Good research – poor conclusions

Recently there have been a number of research papers and articles looking at the affects of using laptops in a lecture setting

And there has been a lot of online discussion about them (this G+ post encouraged me to complete my blog entry  )

Now the research itself is good and can be summarised as
If you are sitting taking notes while someone talks at you with slides

  • on average students using laptops to take notes will retain less than students who take notes on paper
  • Students who use their laptop for something else during the lecture will retain less and on average the students around them will also retain less (distracted by what they see on your screen)

The problem is not the research but what people decide to do because of it, they take a deep breath and (often reluctantly) decide they have to ban laptops in their classroom.  Often these people are not luddites (the most famous example was Clay Shirkey who I deeply respect but in this case I feel made the wrong decision)

Some suggestions are more helpful and start to look at considering how you might make the device more useful and less of a distraction

I made a suggestion on social media that a simple solution is to record the lectures so that they are not a one time event and so students that do become distracted can revisit and notes can be written at a time and place that suits them.  Its not a bad solution but it is treating the symptoms not the cause.

So lets look in more detail at the lecture, this is a tried and trusted method for getting information from the mind of someone who knows it (the lecturer) into the minds of someone(s) who dont (the students), they tend to be multiples of an hour (or 1/2 hour) long because that makes it easier to timetable, the students sit in rows with a teacher at the front because that is the physical layout of the room.

An alternative to the lecture was the book but it is unlikely to contain exactly what you wish to teach the students and it was not cost effective for each individual member of staff to write and publish a book for each of their classes.

But now we are in the internet age and things change.  There are now multiple easily accessible sources for information, lecturers can curate it (or get their students to curate it) or create it (text, video, infographics etc).  The valuable face to face time can be used for something that doesn’t require students to pay attention for an hour (interestingly I thought our attention span was 15 minutes – I was wrong and found some nice ideas about what you can do to help)

Lets flip the class, do the problems, discussions, thinking when all the smart people are in the same room.  The content transmission can be before the class when everyone gets as long (or as short) as they need to absorb it.  Sure you might still talk at the students in the lecture theatre but it will be in shorter bursts as part of a varied experience. That hour long long lecture performance? it wont vanish but should become a rare occurrence and when it does happen it should be so good that all of your students hang on every word.

Do I think the lecture is dead?  No, a lot of institutions have Lecturers that teach in lecture theatres, and on the timetable it says “lecture” – there is a lot of inertia to overcome.  Also there will always be a place for the occasional lecture (have a look at these )  but I do think there will be a move away from them although it may take 5-10 years for them to become rare.

And to round up – its not just laptops see this post for an idea on the effects of smartphones and some sensible advice on what to do about it

And of course its only a matter of time before we start to get the first “Wearables are a distraction from lectures” articles – unless we do something about…… the Lectures.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Tadeeej

2 thoughts on “Good research – poor conclusions

  1. Radio Raheem

    Why do you assume that there is a fundamental problem with the lectures?

    The research, the articles you link to and my own initial reaction all support the idea that the problem is with the method of taking notes. We have centuries of experience & evidence to support the idea that handwriting notes is an excellent way of boosting retention – better than just having the information presented to you (whether by a book, a lecture, or a presentation) and it would now seem better than typing those notes on a keyboard.

    Obviously getting distracted by anything doesn’t help your retention & its very hard to handwrite without giving it a lot of attention.
    Any note taking which you devote less effort to would seem to be less effective.
    Typing requires less effort & attention.
    It seems unsurprising that the students that put in the most effort and attention when taking notes have the best retention!

    The ‘good research’ has certainly been used to produce conclusions which are supported by the evidence and make sense intuitively – why do you label them ‘poor conclusions’? They seem like rather vital, important conclusions to any student looking to maximise the value of their increasingly expensive studies…

    1. josephgliddon Post author

      Dear Radio Raheem
      Thankyou for taking the time to post such a thoughtful response.
      I think you make a very strong point about the conclusions in the research being important to students, I had missed that providing this information to students would be an easy way to help them get the most out of their studies.

      If I can return to your first question – yes I do assume there is a fundamental problem with lectures, I think the first part of the problem is that a lot of education assumes that lectures don’t have a problem.
      100 years ago the lecture was one of the most cost effective ways of providing to a group of students the information that they need to access/process for their education. Today lectures are still the default method – the world has changed dramatically, a lot of lectures are delivered without considering if there might be a different or better way of using the time.
      There is evidence that there are better ways (for example )

      My “Poor Conclusions” were not the conclusions of the actual reports (those were good) they were the conclusions that some people drew from the research.
      IE – Taking notes on a laptop while someone talks at you is not highly effective
      Their conclusion – remove the laptop (IMHO poor)
      My conclusion – change the “while someone talks at you” to a more useful activity

      I guess I need to find a different word than “poor conclusions”, maybe “poor decisions” would be clearer?
      Thanks again for your comment


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