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There's No Substitute for In-Person Lectures

Video, schmideo: Canadian university students remembered more material when they heard a live lecture in the classroom.
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(Photo: velkr0/Flickr)

(Photo: velkr0/Flickr)

We have been told for a while now that online learning, including video recordings of lectures, is the future of higher education. New research suggests that new approach to learning may come at a serious cost.

A study released last week finds that students who watched a videotaped lecture recalled less of the material, and felt less engaged in the subject, than they did after sitting through a similar live lesson.

"A single change to the classroom environment—professor presence—impacted memory performance, as well as motivation and interest," University of British Columbia psychologists Trish Varao-Sousa and Alan Kingstone write in PLoS One.

The study featured 276 UBC undergraduates who were enrolled in the course Introduction to Developmental, Social, Personality, and Clinical Psychology. All sat through two hour-long lectures on the treatment of clinical disorders given by the same professor—one that focused on psychotherapy, the other on drugs.

Perhaps university lecturer is one of the few jobs that can't be electronically outsourced.

One group of students heard the psychotherapy-themed lecture live, and watched the drug-themed lecture on video. The other group did the opposite. Both lectures featured a PowerPoint slide presentation of the material.

Six times during each lecture, a slide popped up asking the question, "In the moment prior to this slide, were you mind-wandering?" Each student responded "yes" or "no" on a response sheet.

At the end of each lecture, another slide presented six test questions measuring how well the students learned the material. After taking the test, participants rated their interest in the lecture topic, and the degree to which they felt motivated to pay attention.

"Participants performed significantly better on the live lecture memory test," the researchers report. This was not due to inattentiveness during the video version, since the students reported roughly equal amounts of mind-wandering during the two lessons.

The live lecture inspired significantly higher levels of interest and motivation, according to the student's self-reports.

"Perhaps the most obvious and important implication of these findings," the researchers write, "is that in real-world settings where lecture material is delivered in an online format over video, students taking such courses may retain much less information than those who receive the material in a classroom with a professor."

They note that, for students watching the video lecture, "memory declined as mind-wandering increased." This was not true of the students watching the lecture live, suggesting that memory "is more sensitive to shifts in attention when the material is delivered online."

Why exactly the students were less motivated—and found the material less interesting—when they watched a lesson on video isn't clear. Perhaps, as we aficionados of live theater like to preach, there's something uniquely stimulating about being in the same room with someone who has something important to say.

In any case, if these findings are successfully replicated, they would suggest universities need to re-think how they structure courses that feature a mix of in-person and online instruction.

"We recognize that there may be benefits to online learning (material can be re-watched, students can watch at a more convenient time, etc.)," the researchers conclude. The question, they add, is "whether these benefits outweigh the costs we have reported here."

Indeed it is. Perhaps university lecturer is one of the few jobs that can't be electronically outsourced.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.