Maximizing the Impact of Lectures

Two weeks ago, I undertook a course at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. HKS is Harvard’s school of public policy and public administration. I’ve had the good fortune to now have completed five professional development programs at Harvard University over the last six to seven years—some at the medical school, but others affiliated with the business school, the education faculty and now two at HKS. I must say I have experienced some of the best classroom teachers in my life at these programs.

This time the course was Leadership Decision Making. As many of you may know, I have quite an interest in the neuroscience of decision making, especially as it applies to how we teach diagnostic reasoning. This course used the same fascinating research to review how leaders can optimize decision making. One very interesting aspect was an afternoon in their Decision Science Laboratory that provided me feedback on my own decision making.

Dr. Jennifer Lerner, the leader and founder of the course, was an incredible teacher and an inspiring leader. Jenn is a professor of Public Policy and Management at HKS, with a PhD in Psychology from U of C – Berkeley. She describes her role as scholar/practitioner and has held numerous roles advising leaders at the highest levels of government, business and military, around the world. The other faculty were equally impressive, and the 60 participants were fascinating people from around the world.

Part of our preparation for the course was a reference (I’ve provided a link below). Jenn surprised me on day one, when she appealed to all participants to not use laptops. Her reasons included the obvious distractions that these tools entail, but primarily focused on the research that shows students taking notes on laptops retain less material than those who do it the old-fashioned way!

Careful perusal of this paper will reveal that there is more to it than that. The evidence is that most people can type faster than they can write but written notes outperform laptops! While overall pen and paper notes outperformed laptop notes, in fact within and across both groups, note takers who took concept-based and summarizing notes outperformed learners who took verbatim notes.

So we should do all we can with our pedagogy to avoid conditions that promote verbatim note taking.

As with most blogs for the rest of this year, I will bring you back to accreditation of our undergrad program. One area of student concern that was very clear to our mock accreditors was the issue of lectures. The two concerns raised were those lectures where the slide deck was not available before the lecture and those that were not recorded.

Making the slides available before the lecture allows students to prepare for the lecture and actually plan their note taking. The research clearly shows that the opportunity to reframe the content, move from words to concepts and summarize the material leads to deeper learning. Furthermore, we know one of the reasons students attend lectures in person or by viewing a recording is concern that material in the lecture will be on the exam. In those lectures where the students know there is no recording, they are obliged to revert to verbatim note taking.

We also know that students doing review of recorded lectures are predominately doing focused repetitive review of specific segments of the lecture, usually on complex topics and often to complement the notes taken in the lecture. This review is done as much by the students who were in the room as those who were not.

I do know it is disheartening as a lecturer to work hard to prepare a lecture and deliver it to a sparsely populated room. However, students tell me that the prime driver of lecture attendance is actually a well-designed unit or course where all the curricular components—including the lecture—tie together and, most importantly, an excellent lecturer who cares about the students. They all speak glowingly of the hematology module as an example of excellence, and they asked our accreditors why all units or modules could not learn from that module.

Recall that we do not make lectures mandatory and there are many quite legitimate reasons for being unable to attend a lecture. Besides, students always have options. Just Google “YouTube, heart failure.” Wouldn’t we all hope they were watching our lectures?

I know that it is at our faculty member’s discretion to pre-circulate lecture slides and/or record the lecture. However, our students have repeatedly put forward this request. I think there is research supporting the benefits of both of these best practices in providing lectures and lecture materials. I would appeal to all faculty members to consider our students wishes and honour their beliefs in what is best for their learning.

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking

As always, I welcome your feedback and my door is open!

6 thoughts on “Maximizing the Impact of Lectures

  1. This is only one way to look at what providing lecture material before class may allow. To be clear, I am not against providing lecture material before class. I just feel that much is lost from summarizing and taking shorthand notes on the fly. You might also consider that students want the lecture beforehand so that they might open it on there computers and type simple notes of emphasis on them during the lecture (commonly observed). This would work against the concept of making summarizing notes by hand. The act of taking notes by hand in a lecture requires you to quickly summarize points and concepts to enable keeping pace. This is an active process for more complete memory formation that is lost with computer notes on digitally provided lecture handouts. Taking summarized shorthand notes at first sitting with rewriting and reworking on own time is the “old-fashioned way”.

  2. Hello to all:

    I think that most current research in teaching shows that the lecture format has changed little / is not a good way to teach / extremely difficult to have interaction with the students and so on.
    Smaller groups size with early responsibility for the requited information with the opportunity to work with a faculty member on early application would seem to be model to us.
    Many students within the class are often on other sites which at times are related to medicine but often not. I would think that time spent in lectures is probably not time well spent.
    As our medical school continues to develop, course construction built around a model of early application will require significant resources and faculty education / engagement.

    • Thanks,
      The evidence on lectures being among the weakest form of instruction is quite accurate. I do think they have a role and are still in high demand by students. Your point about resources is very real as lectures are the least expensive delivery method. Research I have seen for medical education is this is especially true above a class size of 100.

  3. Awesome! Bravo! Nice to see this thinking come from the top.
    Awe and wonder foster learning and retention much more than fear of failure.
    We need teachers that foster awe and wonder.
    There is meaning attached to awe and wonder. A person remembers what is meaningful to them and to things they form behavior-altering associations.

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