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ScienceSpiegeloog 413: Nature

Ask the Expert: Education needs feedback

By October 1, 2021No Comments
Hillie Aaldering
Roeland Voskens
Hillie Aaldering’s (Work and Organizational Psychology) question

Dear Roeland,

As you know, I am very interested in maintaining and increasing the quality of education. I recently attended a seminar suggesting that large scale lectures are useless; students can learn better from books or knowledge clips, so knowledge transfer is not efficient using large lectures. And the potential of social cohesion which they can create is also very small, given decreased attendance to such lectures over time. I’m curious to hear your perspective: Do you think large scale lectures should have a future and what should it look like?

Hillie

Roeland Voskens’ (Social Psychology) answer

Dear Hillie,

The number of students allowed in a lecture hall has us all worried these days. While it’s clear that large groups in confined spaces stimulates the transfer of COVID, it’s less clear how group size helps the transfer of knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, knowledge and skills do not spread like infectious diseases. If they did, having up to 600 students in attendance would make a lot of sense. But knowledge does not travel through air or aerosol: students need to actively build their own knowledge structures and learning skills requires a lot of practice. So it’s crucial to consider what the intended effect is of the lecture. How should students use the information we provide and what does the presence of all those other students contribute?

We teach lectures to provide a clear structure to the relevant material, to explain particularly difficult concepts, to get students motivated and to create social cohesion. Furthermore, lectures could contribute to stimulating distributed practice (to study regularly and evenly distributed over time) and overlearning (studying the same material again after some understanding has been achieved). Whether large scale lectures are the most effective means to achieve these goals is indeed questionable. For example: a lot of students seem to consider the lectures as alternatives to the textbooks instead of complementary, so it’s unclear how overlearning would occur here.

More importantly, our indifference about student attendance makes any point about effectiveness moot. For most of our lectures attendance is optional, and it’s hard to make any form of teaching effective towards any goal if students are simply not around. Indeed: attendance at even the most highly rated courses tends to hover around 50 percent. That number drops even further if the lectures are also available online. This seems to suggest a form of self-selection and might be an indication that such large a group of students is too diverse for one single lecture to cater to. This diversity in needs would also explain why proposals to make attendance mandatory are invariably met with a lot of student resistance. All of which seems to suggest that large scale lectures are unlikely to help students in achieving those intended effects.

Good teaching involves some form of dialogue between students and teachers. Students need feedback to improve and teachers need feedback to help students improve. Large scale lectures for a largely absent audience do not provide us with that dialogue. Online technology can provide us with more effective and equally scalable means to teach these large scale groups in a more dynamic way. The essential content of lectures could be recorded as knowledge clips, which are then properly embedded in a series of assignments and exercises, some of which are tackled as a group effort during tutorials. This would free up the lecturer in a course to spend more time were it is actually needed: to optimize the knowledge clips on the basis of viewing analytics, to offer remediation and extra challenge on the basis of students learning analytics, to support teams of tutorial teachers in making sure their tutorials are well tailored to the objectives we want students to achieve.

Roeland

Roeland Voskens’ question is for Edwin van Hooft (Work and Organizational Psychology)
Dear Edwin,
In a recent article in the NRC, it is claimed that due to the steady increase in student enrollment numbers at Dutch universities, we might end up graduating too many people. My question then would be: do you think a similar argument applies to psychology degrees? So will we end up with too many people with a degree? Will this cause “degree-inflation”, and what would that mean (less demand for graduates in the marketplace, less training for undergraduates because of the need to cater to more students with similar means, perhaps both)?
Roeland
Hillie Aaldering’s (Work and Organizational Psychology) question

Dear Roeland,

As you know, I am very interested in maintaining and increasing the quality of education. I recently attended a seminar suggesting that large scale lectures are useless; students can learn better from books or knowledge clips, so knowledge transfer is not efficient using large lectures. And the potential of social cohesion which they can create is also very small, given decreased attendance to such lectures over time. I’m curious to hear your perspective: Do you think large scale lectures should have a future and what should it look like?

Hillie

Roeland Voskens’ (Social Psychology) answer

Dear Hillie,

The number of students allowed in a lecture hall has us all worried these days. While it’s clear that large groups in confined spaces stimulates the transfer of COVID, it’s less clear how group size helps the transfer of knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, knowledge and skills do not spread like infectious diseases. If they did, having up to 600 students in attendance would make a lot of sense. But knowledge does not travel through air or aerosol: students need to actively build their own knowledge structures and learning skills requires a lot of practice. So it’s crucial to consider what the intended effect is of the lecture. How should students use the information we provide and what does the presence of all those other students contribute?

We teach lectures to provide a clear structure to the relevant material, to explain particularly difficult concepts, to get students motivated and to create social cohesion. Furthermore, lectures could contribute to stimulating distributed practice (to study regularly and evenly distributed over time) and overlearning (studying the same material again after some understanding has been achieved). Whether large scale lectures are the most effective means to achieve these goals is indeed questionable. For example: a lot of students seem to consider the lectures as alternatives to the textbooks instead of complementary, so it’s unclear how overlearning would occur here.

More importantly, our indifference about student attendance makes any point about effectiveness moot. For most of our lectures attendance is optional, and it’s hard to make any form of teaching effective towards any goal if students are simply not around. Indeed: attendance at even the most highly rated courses tends to hover around 50 percent. That number drops even further if the lectures are also available online. This seems to suggest a form of self-selection and might be an indication that such large a group of students is too diverse for one single lecture to cater to. This diversity in needs would also explain why proposals to make attendance mandatory are invariably met with a lot of student resistance. All of which seems to suggest that large scale lectures are unlikely to help students in achieving those intended effects.

Good teaching involves some form of dialogue between students and teachers. Students need feedback to improve and teachers need feedback to help students improve. Large scale lectures for a largely absent audience do not provide us with that dialogue. Online technology can provide us with more effective and equally scalable means to teach these large scale groups in a more dynamic way. The essential content of lectures could be recorded as knowledge clips, which are then properly embedded in a series of assignments and exercises, some of which are tackled as a group effort during tutorials. This would free up the lecturer in a course to spend more time were it is actually needed: to optimize the knowledge clips on the basis of viewing analytics, to offer remediation and extra challenge on the basis of students learning analytics, to support teams of tutorial teachers in making sure their tutorials are well tailored to the objectives we want students to achieve.

Roeland

Roeland Voskens’ question is for Edwin van Hooft (Work and Organizational Psychology)
Dear Edwin,
In a recent article in the NRC, it is claimed that due to the steady increase in student enrollment numbers at Dutch universities, we might end up graduating too many people. My question then would be: do you think a similar argument applies to psychology degrees? So will we end up with too many people with a degree? Will this cause “degree-inflation”, and what would that mean (less demand for graduates in the marketplace, less training for undergraduates because of the need to cater to more students with similar means, perhaps both)?
Roeland
Redactie

Author Redactie

Mualla (2000) is a third-year psychology student specialising in Brain and Cognition, interested in the intersection between cognitive and clinical psychology. She enjoys spending time in nature, reading and journaling.

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