Improve Student Learning from Lecture

Research has shown that heavy use of lecturing is on average less effective than other modes of instruction (Freeman et al., 2014; Wieman, 2014). Moreover, research in the learning sciences has identified potential weaknesses in the lecture-learning process (Cerbin, 2018). This research offers ways to narrow the lecture-learning gap. To improve learning from lecture, teachers will need to adopt strategies to help students

acquire essential background knowledge before lecture

manage cognitive overload during lecture

engage in deep learning processes during lecture

elaborate, consolidate and retain what they learn after lecture.  

Help students acquire essential background knowledge

What students know before a lecture in large part determines what they will learn during a lecture. As Mr. Davies, my junior high school math teacher, once told our class, “The more you know, the easier it is to know more.” His aphorism was prophetic. Research has shown unequivocally that students’ prior knowledge—what they already know and believe—affects new learning. In summarizing decades of research, one group of researchers concluded

Students come to every learning situation with prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the situation, how they organize and interpret it. This affects their ability to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge. Bransford, Brown & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind & Experience (2000, p.10) 

Generally, prior knowledge facilitates new learning. However, four common prior knowledge conditions can impede learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman 2010).

  1. Insufficient prior knowledge. When students lack relevant background knowledge, learning is likely to be fragmented and incomplete. Students will struggle to identify the meanings of new terminology, differentiate main ideas from detail, grasp how one idea relates to another, and build a coherent representation of the lecture material. According to survey results, more than half of freshmen and seniors report that they come to class unprepared sometimes, and an additional 19% report being unprepared often or very often (NSSE Annual Results, 2016 and 2017).
  2. Inaccurate prior knowledge. Student misconceptions of the subject matter are common, and can interfere with new learning. Some misconceptions are minor glitches that students work out on their own; others can be tenacious, resistant to instruction, and lead to serious misinterpretations of new material (Vosniadou, 2013; Taylor & Kowalski, 2014; Bensley & Lilienfeld, 2017). 
  3. Inappropriate prior knowledge. Students may use inappropriate or irrelevant prior knowledge to interpret lecture material. For example, the terms, averageconfidence, and random, have very different technical meanings in statistics than in common colloquial usage. Students who have the colloquial definitions in mind will be confused by a statistics lecture on these topics (Kaplan, Fisher & Rogness, 2009). 
  4. Inert prior knowledge. Students may possess relevant prior knowledge but may not access it or be able to use it when needed to interpret new material. Students’ inability to transfer recently acquired concepts to new contexts can be a significant obstacle for learning from lecture. (Bransford & Johnson 1972; Schwartz & Bransford, 1999; Schwartz, Chase, Oppezzo, & Chin, 2011).