REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. So let's go ahead and start for today.
SHEIR: At 11 o'clock on a weekday morning, a couple hundred college students are settling down in a lecture hall for chemistry class.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. So last time, we spent a lot of time talking about derivations and relating equations to each other. What we're going to do today is...
SHEIR: The lecture is one of the oldest forms of education there is, says Joe Redish, a physics professor at the University of Maryland.
JOE REDISH: Before printing, someone would read the books to everybody who would copy them down.
SHEIR: But, he says, lecturing has never been an effective teaching technique. And now that we can find information everywhere, Redish and a few others say lecturing is pretty much a waste of time.
On today's show, we're looking toward the coming year and wondering what the future might bring. And as Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks tells us, some say the traditional lecture is so flawed, it could - or should - be on its way out.
EMILY HANFORD, BYLINE: When Eric Mazur began teaching physics at Harvard, he started out teaching the same way he had been taught.
ERIC MAZUR: I sort of projected my own experience, my own vision of learning and teaching, which is what my instructors had done to me. So I lectured.
HANFORD: And he loved to lecture. Mazur's students apparently loved it too. They gave him great evaluations, and his classes were full.
MAZUR: For a long while, I thought I was doing a really, really good job.
HANFORD: But then in 1990, he came across a series of articles written by David Hestenes, a physicist at Arizona State. Hestenes got the idea for the articles when a colleague came to him with a problem. The students in his introductory physics courses were not doing well: Semester after semester, the class average never got above about 40 percent.
DAVID HESTENES: And I noted that the reason for that was that his examination questions were mostly qualitative, requiring understanding of the concepts rather than just calculational, using formulas, which is what most of the instructors did.
HANFORD: Hestenes had a suspicion students were just memorizing the formulas and never really getting the concepts. So he and a colleague developed a test to probe students' conceptual understanding of physics. It's a test Joe Redish at the University of Maryland has given his students many times. Here's Redish reading the first question.
REDISH: (Reading) Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be...
HANFORD: The possible answers include about half as long for the heavier ball, about half as long for the lighter ball, or the same time for both. This is a fundamental concept, but even some people who've taken physics get this question wrong.
REDISH: So let's do this by going out to the second floor.
HANFORD: Redish walks up the stairs of the physics building and opens a window. A group of his students is on the sidewalk below.
REDISH: All right. Are we ready?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Oh.
HANFORD: The two balls reached the ground at the same time. Sir Isaac Newton is the first person who figured out why. He came up with a law of motion to explain how two balls of different weights, dropped from the same height, hit the ground simultaneously.
MAZUR: Most students know Newton's second law F equals MA: force equals mass times acceleration.
HANFORD: Harvard Professor Eric Mazur says while most physics students can recite Newton's law, the conceptual test developed by Hestenes showed that after an entire semester, they understood only about 14 percent more about the fundamental concepts of physics. When Mazur first read the results, he shook his head in disbelief. The test covered such basic material.
MAZUR: So I gave it to my students only to discover that they didn't do much better.
HANFORD: The test has now been given to tens of thousands of students around the world, and the results are virtually the same everywhere. The traditional lecture-based physics course produces little or no change in most students' fundamental understanding of how the physical world works.
HESTENES: The classes only seem to be really working for about 10 percent of the students.
HANFORD: Again, David Hestenes.
HESTENES: And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own.
HANFORD: He says listening to someone talk is not an effective way to learn any subject.
HESTENES: Students have to be active in developing their knowledge. They can't passively assimilate it.
HANFORD: This is something a lot of people have known intuitively for a long time - the physicists came up with the hard data. Their work, along with research by cognitive scientists, provides a compelling case against lecturing. But with budgets shrinking and enrollments booming, large classes aren't going away. You don't have to lecture in a lecture hall, though.
MAZUR: OK. Let's begin.
HANFORD: Eric Mazur's physics class is now completely different. Rather than lecturing, Mazur makes his students do most of the talking.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. So repeat what you said.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, so, like, basically, like, if you have the capacity to put up the battery...
HANFORD: The students in this class - there are nearly 100 of them - are in small groups discussing a question. Three possible answers to the question are projected on a screen. Before the students started talking with each another, they use a mobile device to vote for their answer. Only 29 percent got the question right. After talking for a few minutes, Professor Mazur tells them to answer the question again.
MAZUR: So wrap up your discussions and enter what you now believe to be the correct answer.
HANFORD: This time, 62 percent of the students get the question right. Next, Mazur leads a discussion about the reasoning behind the answer, and then the process begins again with a new question. This is a method Mazur calls peer instruction. He now teaches all of his classes this way.
MAZUR: And what we found over now close to 20 years of using this approach is that the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple.
HANFORD: One value of this approach is that it can be done with hundreds of students. You don't need small classes to get students active and engaged. Mazur says the key is to get them to do the assigned reading - what he calls the information-gathering part of education - before they come to class.
MAZUR: And in class, we work on trying to make sense of the information. Because if you stop to think about it, that second part is actually the hardest part. And the information transfer, especially now that we live in an information age, is the easiest part.
HANFORD: But ask anyone involved with efforts to lose the lecture and they'll tell you they encounter lots of resistance. Sometimes the stiffest opposition comes from the students. Ryan Duncan is in Eric Mazur's class.
RYAN DUNCAN: Revamping my entire education, you know, philosophy for this one class was a bit daunting.
HANFORD: But he adapted and says he learned more in Mazur's class than he did in his other physics course at Harvard. The University of Maryland's Joe Redish says when he lays out the case against lecturing, colleagues often nod their heads but insist their lectures work just fine. Redish tells them lecturing isn't enough anymore.
REDISH: With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don't need faculty to do it. Get them to do it once, put it on the Web, and fire the faculty.
HANFORD: Some faculty are threatened by this, but Eric Mazur says they don't have to be. Instead, they need to realize that their role has changed.
MAZUR: It used to be just be the sage on the stage, the source of knowledge and information. We now know that it's not good enough to have a source of information.
HANFORD: Mazur sees himself now as the guide on the side, a kind of coach, working to help students understand all the knowledge and information that they have at their fingertips. And, he says, this new role is a more important one. For NPR News, I'm Emily Hanford.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.