Lecture Capture Hurts Attainment

June 22, 2018 - by Holden Thorp

One of the things we talk about a lot in Our Higher Calling is the importance of great teaching and the need to examine carefully lectures and their effectiveness.  Sanjay Sarma of MIT – who gave us so many great quotes for the book – decries the notion that the students brain is a blank piece of paper that a professor can write on with a pen simply by giving an inspirational lecture.  In contrast, all of the recent research on learning shows that the more active the class is in terms of participation, the more the student will learn.  Physics Nobel Laureate Carl Weiman has made it his calling to get folks to understand this

Not only do students learn more with active learning, they also perform better as a function of demographics.  Persistent gaps in learning as a function of race or gender become smaller when active learning is employed.  Active learning involves students engaging with the material ahead of time so that class time can be focused on interacting with the material through exercises and problems.

Now we find a study on what happens if we make lectures even less active.  In recent years, universities have been offering ‘lecture capture,’ which involves recording and archiving lectures so that students can access them later.  This has led to lower rates of attendance at lecture, and generally viewing the lectures on higher speed.  (WashU medical students recently spoofed the practice in their annual music video, which showed them in their pajamas watching lectures at home rather than attending medical school.)  It follows that if active learning boosts the effectiveness of lectures, then making them less active by watching them (probably at the last minute) on high speed will make them less effective.

In this recent study, the researchers set out to test whether the availability of lecture capture lowered attendance and whether it changed attainment.  Despite the problems with lectures, attending them does increase attainment.  Not surprisingly, the availability of lecture capture lowers attendance (this is easily assessed qualitatively by peeking in the lecture halls where such classes are offered); the reason is pretty depressing – college (and medical) students would rather not spend time attending lectures and the ability to watch them later on video gives them an excuse.  Further, watching the lectures produces a negligible effect – it is not really any better to watch the lecture than not to attend at all.  This may also explain why online classes have at most modest learning outcomes.


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