Category: Academics

Remi Free/Senior Graphics Editor

I fondly remember the first time I arrived at Columbia. There was a humongous smile across my face as the taxi driver drove my mother and me through the College Walk gates for CUE move in. All those months of high school paid off and I was about to start classes at a school I never imagined I’d ever attend. My mind was racing as I tried to meticulously plan my schedule and goals for the next four years. It felt like I found my new home and nothing could go wrong.

Fast forward two years as I was wrapping up sophomore year. I was running on five hours of sleep, stressed beyond measure, and profusely sweating as I moved my stuff out of my residence hall and into a storage facility for the summer.

Instead of all the happy memories I had when I first arrived to Columbia, my mind was just — bitter. I wanted out. I just wanted to move out and head home and get as far away from Morningside Heights as I could.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Columbia and all the resources it has to offer, but with all these benefits come the inevitable pitfalls of attending one of the most stressful and prestigious universities in the world.

As I progressed through each semester at Columbia, I slowly adapted to some of our school’s more detrimental traditions. I would stay up until the early hours of the morning working, overload myself with too many classes and commitments than I should have gone through with. I would fall into the constant conversation trap of discussing how many hours you spent studying in Butler on a given day as if that meant anything (news flash: it means absolutely nothing). Even as I tried harder and harder in my classes, I continued to perform below my own expectations and goals.

It didn’t help that some of my professors seemed to encourage students to engage in these traditions. In one of my classes, my professor seemed proud of the fact that he expected you to still perform poorly on his tests no matter how much you studied and that he hoped others wouldn’t help you when you struggled on your homework assignments. It got so bad that whenever they sent announcements to our class, I actually felt a sense of dread; I just wanted it to be over.

As I boarded my flight back home after leaving my storage unit, I felt myself feel happy and relaxed for the first time in a while.

So this upcoming semester, I’m going to do something different. I am not going to let myself fall prey to trying to underhandedly compete with others on how little sleep I got or how much time I spent sitting in Butler. Instead, I’m going to work on taking the classes I love, setting aside more time for myself and exploring the city. I actively intend to talk with my professors more and be more willing to tell them when I think they’re adding to Columbia’s already troubling stress culture.

When first year me arrived on campus, he looked forward to being his authentic self and not letting others get the best of him. Hopefully junior year me can make sure to bring that attitude and spirit back into fashion.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one of your own, email

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As I discussed in the last column in this series, Columbia’s heavy reliance on the lecture is a disservice to its students– the ‘learning’ happening in a traditional lecture isn’t translating to long-term memory. Evidence going back over a hundred years tells us that the typical memorize-and-regurgitate approach most students employ to get through a lecture course is an astonishingly bad way to learn – when tested six months after completing a typical lecture course, students have reliably forgotten ~95% of the information they learned.1

While completely replacing lectures with core-sized classes is the obvious suggestion, it’s likely too expensive to execute, even for a well-endowed school like Columbia. Instead, I’m going to focus on easy, relatively cheap, and scientifically effective ways to improve the lecture-based classroom by using what we know about how humans form memories.

While there are few different kinds of memory, the type most relevant to higher education is declarative memory – that which can be consciously accessed. This long-lasting memory we’re going after involves four steps: encoding new information, storage, retrieval, and forgetting. Over the next four columns, we’ll be exploring each of these areas in detail, starting with how we initially process new information.

The standard Columbia lecture requires you to pay attention to the lecturer speaking for 75 minutes straight, often followed by short break and yet another 75-minute information deluge if you, like me, have the misfortune of back-to-back lectures. Empirical research into attention span during lecture courses suggests that students pay attention for less and less time in ever-shortening cycles. The longer a lecture goes on, the less students pay attention, and the bigger each lapse in attention gets.2

Here’s a common story that plays out in lectures across Columbia. You walk into a lecture ready to learn, pay attention for fifteen minutes…and then spend a minute checking Facebook. You tune back in, maybe for only ten minutes this time, only to be distracted for a three-minute stretch by your group chat. By the end of the lecture, you’re only spending two or three out of every ten minutes actually listening, and the rest of it distracted and hoping the lecture ends.

