A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.
Yet, internal motivation and a driving interest in acquiring knowledge are essential to the new global economy, which demands the ability to lithely move from job to job, and even change careers. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture these qualities.
If you’ve had trouble sitting through lectures, you’re not alone. They’re simply not the optimum way for most people to learn and here’s why:
A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject–or a superbly motivating speech. If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. The best lectures essentialize their subject matter and dramatize the importance of what you’re learning.
But this is far from the case in most instances! As a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow teachers to recount their knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener.
Conscious attention is one of the most precious of mental resources because use of it takes up so much energy (see Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)
Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to that students work hard to avoid them. Young students often goof around during lectures; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” Instead of presenting them with material in an optimally digestible manner, they are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.
Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.
These students are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.
A terrible outcome for all such students is that they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education.
Why Lectures Are A Hard Way To Learn
Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.
- A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation—or replay what the lecturer said! (An advantage of recorded lectures).
- Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult, if not impossible to follow.
- Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture!
- Students must exert an enormous amount of attentional effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures.
- A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little.
- Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.
- The lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, with vivid perceptions and imaginings, or the body as in learning tennis or sewing.
- One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed.
- In lectures with illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations as long as he or she wants.
- Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the learner, but there is very little interaction between student and teacher or student and student during a lecture.
- Lectures are aimed at a general audience; they can’t address individual student questions, confusions, goals, interests, or comprehension difficulties.
What Do The Best Lecturers Do?
In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories utilize human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution.
Winston Churchill was a master at this—just take a listen to this excerpt for his speech, We Shall Never Surrender to Parliament in the face of the Nazis at the beginning of World War II which made all the difference to British resolve.
Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer and MIT physics professor, Walter Lewin, spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.
What do the Best Learners Do?
The best learners are active. Active learners gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn, not because that’s what they have to do to take a test, or because someone else has told them to listen, but for their own deeply personal reasons.
When they listen to a lecture, they expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to make the ideas they’re hearing real. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture through a variety of resources.
Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation.