George Lucas Educational Foundation
The Research Is In

Students Think Lectures Are Best, But Research Suggests They’re Wrong

A study reveals students prefer low-effort learning strategies—like listening to lectures—despite doing better with active learning.

October 16, 2019
Illustration concept showing metacognition
John Hersey / The iSpot

Students are often “poor judges” of their own learning, according to researchers in a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Strategies that require low cognitive effort—such as passively listening to a lecture—are often perceived by students to be more effective than active strategies such as hands-on experimentation and group problem-solving. The group dynamic can make students feel frustrated and “painfully aware of their lack of understanding,” but the study concluded that the more effort and struggle involved—hallmarks of a student-centered, active approach—the more students learned.

In the study, researchers divided large introductory physics courses at Harvard University into two groups. For both groups, instructors primarily lectured for the first 11 weeks of the 15-week course. Starting in the 12th week, however, instructors in the first group continued to lecture, while instructors in the second group switched to a student-centered, active approach that encouraged students to solve problems in small groups. At the end of each class meeting, students took a multiple-choice exam to test their understanding of the material and to gauge their feelings about their learning. They considered statements such as “I enjoyed this lecture,” and “I feel like I learn a lot from this lecture.”

Students in all courses were taught using identical materials; the difference was the level of interactivity between groups. 

In the first group, the instructor used slides, explained concepts, and solved problems on a chalkboard while students listened. In the second group, the instructor began the class with the same slides and explanations, but instead of walking students through a problem, students worked in small groups to figure out the solutions themselves. The instructor walked around the room asking questions and guiding groups that needed help.

At the end of the course, students consistently showed a preference for lectures, rating them higher in terms of engagement and learning. Despite those positive feelings, however, they scored 10 percentage points lower on tests compared to their peers in active learning classrooms.

The disconnect between perception and actual performance can dampen student motivation, the researchers contend, because students don’t invest in high-effort strategies they think are ineffective. Teachers should address this misperception by “explicitly presenting the value of increased cognitive efforts associated with active learning.” How can teachers do this? Although the study focused on college students, here are a few tips that benefit students at all grade levels:

  • Highlight the benefits of active learning. Students may be reluctant to leave their comfort zone if they don’t see the value of learning strategies that require more effort. But the research soundly supports active learning: A 2014 meta-analysis found that it boosts letter grades by half a point, on average. Teachers can address the misperception at the beginning of the school year by exploring the neuroscience behind effective learning strategies with their students.
  • Encourage students to see struggle as productive. To solve challenging problems, students should be comfortable with struggle and see it as a necessary part of learning.
  • Help students develop metacognitive skills. It can be difficult for students to gauge their own understanding of a topic. Strategies like exit tickets, the “One-Minute Paper,” or asking questions like, “Was anything confusing or difficult?” can close the gap between actual and perceived learning.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies