Face-to-face lectures aren’t dead!

I often hear and read about how essential it is to offer students choice in how they consume lectures. The argument states that in modern higher education settings choice is everything: students should have a choice to either watch lectures live in a face-to-face setting, or to watch them live-streamed on a device from anywhere that suits them. In this post, I want to propose that we shouldn’t offer a choice, that students should attend a face-to-face lecture, and that to get the most learning out of the lecture, we need to teach students how to better interact with them.

The live lecture – it’s theatre, after all!

The difference between watching something live and watching it on a screen is vast. This is all to do with the senses and the resulting episodic impressions they form in the memory. The sounds of the people around you, the feel of the seat, the smell of the theatre, and the visual spectacle of seeing something live is a superior experience than watching it in a two dimensional sphere. The multiple sensory stimulation provides a number of neural pathways for which memory of the event can latch on to, thereby making it easier to recall details of the event at a later time – one memory literally triggers the others.

The same goes for university lectures. Let’s think about what is going on in these lectures, usually held by the way in state of the art theatres. It is an occasion where some of the most fabulous minds in the world are presenting and teaching quite high level concepts and skills. It is a place where, if you have ever watched someone teach with real passion, you become overwhelmingly inspired. Such teachers tend to teach with their whole being, their bodies helping to explain concepts, their movements implicitly emphasising certain points, their physical presence and movement demanding attention. Their voice, with all its undulations and intonations, also a physical presence, skillfully used to emphasise and draw attention to key ideas. Such teachers will make eye contact with as many students as possible, drawing them in to the topics and the energy created. These things are ‘felt’ in the theatre, and when walking out at the end of such an experience, most students are in a heightened state.

The heightened sense though is not about entertainment. It results from an engagement in a culture of adult learning. The students in these types of lectures feel a sense of accomplishment, an awareness that they are learning complex topics, that they are connected to it all. For many, such experiences are the essence of university life. But more importantly than that, these sensory moments, these episodic memories create multiple neural pathways for which memory of the event/content can latch on to, thereby making it easier to recall details of the content at a later time – one memory literally triggers the others.

Students who stream the lecture don’t experience these ‘3D’ episodic elements. For them, it’s all in 2D.

How to approach the lecture

Just watch it!

Traditionally, students would busily take notes in a lecture. Yet, this is generally not a good idea, because the limited capacity of the working memory means that trying to take notes whilst listening to what is said or read from the screen will result in a compromise of attention. The brain can’t do two things at once, so trying to remember what was said so it can be written down means that the thing being said right now is not heard, the intonation not recognized, the hand gesture not encoded.

In the old days, students had no choice but to do this, with little technology to support lecture recordings. Now however, students have access to a second viewing of the lecture in the learning management system (LMS). So, it is more advisable for students to just watch and listen to the live lecture, paying attention to all of the episodic sensory indicators and following the explanations, and then take notes when they re-watch the lecture in the LMS. Of course, there will be moments when it would be useful to jot down a few things in the live lecture, such as realising a link between concepts or ideas, or adding a comment to consider for later, but it is the taking in of all they see and hear initially that sets the foundation for the actual learning of the content in the LMS.

Using the learning management system (LMS)

It is this second viewing of the lecture in the LMS where the real learning takes place. It is recognizing content from their face-to-face experience of the lecture that acts as a form of retrieval. Retrieval is necessary for content to become secure in the long-term memory, otherwise it is likely to be forgotten. Whilst forgetting is in fact a natural process in the brain, a type of filter, an efficiency that allows us to understand what in our lives is more important and what is needed, things that are important for learning concepts and ideas need to be remembered. To do so, they must be accessed or retrieved many times over. Re-watching the lecture after some time provides such an interruption of what Ebbinghaus called the ‘forgetting curve‘, the exponential decay of memory with time, and creating active learning in the form of activities around the lecture content in the LMS further helps satisfy the ‘use it or lose it’ pedagogy.

Active learning

As the students take notes, the focus of the practice should not be simply writing down what has just been said, but more about being active in the reconstruction of the knowledge presented. This is achieved through the process of elaboration, characterised by summarising and making connections to existing knowledge. The Learning Scientists discuss this idea of elaboration really nicely in the infographic below, which you could provide to your students.

Choice isn’t everything

The pressure on universities to retain students is enormous, and this has naturally resulted in trying to satisfy student demands. But providing choice in all aspects of the learning experience may not actually be in the best interests of the student, despite their thinking to the contrary. If the science of learning suggests better ways of going about learning, then that must override any defaulting to doing what the student would prefer.

Providing a live stream of a lecture opens up opportunity for students to make a poor choice in how to consume the lecture. I don’t have any evidence for it, but it seems to me that someone who streams the lecture in the LMS will not re-watch it later, as they would feel like they have already done that work. The student who experiences the live episodic experience though is more inclined to re-watch in the LMS as it is in a different context – and thus engage in more powerful learning.

Of course, it is not as easy as simply reducing opportunity. To mitigate against the obvious conflicts that will arise from such a prescriptive approach, universities must better teach students about the processes of learning. It is only then that choices students make in their learning will be more centered on how to learn the best, as opposed to what is easiest or the most convenient.

Cover image: “That Huge Lecture Theatre!” by teddy-rised is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s