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The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Examining the effectiveness of lectures

Ariyonna McGahee
Cole Hall, Room 100, sits empty after classes on Tuesday. Cole Hall houses the Pick Museum of Anthropology. (Ariyonna McGahee | Northern Star)

DeKALB – If you listen close while walking the corridors of DuSable Hall, you can hear the sound of higher education, and it sounds like a lecture. 

Lectures have been used to educate since the time of Socrates and Plato, but modern students, like senior computer science major Mohamed Sharif, are experiencing problems with lecture heavy classes.

 “You have to be there to understand the material; and if you’re not there, then it flies over your head,” Sharif said. “If you’re trying to work on the homework without the knowledge from the lecture, then you’re kind of screwed. It’s difficult, but it’s doable.”

Stephanie Richter, director of Teaching Excellence and Support at NIU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, said research shows there are more effective teaching methods than using lectures alone.

“There are decades of studies on this concept because we are interested in ensuring that the methods we’re using are effective,” Richter said. “What the research has shown on the effectiveness of lectures is that they are not as effective when used alone as they are when incorporated with other active learning strategies.”

Active learning strategies break up the monotony of lectures and engage students by segmenting lectures interspersed with discussion activities, problem solving and collaborative learning sessions.

NIU graduate Kyra Johnson remembers taking a mix of lecture-based and active learning-based classes.

“I had Laura Vazquez, and I remember how she taught her courses. It was very interactive and more hands-on,” Johnson said. “But, I also had some classes on film in my early years that were mainly information dumps.”

First-year family and social services major Betsy Reyes said it depends on the instructor’s preferred teaching style.

“Some professors are nonchalant, and I feel like those are the ones that just read off the powerpoint,” Reyes said. “Then there are some classes that break you into groups and let you practice the material, and I really like that because it helps me understand better.”

Breaking students into groups is a classic strategy known as think-pair-share according to Richter.

“Think-pair-share is one of the classic examples, and it’s one of the easiest to introduce,” Richter said. 

In think-pair-share, a faculty or staff member poses a question based on the lecture or assigned readings for students to think about. Next, everyone is given a few minutes to deliberate, take notes on how they would approach the problem and then pair up to discuss and compare answers with a neighboring classmate. 

“I’ve taken a database class that was group centric. We would learn the material and then break into small groups and make a website,” Shariff said. “It forces you to interact and use the material that we learned in a creative and constructive way.” 

The technique is popular among instructors because it is easy to use in any classroom. 

“In some of our larger auditorium spaces, it can be difficult to have students rearrange themselves to do group work,” Richter said. “This allows students to turn to a neighbor and easily have those conversations.”

Another strategy is known as the jigsaw technique. 

“So in jigsaw, you might introduce a concept and then have students divide into sections,” Richter said. “For example, maybe I want three different theories that all align with this topic. So I’ll have the class split into thirds, each discussing and researching one of the theories. Next, we put together groups in which we will take one person from each of those areas and put them into a group together.”

Personal response systems or clickers is a longstanding technique still in use.

“With clicker systems, a faculty member can pose a question to the whole class and all the students respond. Students can do this using an app on their phones or computers, and it’s a great way for students to try out and practice the concepts or techniques that were covered in class,” Richter said. “It’s also a great way for the faculty member to sort of quickly assess how well students understand that concept.”

Although some students may have a harder time with lecture-heavy classes, lectures remain part of many educators’ repertoire for a reason.

“The reason why lectures are not fully obsolete, and really never will be, is that there are very different ways that experts and novices organize information,” Richter explained. “The lecture is the most efficient way for the experts to provide that framework and structure to someone who’s just learning new concepts in order to give them the cognitive structures to deal with that information as they continue to learn it.” 

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