Should We Do Away with Large Group Lectures?

Lecturer before a large group

Maximizing lecture impact: Using tech and student self-assessment to help the learning stick.

Editors’ Note: We are continuing our series on active learning in medical education. Last week, we explored the importance of space design in promoting collaborative exchange. Here we examine what instructors and students can do to make large lectures more interesting and better focused on applying knowledge.

by Michael S. Risley, Ph.D.

Do you find yourself feeling that students in your large-group lectures are often disengaged from your teaching? You’re not alone. In fact, some medical educators believe we should scrap the large-group lecture and replace it with small-group learning.

I disagree. In my opinion, based on 41 years of teaching experience, large-group lectures can achieve student engagement and effective learning. Indeed, even educators who believe lectures should be abandoned sometimes present their opinions by lecturing, a situation I find amusing.

It’s common for both teachers and students to say that large-group lectures are often poorly attended, that students become disengaged and distracted after 15 to 20 minutes and that retention of new concepts is, at best, temporary.

The problem is that in large-group learning environments, such as teacher-centered lectures to large classes (or small classes for that matter), there are challenges that hamper learning. Among these challenges are: poor lecture planning and weak speaking skills, lecturers who pack sessions with a heavier cognitive load than students can grasp in the time allotted and lecturers who fail to recognize that most people can maintain effective attention only for about 15 minutes without a diversion.

Even if all of these weaknesses are avoided, there remains a significant obstacle to learning: listening to lectures is a relatively passive learning activity.

Student engagement is best supported by high-impact learning environments that provide opportunities for students to integrate, apply, discuss and teach in the context of learning new information and concepts.

So, which active learning activities can make large-group settings most effective?

The introduction of repeated formative feedback opportunities via audience response systems (ARS) that allow students in a lecture hall to use hand-held “clickers” or even ordinary mobile devices to respond electronically to a lecturer’s questions is one of the easiest, most flexible active learning approaches. Formative feedback, a process by which students self-assess their learning and skills, is extraordinarily effective in guiding student learning.

ARS questions can be inserted at multiple points in a class for review of past classes or recently discussed material, problem-solving opportunities, contextual learning or getting students to confront misconceptions.

Engagement is also enhanced when students share their answers and discuss and debate them before the data are shown and explained by the teacher. These responses provide teachers with critical, real-time data on what a class knows and understands. It also allows students to quickly review their progress relative to all other students. The traditional raised-hand approach to answering questions almost never provides such insights.

Another active learning approach for the lecture hall is to provide time for students to write test questions on selected topics, exchange and answer them and then engage in discussion.

Writing good test questions requires a significant depth of understanding and knowledge integration; students who write questions apply their knowledge, are engaged in the learning process and can share their questions with fellow students. Having students write summaries paraphrasing concepts or knowledge applications and having them exchange those summaries with classmates further deepens the level of learning.

These are a few of the modifications that any lecturer can introduce to provide students with the opportunity to work with knowledge and to engage in teaching other students. By being aware of lecture challenges, incorporating active learning techniques and displaying enthusiasm, lecturers can transform traditional lectures into more-effective and enjoyable learning experiences.

Do you teach lecture classes? Are you a student in one? What have you found most effective in promoting learning in these settings. Let us know in comments.

Check out our series on selecting and succeeding in medical school

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Michael S. Risley, Ph.D.

Michael S. Risley, Ph.D.

Michael S. Risley, Ph.D. is professor of clinical anatomy & structural biology, Department of Anatomy & Structural Biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine

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  • LM September 12, 2013, 3:57 PM

    Good article – from one of the best lecturers during my medical school education.

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