STEM teaching needs to improve – by getting rid of lectures

Shane Winterhalter

Lecturing has been the preferred method of teaching at universities since medieval times – despite large amounts of evidence showing it to be ineffective. A study in the American Journal of Physics that was designed to test the understanding (as opposed to the memorization skills examinations usually require) of students before and after taking a standard introductory physics course showed that conventional teaching given during the course produced only a small increase in understanding among the students.

Lectures are ineffective and pointless, both for a lecturer, who has to attempt to do justice to a complex topic in front of a large group of students in a short space of time, and the students, who no matter how enthusiastic and talented a teacher they may have, struggle to maintain concentration when being asked to just passively sit and listen. If a student was asked what topic last week’s lecture was on, I doubt many would be able to answer.

Universities could also benefit from scrapping their antiquated methods. A university employs world leading experts and asking them to explain a concept that could easily be learnt from a textbook or handout is a misuse of their talents. This time could be better spent on research, to the benefit of the university. Resources would be better used if teaching time could be focused on the more complex topics, leaving the basics to be learnt independently.

As a teaching method, lecturing pretends all students are completely identical, yet we know that people learn at different speeds – many of my own peers complain about classes moving too fast for them to keep up – and this problem gets worse as class sizes get larger and the range of learning speeds increases. Questions tend to be rare, as most listeners will be scurrying to note down whatever is on the board or slides, without understanding what is going on, or sometimes even reading what they are writing down.

Lectures also encourage mindless note taking, with the revision process for these notes usually consisting solely of rote memorization instead of conceptual understanding. With increasing fees, students expect their course to provide value for money. Lectures are a way for a university to cheaply create the illusion of value – which with the rise of online courses is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Why go to university to attend lectures, when similar services, often from institutions such as MIT and Harvard, are available online for free?


The university teaching process could be greatly improved by asking the students to attempt to learn the material in their own time. This can be easily done in several ways. Many courses release a handbook containing basic information, and if this was made more comprehensive, it would be an excellent way to gain an understanding of the course. Much of this material would likely already exist as the lecturer’s notes, making it easy to produce.

New technology allows for lectures to be recorded, then consumed at home. This could replace traditional lectures, freeing up teaching time. They can also be watched at any time that is convenient and re-watched as often as is necessary. Videos can be watched at different speeds – a confident student could watch at 2x speed, while a struggling student could watch at half speed.

While the initial time investment of creating these videos and handouts may be large, these materials can be reused each year. Digital distribution also makes updating the resources easy, say if a large part of the class struggles to understand something, a quick supplementary video can easily be created or a new section added to the handbook to go more in depth on a particular topic. With these, as well as resources available online or in textbooks, no-one should be short of learning materials.

Lecture time could then be used to discuss problems faced by the students when they went through the material. A focus on student submitted questions, with an emphasis on debate between peers would greatly improve the classroom experience. Making the students interact and explain things to each other is the best thing that can be done in the classroom – it is often said that one of the best ways to understand something, is to explain it to someone else.

The main benefit of this method, is that it allows the pace of progress to be set entirely by the students. This will be more engaging for the student, and more efficient for the teacher. There is always the risk that with all the materials online, attendance will drop, but this is unlikely – despite the stereotype, students are not lazy and do want to learn.

A physics lecturer at Harvard University, Eric Mazur, has been pioneering active learning techniques for several years now. In his classes everyone is encouraged to discuss questions with each other. Each class begins with a question from a student, then everyone is asked to give an answer via a smartphone or laptop and if not enough answers are correct (less than 70%) he asks each person to find a neighbour with a different answer, and discuss the problem.

Dr Mazur found his new method greatly improved his students understanding of the concepts. When taught with traditional methods they could solve textbook style problems, but when asked to apply their new knowledge to real world situations they struggled. The new method helped the students to take what they learnt in the classroom and apply it to the real world. It was also found that the students retained what they had learnt for much longer.

The evidence is not just anecdotal either. A meta-analysis of student performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects using different teaching methods published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that students that learnt by a passive learning method such as lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than if more active learning methods involving student participation were used.

There are also implications beyond just educational attainment. Mazur found that active teaching eliminated the gender gap in his classes between male and female students, which has long been an enormous problem in STEM subjects. He theorised that female students benefited disproportionately more than male students when exposed to a learning method that emphasised communication, though both genders still showed improvement. Mazur’s students were also half as likely to switch to a non-STEM subject than if they had been taught traditionally.

With universities under pressure to justify their fees, it is time for them to modernize and come out of the dark ages. Teaching needs to become more evidence based as well as recognise the existence of technology, as it is clear lectures are ineffective. This would be good for the students, the academics expected to teach the students, and the university itself. The standard of graduate would improve, but perhaps most importantly, raising the quality of teaching could mean young people stop seeing STEM subjects as dense and incomprehensible.



STEM teaching needs to improve – by getting rid of lectures

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