Tag: lectures

If you haven’t read my last column advocating social learning in large lecture courses, I recommend reading that first — that’s where I explain why I think this technique could be so successful in a lecture-based classroom. This article is for the nitty-gritty, actionable advice for both students and professors to incorporate social learning into their experiences.

For students:

1. Study groups are more than an excuse to hang out with your friends — they’re an excellent way to incorporate social learning into your study routine. Quiz each other, force full explanations by eliminating vague words, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Social learning works best when you’re with a group you’re comfortable with. To prevent non-productive chit-chat, place your study group in an environment more conducive to studying, such as a reservable library room or a study lounge space.

2. If allowed, work with friends on problem sets. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to actually do the problem first – don’t just rely on a friend who’s already done the work to explain it to you. Mull over a tricky problem, try your best, and explain your reasoning to a friend; often, in the act of explaining you’ll find where you went wrong. You can adapt this strategy for reading-based courses too — try finding time once a week to meet up with a classmate and talk over difficult parts of the reading, or explain a sequence of events.

3. Frame things as a story and anthropomorphize the characters. Give those cellular processes motivation and give the movement of atoms a plot. Humanizing inanimate objects may feel silly, but in the long run you’ll find that they become easier to remember. This technique works best when ‘telling’ the story out loud to a group of friends also in the course.

4. Is your professor receptive to new ideas or open to suggestions in office hours? Try talking to them about the ease and benefits of incorporating social learning into their courses! Change often comes from within, and I choose to believe that most professors care about the quality of their teaching. If they seem receptive and want more information, the experience of Eric Mazur (a physics professor at Harvard who pioneered large lecture social learning techniques) might be a good place to start — try here for a casual article and here for a peer-reviewed report.


For professors:

1. You’ve read this far and clearly have an interest in improving the quality of your teaching, and that’s great! If going ‘all in’ and flipping the classroom seems like a lot of work, start small. Try breaking your lectures up into more meaningful chunks. Three to four usually work best. Separate those segments with productive socialization by asking your students open-ended questions, or telling them to discuss what you just explained. Giving students a break to talk to their neighbors might seem counterintuitive, but research shows that you’ll increase engagement and information retention this way.

2. Switch it up – one surefire way to lose a classroom is by throwing a lot of information uniformly at your students. I get that there’s often a lot to cover, but if none of it is retained, or worse, your students give up ten minutes in, a high throughput approach won’t work. Try emphasizing that all of the material won’t be covered in lectures, and instead focus on the difficult concepts. Trust that your students can learn the easier stuff on their own.

3. For Tip #2 to work, you have to have a pretty good sense of what’s actually difficult for your students. As a professor, what you think is difficult and what your students are confused by may be two very different things. Often times, students will feign knowledge of a previous topic to avoid embarrassment if the class has already moved on. The best way to get past this is to foster an open environment where it’s encouraged to discuss what problems they’re having with the material. Take the pulse of your course frequently, and take advantage of your TAs. Not only do they interact with students more frequently and more informally, they’re closer in both age and experience level to your students and likely will have a better sense of where the material is difficult.

4. Use exams better. Too often, students will cram information a day or two before the exam, knowing that they’ll never need to access it ever again. Try to reward long-term learning by giving students an opportunity to get some credit for revising exams and spend time going over concepts where many students were incorrect. Administer low-stress and high-frequency mini-quizzes to both get an easy straw poll of where the class is and to lower overall test anxiety. Strive to ensure that all quizzes and exams are testing content and not process. While students are familiar with memorizing steps to solving a problem, many of them will not comprehend the underlying logic that you’re ultimately trying to test. Check out Eric Mazur’s physics concept inventory for an idea of what this sort of exam might look like.

5. Feeling good about the changes to your class so far? Think about diving into a full flipped classroom model for your next round of teaching. It’s more work up front than a traditional lecture, but the resulting increase in student engagement and exam scores should speak for itself. Review and edit the structure and organization of your lectures for digital format, and then pre-record shorter lecture-like segments explaining each topic to be assigned before in-class time. Make attending class required, but also make in-class time useful. Provide spaces for your students to work in structured small groups on practical assignments, and use both yourself and your TAs as roaming sources of assistance.  

