Lecture Works…

Recently, the Twitterverse has been awash with debate on the merits of traditional lecture-based instruction in science classrooms. I’ve watched with growing concern as many of my progressive colleagues have made claims that “Lecture doesn’t work.” or that “Kids don’t learn from lecture”. These blanket statements are both demonstrably false and harmful to the dialogue and discourse about research-based practices that many of us support.

Let me be clear about this: lecture can be used to teach students. That’s not my opinion. That’s a research-based conclusion that can be drawn from this graph:

from How Effective is Modeling Instruction?

If you have trouble reading the graph, the vertical axis is the mean FCI scores for students in physics classes and the horizontal axis is the type of  instruction students received. See that first bar? Students in a traditional (i.e. lecture-based) class, showed a gain of 16 points from pre- to post-test. That looks like learning to me.

Now, you might be saying, “But what about the modeling bars? Even novice modelers achieve greater learning gains with their students than lecture-based classrooms.” And you’re right. However, when comparing those bars to the traditional one, all I can conclude is that modeling instruction is more effective than traditional instruction. Those results don’t invalidate the gains showed by the students in the traditional classrooms, nor do they invalidate the methods used in those classrooms. Teachers who use lecture have students that learn. (I won’t even go into the anecdotal evidence. Suffice to say, that I only received traditional instruction and I think I know a thing or two about physics.)

I love modeling instruction and I wish that every physics and chemistry teacher out there would undergo the training, adopt it and use it in their classrooms. Like many of my colleagues, part of the reason I join the conversations on Twitter and write here is to spread the word about this amazing research-based pedagogy. When I see teachers curious about it or challenging it, I like to talk to them and find out what they’re thinking. But, if I lead with a statement like “No one has ever learned by lecture.”, they’re going to think I’m foolish and give much less consideration to the rest of what I have to say. It shuts down the discussion before it can even begin.

Getting teachers to take a look at modeling and seriously consider it requires them to challenge their preconceptions about the way education works. Mine came with my first post-test FCI scores. Malcolm Wells, one of the fathers of modeling had a similar story. I think most of us come to appreciate and understand modeling instruction through redesigning the model of education that we have built in our heads and that we have implemented in our classrooms – not by being told that what we were doing was wrong. Ironically, lecturing people about it just isn’t that effective. Instead, if you find yourself with the opportunity to share your passion for this method of teaching offer the evidence that supports modeling or even better tell your own story about how you decided to change your viewpoint. Give your colleagues the chance to discover what you’ve known for a while now. I promise that if you let them do that, you’ll be more effective.



  1. Thanks Brian for your considered post. As much as I might strive to use more student-centred approaches in the classroom, I think it’s a bit too easy to turn the “debate” into a black and white issue. Different students will respond to different teaching methods. I know that I’ve always managed to learn in a lecture environment (which I think also comes down to using effective learning strategies), so it can’t be completely ineffective. But I know that overall students will learn MORE from a student-centred approach and that their learning will in all likelihood be more meaningful for them.

  2. Good points, but I think your wording of the following statement is somewhat telling:

    Teachers who use lecture have students that learn.

    It seems to have been carefully crafted to avoid a “post hoc” fallacy — and rightly so, since all we really know from the evidence here is that lectures don’t stop people from learning. For my part, I would say that I mainly learned science and mathematics despite the lectures.

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