Lecturing v. active learning

Annie Murphy Paul said:

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

via https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/are-college-lectures-unfair.html

8 Responses to “Lecturing v. active learning”

  1. So… I lost this one post (and its comments) when I changed hosting services. Here are the comments that I believe I received. Apologies if I missed any.


    Dr. Robert Runte:

    The picture is a bit more complicated than that. In test-based courses, working class students may prefer lectures because they need the answers to the test questions and they can rote memorize material as well as, or better than, white upper class kids. More interactive classes that feature discussion and seek to involve these students in the construction of their own knowledge MAY strike them as irrelevant because they know from experience their opinion does not matter, what matters is the instructor’s answer to the test question. Class discussion and active learning is resented as a distraction and they prefer that the teacher would stop goofing and just tell them the damn answers–i.e., lecture.

    Not disagreeing that active learning CAN work better than lecture, but one has to understand the social context within which one is working, the student’s cultural expectations of the instructor, and the impact assessment practices have on classroom instruction. If the assessment practices do not match the ‘active learning’ model being advocated, then the active learning approach will fail–because students quickly realize what counts is what is counted by the test.

    In other words, one has to get rid of tests along with the lectures or it won’t work.


    Tim Smithers:

    Dear Scott,

    I’m surprised you quote Annie Murphy’s New York Times article without introduction, explanation, or some backup.

    Without citations, or, better, links, to the (reliable and peer reviewed) research that supports her claims, of “a growing body of evidence,” and some explanation of why and how this work “suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral,” her remarks should be ignored. They are no more than empty assertions.

    I took a look at the complete NYT article. Murphy does mention some names, but does not provide sufficient information to identify the research she loosely refers to, and strongly leans on.

    I would be disappointed to see students come up with this kind of argumentation in some active-learning project.

    Best regards, Tim


    Scott McLeod:

    [something along the lines of “Hi Tim, I often post quotes that interest or intrigue me without much surrounding context using the Mind Dump category: http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/mind-dump I probably have some research that backs up Annie’s claims if you’re interested. Email me at dr.scott.mcleod@gmail.com!”]


    Hayden Vick:

    I am currently a student at UNC Chapel Hill, and I completely agree that active learning is so much more beneficial, both in college and earlier education. It sparks critical thinking, encourages students to take pride in their work, and generally love learning. However, I disagree that lecture-style learning discriminates against certain populations, and I find it hard to believe that a professor’s lecturing to a class is discriminatory toward students in any way. I saw above that you do a lot of copying and pasting of others’ thoughts on your blog. Is this your opinion on the matter, or do you have different sentiments? Thank you for sharing!


    Nathaniel Brown:

    I think the bigger question is if it is causation or just correlation.

    My gut says correlation. (it could be wrong) If that is the case what real underling issue is causing the gap? If we can find and fix the real issue it will fix this issue as well.

    I don’t think being a white male naturally make you better are listening to lectures. That does not make much sense.


    Roberts Christie:

    I think what is happening in education is that data, real long term data, has begun to show that what we believe we know about how people learn is inaccurate. How people learned in the 18th and 19th century is very different from someone that learned in the mid 20th century is entirely different from a 21st century learner. To identify this trend, one only has to look to the method of knowledge delivery. In the 18th-20th century, there were experts and specialists in knowledge and a lecture was how you learned. In the 21st, knowledge is available to virtually everyone so we no longer need to look to the sage on the stage to answer our questions. So then if we no longer have to seek out knowledge in the classical sense, what are we to do with the knowledge we have? I think this question really states our situation very succinctly; our students don’t just want facts- they want to know how they can use this knowledge to shape their future. Is the lecture dead? Probably not, but it is changing. I tend to to speak for about 15 minutes to my classes; anymore and you have lost a high school audience. My “lectures” are more about asking questions and suggesting methods for answering these questions. The rest is about helping students to their goals. I also don’t believe that the future of education should bother itself with divisive statements about how gender influences learning. Our concern is to educate in a way that promotes learning for all students.

    • I agree that active learning is a much more effective practice when trying to reach diverse learners. My biggest complaint, in college, was the fact that my education teachers would instruct us, as the current students, to always prepare your lessons in order to accommodate all student elements in the classroom. Even though I agreed with what they were teaching us; they were hypocrites. Every class, every lesson, was presented in a lecture accompanied by a PowerPoint format. Did we as college students suddenly exempt the expectations that all classrooms are filled with diversity? It is so easy for instructors to teach us “how to teach” when not embodying it themselves when their students are at a certain age. Given, we are at an expensive liberal arts school, but the hypocrisy that was present really took a toll on my ability to accept my professors lectures and information. I especially feel for the students that were in that class that didn’t have a natural disposition for teaching. They were being fooled by the fact that we were all “engaged” during the teacher’s lecture because we were conversing. However, this was always at the collegiate level. God forbid, they take the lecture style to a diverse, lower socio- economic middle school! We are always taught to lead by example as educators and I can honestly say that my education professors did not model proper and effective teaching styles for the 21st century learned.

  2. Hello Scott,
    I never thought to consider that different groups of people would prefer the different types of learning. ie – single mothers vs white males. I think that it’s important as a teacher to meet all types of instructional demands. If that requires to steer away from traditional lecture formats, then teachers should do it. I think overall the goal is to help the students grow, and the way people learn (although the same) is constantly developing and improving. Great food for thought!
    Chadron State College

  3. Nathaniel,

    You remarked that it doesn’t seem to you that being a white male would make you better at listening to lectures. I think the relevant issue is whether you’re a black student listening to a white male giving a lecture. I teach 7th grade English and still find myself lecturing from time to time in a culturally irrelevant, even insensitive way. It happens even when I’m aware of the dangers. Too often we teach as we’re taught rather than as our students need to be taught. Could this explain why at least some students are inherently disadvantaged by the lecture?

  4. Hi Scott,

    This topic is intriguing and I think that it is applicable to a variety of age groups. To me it connects strongly to the idea that we all have different learning styles. Sometimes these styles are based on an individuals culture, gender, race, surroundings, etc. Something else that I just recently studied is how an individuals generation can make a difference in how they learn best. As technology advances and people become more reactive in applying what they are learning teachers need to use this to impact students on a different level besides just lecturing. Something else is that lecturing and active learning are not the only two styles that professors or teachers have available; there is creativity, technology, movement, analyzing, remembering, and exploring. Using a variety of styles will help lead to achievement for all learners.


  5. Scott,

    As a college student I am extremely interested in the argument between traditional instruction and active learning, specifically in regards to early childhood ed. My mother is a kindergarten teacher and so I have grown up watching both play out. The obvious argument is always that active learning, or “play,” is better, but I like that you pointed out that for some reason that isn’t the case for white males from educated, affluent families; I wonder why this is so. I plan on bringing this up in one of my next Education classes. Thanks again,


Leave a Reply