The Death of the Lecture Hall

With the advent of MOOC’s and other technological means of beaming non-interactive lectures to students, does it make any sense to spend scarce public resources building new $5 million 500-seat lecture halls at state-supported universities?  Would any self-respecting state legislator vote to support such an expenditure?

Instead of simply settling for the obvious answer of “obviously not” for both questions, let’s examine the issue a little more carefully.

The traditional lecture class consists of students sitting passively and (if they care to) taking notes while a more-or-less distant lecturer having more-or-less charisma talks at them for 50 minutes or more.  Those few of us who were successful in lecture classes as students were able to dig into class material either on our own (reading and in the case of quantitative classes problem-solving) or with small groups of students that we arranged.   Assessments of student learning consist of periodic quizzes or exams that can consist of long answer questions (if there is an army of instructors or teaching assistants who find a way to grade uniformly) or multiple choice questions (which solve the problem of uniformity in grading but can limit the scope of the assessment).

The traditional lecture class would continue to be fine if our goal was to educate only a few percent of students for leadership careers like those in engineering and the physical sciences.  But if we are serious about making these careers available to students from a broader range of backgrounds, then we must dramatically improve the opportunities to learn challenging subjects.

In physics, it’s been demonstrated that student learning gains in classrooms where interactive activities are emphasized (such as the SCALE-UP classes we teach at FSU under the brand name “Studio Physics”) deliver student learning gains that are roughly double those in traditional lecture classes.  This is not an incremental improvement – it’s double.

But some of the features of a SCALE-UP class can be exported to a lecture hall physical environment.  The Peer Instruction program developed at Harvard uses carefully scripted group exercises that are performed during lecture class periods and clicker technology to capture the learning enhancements that SCALE-UP delivers.  Peer Instruction is being implemented this semester in one of FSU’s lecture-based introductory physics courses on a trial basis.  It’s worth noting that while the Harvard Physics Department has cast its lot with the lecture hall-based Peer Instruction, their neighbors across town at MIT have adopted a variation on SCALE-UP for their introductory physics courses.

Peer Instruction is not the only physics curriculum package intended to introduce extensive interactivity to a physical lecture hall environment.  smartPhysics, developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, won a major award from the American Physical Society last year.

However, one can imagine that a basic MOOC model – in which a “great professor” delivers golden lectures over the internet in a way that allows a student to replay the lectures or sections of a lecture – would be an improvement over the traditional lecture class, in which the quality of the speaker/instructor is hit-or-miss and the presentation doesn’t have a “rewind” button built in.

Improving the learning gains in a lecture class isn’t as easy as including a few “clicker questions” in which students respond to rudimentary multiple choice questions posed by the lecturer during the lecture to make sure the students are listening.  The development of Peer Instruction took years, and the interactivity of Peer Instruction classes is intense.

In fact, FSU’s Registrar, Kim Barber, demonstrated the futility of poorly executed clicker questions in her doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013.  Her study of large lecture (400 student) macroeconomics classes at FSU failed to find any student learning advantage – or even any improvement in student attitudes – resulting from the use of clicker questions over an unenhanced traditional lecture class that didn’t use clicker questions.

As FSU and the State University System sift through a priority-setting exercise and planning processes for various academic facilities under Florida’s tight funding constraints, facility planners should keep in mind that lecture halls are either useless warehouses for students or at best awkward substitutes for purpose-built interactive learning facilities.  And they should stop building lecture halls.  Forever.


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