The neurological reason for these lapses comes from the ‘top-down’ way your conscious brain focuses on a single thing for an extended period of time. Your prefrontal cortex, which is physically located on top of the rest of your brain tells the lower, more primitive parts of your brain to shut up and allow you to focus on a specific task. That’s what lets you listen to your professor while tuning out all irrelevant stimuli, like your phone buzzing in your pocket, your stomach rumbling, or that siren wailing past on Broadway.  

This kind of conscious selection is necessary to even hearing new information in the first place – if you’re not paying attention, you won’t be able to recall the information later. But forcing your brain to do this for an extended period of time comes at a steep neurological cost. Overuse of these suppression mechanisms leads to mental fatigue – effectively preventing your brain from focusing any more. Any further attempt to focus only makes it worse, and you’re prone to completely tuning out and giving up on paying attention at all.3 The 75-minute lecture is excellent at causing just this sort of dangerous mental fatigue,4 and far from being the best, it’s possibly one of the worst ways of introducing information.

Instead of using time in-class to relay new information, students would benefit most from having control of their initial information encoding. Students could choose the type of input they prefer, whether that be pre-recorded lectures, readings, compellingly explained visuals, interactive formats, or a combination different methods. Imagine if you could take a pause when your attention slips, going back over difficult concepts a few times, and skim quickly those you already understand. The idea of doing this sort of learning as ‘homework’ has a number of other benefits.

The idea of doing initial learning before class is called flipping the classroom, and it’s one of the most scientifically-supported ideas for improving lecture courses.5 To solve our lecture attention problem, the best idea may be to trust the intelligent and motivated Columbia students to learn at their own pace and think about the material first, before even walking into a classroom.

By flipping the classroom, we’ll be able to better pay attention to new information, and therefore be better prepared for the next stage of memory formation. Importantly, it frees up valuable in-class time to use more interactive teaching techniques, which is necessary if we want to improve the storage and recall phases of memory.  

Stay tuned for the next column, where we’ll talk about how to most effectively use time spent physically in the classroom to help Columbia students actually learn from their lecture classes.

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  1. Deslauriers, L. & Wieman, C. (2011). Learning and retention of quantum concepts with different teaching methods. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7.
  2.  Bunce, D., Flens, E., & Neiles, K. (2010). How Long Can Students Pay Attention in Class? A Study of Student Attention Decline Using Clickers. J. Chem. Educ., 87(12), 1438-1443.
  3. Ishii, A., Tanaka, M., & Watanabe, Y. (2014). Neural mechanisms of mental fatigue. Reviews In The Neurosciences, 0(0).
  4. Aron, A. (2007). The Neural Basis of Inhibition in Cognitive Control. The Neuroscientist, 13(3), 214-228.
  5. Roehl, A., Reddy, S., & Shannon, G. (2013). The Flipped Classroom: An Opportunity To Engage Millennial Students Through Active Learning Strategies. Journal Of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 44-49.


Hey Barnumbia baes! ‘Tis the season for midterms, and that means all-nighters, anxiety, tears, and possible existential crises. It’s getting rough, and some of you, like me, might be doubting whether you’re truly qualified to be here.

I personally came from a small town where it was fairly easy to be at the top but also coming from a low-income family I always felt like I needed to “succeed” to atone for my parents’ sacrifices. So settling into the Ivy League environment was a bit of a shock for me as I realized I’d built so much of my self-esteem upon the shaky foundation of my academic success.

Here at Columbia, I’m surrounded by people who are not only intelligent and motivated and enormously involved, but also compassionate, open-minded, and welcoming. So to all you beautiful Barnumbians, I wanted to remind you that you are so bright in so many ways and have so much to give to the world.

