggered?
- Consider the interaction between students in these two videos:
3. What makes the interaction work or not work? Can you see the presence or absence of the cognitive learning mechanisms?
- Ackermann, E. (1993). Tools for Constructive Learning: Rethinking Interactivity. Epistemology and Learning Group, MIT Media Laboratory.
- Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures? Intellect books.
- Brown, G., & Manogue, M. (2001). AMEE Medical Education Guide No. 22: Refreshing lecturing: a guide for lecturers, Medical Teacher, 23(3), 231-244.
- Bucy E. P. (2004). Interactivity in Society: Locating an Elusive Concept, The Information Society, 20:5, 373-383. DOI: 10.1080/01972240490508063.
- Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class, Science, 332(6031), 862-864. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783.
- Dillenbourg, P. (1999). What do you mean by collaborative learning? P. Dillenbourg. Collaborative Learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches, Oxford: Elsevier, pp.1-19.
- Huxham, M. (2005). Learning in lectures: Do ‘interactive windows’ help? Active Learning in Higher Education, 6(1), 17-31. DOI: 10.1177/1469787405049943.
- Lammers , W. J. & Murphy, J. J. (2002). A Profile of Teaching Techniques Used in the University Classroom, Active Learning in Higher Education 3: 54–67. DOI: 10.1177/1469787402003001005.
- Matheson, C. (2008). The educational value and effectiveness of lectures, The Clinical Teacher, 5(4), 218-221. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-498X.2008.00238.x
- Murray, R. & Brightman, J. R. (1996). Interactive Teaching, European Journal of Engineering Education, 21: 295–308. https://doi.org/10.1080/03043799608923415.
- Murphy, R., & Sharma, N. (2010, March). What don’t we know about interactive lectures? International Journal of Media, Technology and Lifelong Learning, 6(1), 111-119.
- Petty, G. (2004). Teaching today: A practical guide. Nelson Thornes.
- Wieman, C. (2017). Improving how universities teach science: lessons from the science education initiative. Harvard University Press.