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The Outdated Columbian Education: Using Neuroscience to Redesign our College Courses

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.

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