Does Lecture Based Learning Work?

Death By Power Point

Does Lecture Based Learning Work?

GOAL: To improve emergency services education.

Physics professors are challenging the idea of using lecture as the primary tool for teaching. Physicist David Hestenes’ study found that using the lecture format, students could memorize specific formulas, but weren’t fully grasping the overall concepts.

For example, an EMT student may be able to regurgitate the definition of shock, but cannot perform in a shock/trauma scenario .

Arizona State professor Joe Redish says that lecture based classes only seem to work for about 10 percent of the students, and those 10 percent would likely learn it without the instructor. Harvard Physics professor Eric Mazur tackled this problem by restructuring his classes to include “peer instruction”. Peer instruction (as defined by Wikipedia), is “as a learning system [involving] students preparing to learn outside of class by doing pre-class readings and answering questions about those readings using another method, called Just-in-Time-Teaching”, or JiTT.  In an NPR article  Mazur said , “Students have to be active in developing their knowledge.  They can’t passively assimilate it.”

But Lecturing Has Been the Standard for Years

Years ago, when a fire engine was no more than a wooly mammoth with a snout full of pond water, books weren’t readily available. Thus lecture-based education was developed. Teachers would read directly from a book and students would copy it down.  But things have changed.  Information is readily available in many forms.  Books don’t even need to be in book form anymore. Think of the newest apple announcement regarding textbooks and how that will change the face of education.

So what does this mean for educators? The research conducted over the past few decades shows that students typically can’t take on and process all of the information presented during a classic lecture.  Cognitive scientists have been talking about this for a long time, and the physicists really just backed it up with hard data.

If Not Lecture, What?

So if lecture is not the optimal method for educators to convey information to students, what is?

Professor Mazur taught a concept to his physics class and, when tested, fifty per cent of them got it wrong.  So he retaught it, believing that he outdid himself in an effort to impart the information again.  But when asked if they had any questions, the students had none, and it became clear to him that they still didn’t truly understand it.  A thought occurred to him, however, that fifty percent of them DID get it, so maybe they could teach the fifty percent who didn’t.  When he grouped the students for discussion, it worked – they were able to connect with each other in a way he wasn’t able to.  Ironically it comes down to this, and this is as important to leadership as it is to education, that once you’re an expert in your field you’re also very far away from understanding WHY someone new might have difficulty understanding it.

Group discussion can be tremendously effective and infinitely more engaging and interesting for attendees of your class. Additional student-centered or peer-based learning techniques can also be affective including “front-of-class” group activities (e.g. having students work together to summarize, in their own words, the importance of  key points).

Students are better able to explain these concepts to their peers because they’re the ones who’ve just wrapped their heads around it. Thus, they know why it’s tough to understand and why other students might also be having a hard time.

Is PowerPoint Bad?

Recently a discussion group of EMS Educators on LinkedIn heatedly debated the topic of “Death by PowerPoint”.  Is PowerPoint and, by extension, lecture based learning a stimulating, engaging and effective teaching tool?  Well, yes and no.

Just as there are exceptional students who learn on their own so long as they have access to the content, likewise there are instructors who can teach using PowerPoint and make it the most engaging class in the world.  Conversely, though, there are those who could teach with pyrotechnics and dancing girls and still have students snoozing in their seats.

PowerPoint, like any tool, needs to be used wisely, inventively, and with an eye toward engaging students.  In 2012 the question “DO you use technology in your classroom” has become “HOW do you use technology in your classroom?” Educators have access to many technology-based tools to engage students, and many of them are free and instantly available. In-class web-polling can engage class discussions. YouTube videos can be used for students to perform in-class skills asynchronously (outside of regular class times) so that their peers can watch, discuss and critique. Study groups no longer have to meet in person when they can now use Skype, FaceTime and Google+ Hangouts.

Technology in the classroom can be used to keep students engaged; thinking in new ways can enhance their understanding, retention and application of knowledge. Textbook publishers provide case studies and supplementary online questions along with flashcards, games, and interactivities to help students study and test themselves.

By engaging in student centered learning (moderated and facilitated by the educator) we are putting the responsibility to connect with the material into the hands of those who need it most:  the students themselves.

APPLICATION:  Make your education programs student-centered through activities such as:

About The Author

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Elizabeth Duckworth is the Senior Editor of RescueDigest. An accomplished writer and editor, Elizabeth has written extensively in the fields of healthcare, emergency services and education. She is the co-founder and Director of Education for the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Contact Elizabeth [/author_info]

About romduck

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author, and educator with more than thirty years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private emergency medical services. Rom is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS Coordinator for the Ridgefield (CT) Fire Department and director of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Rom holds a master’s degree in public administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, and is the recipient of the NAEMT Presidential Award, American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award. Rom is the author of "Duckworth on Education," as well as chapters in more than a dozen EMS, fire, rescue, and medical textbooks and over 100 published articles in fire and EMS magazines. A member of the NAEMT Board of Directors, as well as other national and international advocacy and advisory boards, Rom continues to work for the advancement of emergency services professions. Contact Rom via