Earlier this fall, Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote a persuasive defense of the lecture as an instructional form. Particularly in the humanities, Worthen argued, students need to absorb long, complex arguments. It’s admittedly not easy, but worthwhile for students to learn to concentrate, and synthesize, organize and react as they listen to a professor. Her New York Times opinion column made its way around social media. On my own Facebook feed, friends posted memories of their favorite lecturing professors. Personally, I am a big fan of lectures and am grateful when someone takes the time to explain something to me.

So it was difficult for me to open my mind to fresh data analysis, from Professor Ken Koedinger of Carnegie Mellon University, which adds more weight to the argument that lectures aren’t an effective way to learn, despite our nostalgic memories of enjoying them.

Koedinger didn’t study live lectures, but recorded ones that were part of a free online psychology class produced by the Georgia Institute of Technology. He and a team of four Carnegie Mellon researchers mined the data from almost 28,000 students who took the course over the Coursera platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). They found that video lecturers were the least effective way to learn. Students who primarily learned through watching video lectures did the worst both on the 11 quizzes during the 12-week course and on the final exam. Students who primarily learned through reading, or a combination of reading and video lectures, did a bit better, but not much.

The students who did the best were those who clicked on interactive exercises. For example, one exercise asked students to click and drag personality factors to their corresponding psychological traits.  A student would need to drag “neuroticism” to the same line with “calm” and “worrying,” in this case. Hints popped up when a student guessed wrong.

On the weekly quizzes, the “doers” who did nothing but the interactive exercises scored about the same as the “doers” who also did some combination of watching and reading. It almost seems as if you don’t need to watch lectures or read at all.

Thankfully, reading and lecture-watching mattered a bit on the final exam. Again, the “doers” did much better than students who primarily only watched videos or only did the readings. But here the “doers” who also watched or read, or watched and read, boosted their final exam scores.

“People have such strong intuitions about their verbal learning experiences: ‘I learn from listening to a lecture,’ ” said Koedinger. “It sure feels that way. But in fact lectures do very little to change your brain.”

“We have all kinds of assumptions about what works in learning and education,” he added. “But what we find out, not just in this field, but in almost every field, is that when you put those assumptions to the test, they’re more often wrong than right.”

Of course, there’s a long history, dating back to the 1800s, of education experts arguing that active hands-on learning is the best way to learn. But education technology is now making it more efficient to test these theories. Instead of surveying students on what they think they did, computers can now record every mouse click and calculate how often a student actually read a passage, watched a video or completed an interactive exercise.

And new data analysis techniques are allowing researchers to conclude that active learning not only is associated with higher learning outcomes, but actually causes students to learn more. In this case, Koedinger was able to control for students’ backgrounds and what they knew before they started the class, to isolate what students actually learned during the course.  Koedinger presented his findings in a paper, “Learning is Not a Spectator Sport: Doing is Better than Watching for Learning from a MOOC,” earlier this year at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Learning at Scale conference in Vancouver.

Koedinger and his team further tested whether their theory that “learning by doing” is better than lectures and reading in other subjects. Unfortunately, the data on video watching were incomplete. But they were able to determine across four different courses in computer science, biology, statistics and psychology that active exercises were six times more effective than reading. In one class, the active exercises were 16 times more effective than reading. (Koedinger is currently drafting a paper on these results to present at a conference in 2016.)

With these conclusions, you’d think Koedinger would be calling for the abolition of instructional videos and for requiring students to complete interactive exercises when they take online classes. But Koedinger says he wants students to choose how they learn. The next step is to set up an experiment where half the students will be told that they will learn more if they complete the exercises, and see if they take the advice and do better in the course. Fortunately, the exercises tend to take less time than watching videos and, especially, doing your reading. For many students, the most effective way to learn might also be the quickest.

Still, I’m not ready to drop my love of the lecture just yet. I don’t think a recorded online video is the same thing as a live university lecture, where students can ask questions or argue with a professor. But at a minimum it seems that professors should stop spending so much time filming videos when they create online courses, and stop trying to replicate the lecture hall online.

This article also appeared here. 

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.