The rigorous admissions process did not make a mistake. Sure, others have done more than you, but past achievements do not tell the whole story. In context of your upbringing, Barnumbia saw so much potential and brilliance in you. You absolutely belong here because you are going to set the world on fire. Getting a poor grade on one midterm, or even three, does not change that fact or doom your bright future. It just means you are getting settled in to a new life and are still adjusting.

Love and forgive yourself. Even if there are others who seem to be above you, remember that there will always be someone better, no matter how smart you are, and the fact that you have come this far should give you great pride. Your value is not derived from inborn talents or a grade on a report card, but by your love and compassion for your neighbors and for humanity and by your willingness to use your talents to make the world a better place.

And you’ve been doing great so far! Keep believing that you will continue to shine. Drink coffee and stay up if you must, but remember to give yourself time to rest and recover as well.

“Your very flesh [is] a great poem,” as Walt Whitman wrote, so read it well and let the words dance off your lips. Just keep going and soon you will look up and marvel at what you have done.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open-submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one your own, email

While Columbia courses are advertised as mostly intimate and discussion-based, walking into your second (or even third, or fourth) lecture of the day is disturbingly common. Some courses, such as Introductory Biology, consistently reach over 200 students per section. Personally, 54% of my courses (by credit value) in the first two years have been large lectures.

In the engineering school, the percentage of time spent in Havemeyer 309 or Pupin 301 increases, with a close friend with a typical Biomedical Engineering major courseload spent a whopping 81% of her initial coursework stuck in a lecture hall. While humanities courses may admittedly have fewer lecture courses, a significant number of Columbia STEM students spend the majority of their time in lecture courses for their first few years here.

The central role that lectures play in today’s system of higher education cannot be overstated. Ever since parchment was precious and reading a skill reserved for the exclusive elite, any hope at educating the populace relied on the lecture for information transfer. The core format of the lecture would be recognizable to a medieval instructor, while the dramatically changed world outside would entirely unrecognizable.

The reality of a 21st century world makes information not only overwhelmingly available in written form, but also in new, innovative, and interactive formats. As creative ways of learning proliferate at an exponential pace, it is well past time for this ivy-league world-renowned institution of higher education to seriously reconsider consider the ineffectiveness of its most overused workhorse.

Columbia owes it to both its students and itself as a leader to take into account the increasing consensus in neuroeducation research that there is a better way to teach than through lectures. When considering the best way to teach students, we should be thinking about how people actually learn, especially when implementing neuroscience-based changes would hardly cost more and would simultaneously increase both professor and student satisfaction with our Columbia-brand education.

Over forty years of scientific research shows that a student can hardly pay attention to a lecture past its first twenty minutes, when Columbia teaches in 75 minute blocks, that interactive learning is over twice as effective as passively listening, and our nobel laureates could be better put to use actually interacting with the students they teach instead of being kept at arm’s length. Lectures are simply incompatible with the way we’re wired to understand our world.

There is a better use for Columbia’s highly-esteemed professors than wasting time repeating the same information semester after semester to half-empty classrooms of bored and distracted students. There are better uses for its bright and energetic graduate students than re-explaining the material to confused undergraduates.

It’s ironic that some of the best research on learning, the very research that shows how ineffective lectures are, is coming from the labs of Columbia professors who have to turn around and continue to teach in this outdated style. Our diplomas cannot only be valuable on the merits of Columbia’s history; there must be true learning behind our degrees.

Isn’t that why we came here, to learn from the best and brightest, to learn for the rest of our lives and not just for the next exam? In the next few columns, we will be exploring how recent research on attention, learning, memory encoding, and recall can redesign the Columbia classroom. Columbia has always been at the forefront of societal change; it only makes sense that we should be leading the revolution in higher education as well.

Uniquely Human runs alternative Mondays. To submit a comment or a piece of your own, email