This is only a short list of some easily-implementable ramifications of social learning – there are dozens more which I don’t have the room for in this column. To summarize all of the above into one comment it is this: socialization is a natural impulse and should be taken advantage of in the classroom accordingly.

Do you often find yourself in a large lecture course required for your major and lose focus ten minutes in? Do you wonder if it’s even worth going to class, and decide your time would be better spent studying (or sleeping)?

In a previous column, I proposed that the current method of teaching undergraduates is increasingly at odds with mounting evidence from both education research and neuroscience. This column, I’ll be proposing a few easy and evidence-based fixes to make lecture courses not only more fun and engaging for students, but also easier for professors to teach in a more effective way.

My advice boils down to one simple idea: turn lecture courses into a hub of social activity. If you’re looking for the nitty-gritty of how to implement this technique either as a student or professor, stay tuned for next week’s column — this one is going to focus on the scientific rationale behind my advice.

It might seem counterintuitive that letting students engage in ‘distracting’ activities like talking in class results in greater learning, but education research has been supporting this idea for decades. One recent meta review of over 400 studies showed that engaging active learning techniques focused on social activity in lectures boosted not only the overall average grade, but also most improved the grades of those at the bottom of the class, without decreasing the high scores of those at the top.

Essentially, social learning has a ‘rising tides float all boats’ effect.

The most well-tested way to implement social learning comes from the well-studied ‘flipped classroom’ technique. In this approach, the ‘lecture’ component of the class is assigned as homework to be completed prior to the class, most commonly as a video file and more rarely as an interactive online assignment or textbook readings. In class, students are assigned to work on problem sets or discuss the material in groups, with the professor and TAs as facilitators who ‘check in’ with groups by answering questions and offering guidance. This model actively encourages cooperation and lively discussion among classmates. Sounds more fun than your normal lecture, right?

Now for the neuroscience. Humans are fundamentally social animals, with much larger brain regions dedicated to analyzing and understanding the emotions and motivations of other people. Social activity is so important to us that our ‘default’ brain network, the one that activates when you’re daydreaming or not thinking about much at all, overlaps heavily with your brain’s go-to area of activation for social activity, the mentalizing network. Your brain ‘wants’ to be in this state, because historically, cooperation with peers has been mutually beneficial to survival.

Social activity is in fact so rewarding that interacting with other people triggers a huge release of domaine, the same ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter responsible for chemically induced highs. Amazingly, the release of dopamine can also enhance the brain’s ability to create and store new memories. So to sum up, feeling happy while learning is not only positive for your well being, but can actually help to improve your memory.

It’s no wonder that social activity plays a massive role in our lives and correspondingly holds a massive influence over our brains. But by forcing students to unnaturally focus on fast-paced and unvaried information flow, traditional lectures put an unduly heavy strain on the brain’s working memory network.

As a lecture goes on, the brain’s pull to ‘wander’ gets more intense, and focus is eventually lost. Social learning works so well because it hijacks this drive to socialize and redirects it towards learning. By engaging the default/mentalizing network, group work enhances a student’s ability to focus for long periods of time, and the extra dopamine released from socialization helps that information be better retained.

Engaging in more socialization can have many positive side effects as well. Long-standing issues in the Columbia community revolve around the oppressive stress-culture and feeling of loneliness experienced by many students.

While switching to a social-learning based classroom environment won’t magically fix these issues, many sociological experiments on undergraduate populations link stronger social bonds to myriad positive outcomes, including but not limited to increased student happiness, improved levels of student well-being, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and more successful career outcomes post-graduation.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that encouraged socialization in the classroom can lead to more casual conversation and foster friendships outside of the classroom’s confines, creating a stronger and healthier community in the process.

With so much to gain and nothing to lose, I advocate for Columbia professors opening a dialogue around the efficacy of the lecture course and opening their classrooms to experimental techniques. Decades of support from educational research combined with exciting new evidence from the emerging field of neuroeducation combine to form a compelling case for social learning.

A small amount of effort in redesigning course curricula and pre-recording lecture segments can pay off in happier, more engaged students who are not only excited to learn, but can also retain information better and for longer. For both professors and students, incorporating social learning in the classroom is a win-win.
*While based in pre-existing research, the hypothesis about social learning put forth is my own original work and is further explained in a long-form scientific article (The Case for Social Learning). Contact the author for further information.

Photo courtesy of Scouting NY

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.14307/jfcs105.2.12