How well do 4-hour lectures work?

How well do 4-hour lectures work? Here’s Anonymous Insider, a medical school student writing about his classroom experience this week:

“Three marathon 4-hour lecture sessions with infectious disease (ID) specialists. Some would cover over 10 different diseases caused by a specific bacterial strain in a mere hour time. Most of the information went in one ear and out the other, especially with the PhD microbiologists. About two-thirds of students stopped attending lecture after the first session. ‘I have to study this material on my own over several days to not suffer from information overload. I do not find getting bombarded at lecture is efficient use of my time.‘”
Anonymous Insider, Medical School 2020, Year 2, Week 2

Luckily, not every medical school is still subjecting students to interminable lectures (and to be fair, Anonymous Insider also describes some more enlightened and effective ways to learn in his fascinating and entertaining week-by-week journal of his progress through medical school).

Here’s a counterexample of effective medical teaching, an excerpt from my chapter on active learning in The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

I was talking late one night with my sister Alison at her home in Burlington, Vermont, when her new roommate came in. André, a first-year medical student, had just returned from celebrating his birthday and he was tired.

ANDRÉ: “I have a couple of hours of reading tonight before classes tomorrow.”

ALISON: “Why don’t you skip the reading tonight?”

ANDRÉ: “I can’t. We have team discussion groups on the reading first thing, and I won’t be able to participate if I haven’t done the reading. That’s how they teach us; we read and watch videos for homework and in class we learn together in teams. There’s a name for it.”

ME: “Flipped classroom?”

ANDRÉ: “Yes! How did you know?”

I told André about my interest in active learning, and how pleased I was to hear how his college education was going to be so much different from mine—three years of interminable lectures, plus two weeklong sets of exams that determined the “class” of my degree.

André’s medical school has adopted active learning because it’s a better way to educate doctors. As we’ll see, it’s actually a better way to learn just about anything, and many schools are increasingly incorporating active learning into their everyday teaching practices.

It’s perhaps alarming to see such wide disparity between teaching modalities used to educate our next generation of medical practitioners: from Anonymous Insider’s institution offering 4-hour lectures to schools like André’s that are phasing out lectures completely by 2019. And yet that’s how system change typically happens, slowly, one organization at a time, each institution at its own rate. What’s encouraging is that the overall trend is positive, as increasing numbers of teachers, presenters, companies, and institutions realize that lectures are one of the worst ways to learn.

Creative Commons image courtesy of pixnio

  • choragus

    Adrian,
    While I was at NASA/MSFC, I would tell folks that talking is the most efficient and least effective form of group communication because of turn-taking. Instead, I used index cards to capture individual thoughts and displayed them on a big sticky wall as data points and had the group do affiliation groupings that then lead to discussion.

    • Dutch, I love your initial description of lectures as efficient and least effective — so true. I do essentially what you describe for group work on a topic: capture thoughts and ideas on sticky notes, cluster them in real time, and then use the clusters to suggest separate small group discussions or lead a general discussion. There’s a chapter on this approach, which I call “Post It!”, in my book: The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.