Teachers have been lecturing for millennia, the story reports, and it has never been terribly effective.
“Before printing, it was very difficult to create books, and so someone would read the books to everybody who would copy them down,” says Joe Redish, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland. He points out that the word “lecture” comes from the Latin word meaning “to read.”
Redish is trying to change the way college students are taught. He says lecturing has never been an effective teaching method, and now that information is so easily accessible, lecturing is a waste of time.
“With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don’t need faculty to do it,” Redish says. “Get ‘em to do it once, put it on the web, and fire the faculty.”Students who do well in lecture classes are the students who would do well with any method, including self-teaching. But most students can't pay attention long enough to grasp all that's being taught, and most professors know too much about their subject to be able to communicate it to beginners.
The solution? According to physics professor Eric Mazur at Harvard, it's to take a peer learning approach. He has his students read the material ahead of time, answer some questions online about it before class to make sure they've done it, and talk to each other during class to iron out any confusion, and the professor then uses the Socratic method -- questions, and discussion -- to reinforce what they've learned.
The first goal is to teach the basic concepts, and once students understand those, they're much better prepared to put what they've learned into practice. Professors generally try to convey both with the lecture format, but the kind of rote memorization, without real understanding that the lecture/exam format encourages doesn't prepare the student to actually use the material, never mind retain the material long-term.
Ironically, the Socratic method is the original pedagogy (in known history of western culture). It involves active interaction. So why have we invested, and continued to invest, in expensive research on 'education' and how and what to teach, when we are if anything regressing, according to these stories? And how much difference is there, really, between the current way--that, after all, has educated the vast middle classes over the last couple of centuries, when they had little other than apprenticeship education for all of history before that--and our cultures are so much better and more powerful than in the past? Clearly the don't-learns exist but overall the system is teaching. Otherwise, how do we have iPods, big-screen tv's, and electronic toasters?
The truth is perhaps that we don't need armies of people with solid physics knowledge. If we're falling behind other countries, it's at the margins, not because the lecture system is bonkers. After all, that's what they have in China and Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe, not to mention England and France etc., where our graduate students are largely coming from.
And, we believe we've read somewhere that even the august Socrates bemoaned how uninterested or unable so many of his students were. Others in history have done the same. And, after all, Socrates was so good that they made him drink hemlock for his contributions to society (this was, in a sense, for teaching sedition to young people by teaching them rhetoric by which they could argue even false points of view).
Socratic, interactive teaching does work if one keeps expectations realistic. We've tried it with success in our own classes, though they were not in the hundreds in a large auditorium. For that, for a middle class large-scale operation, you have to have large classes, or something less intensively interactive (and a model from elite Harvard isn't exactly relevant).
The real problem is not the lecture systems--informal peer-group and so on approaches will work for some, but in no way will it yield a nation of physicists here! The problem is a lowering of expectations and standards, opening up universities to students who haven't adequate backgrounds--indeed, the acceptance of a pre-college educational system that leaves so many kids unprepared--and pandering to students with easy courses and high grades, so we can grab their tuition and pay the faculty to spend their time on their (our?) precious research. But even were we to re-balance the system, we can only expect a modest increase in results, because that's all that large societies can achieve. Still, small differences per student, in a big society, could make a major difference overall, even if not everyone waiting for a bus will be discussing muon half-lives.