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Think of the biggest changes in the past 100 years. Troves of information once confined to a few libraries in the world are now accessible at the click of a button. Messages that would once take weeks to deliver can now reach their destinations almost instantaneously. Movies can be streamed on demand almost anywhere in the world. But you know what is almost exactly the same as it was 100 years ago? Higher education.
Over the course of this semester, this column will examine crucial challenges with higher education and propose recommendations for improvement. This first piece takes aim at low-hanging fruit — something that has been around for at least a millennium: the lecture model.
One would think that universities might experiment and innovate in their pedagogical approaches, searching for creative ways to improve student learning. Instead, the lecture model’s one-way communication from professor to student remains the norm.
Unsurprisingly, sitting 20 feet from what often feels like a poorly-performed one-person theater piece is not the best way to learn. Lectures have low retention rates and fail to cater to students’ different learning styles. One study found that undergraduates were 1.5 times more likely to fail examinations in STEM classes employing traditional lectures than in equivalent classes implementing more active learning methods.
Instead of the standard design, professors should post recordings of their lectures for students to watch at their own pace to prepare for class. Students struggling with the material or for whom English is not their first language could rewind or slow the lecture down as they please. And all students can choose to view the recordings whenever they are more alert and able to focus.
Then, in person, classes should be redesigned such that students grapple actively with the material, rather than listen passively. For instance, the professor could pre-select a different group of students each class and then engage those students in extended dialogue, probing the ideas from that week's readings. Alternatively, the professor could moderate a debate between two smaller sections of the class or have different sections present their analysis of the concepts introduced in the lecture recordings. Professors could also assign roles to students and play out mock scenarios.
There are a wealth of possibilities, and the examples above will certainly not work well for every class or subject. The point, though, is that professors should be far more creative in order to maximize the pedagogical value of a limited amount of available class time.
This alternative system — prerecorded background lectures with hands-on in-person activities — is known as a “flipped classroom,” and in the past several years, researchers have conducted hundreds of studies to determine whether a flipped classroom can outperform traditional lecture-based learning. In a meta-analysis of about 300 of these studies, scholars at Hope College found that flipped learning substantially increases students’ academic performance and engagement. On average, students in flipped classrooms gained a stronger grasp of the foundational knowledge conveyed in the course and were more likely to engage in higher-order thinking than students in lecture-based classes. In addition, flipped classrooms improved students’ confidence, interpersonal skills, and metacognitive abilities such as planning and time management relative to their static counterparts.
In short, flipped learning seems to be more successful than lecture-based learning. Courses focused on teaching specific skills — language, technology, and health science classes, for example — seem to have improved the most. But flipped learning is also used successfully in humanities, social science, and laboratory courses.
Of course, not all material lends itself to a flipped model. Sometimes, fundamental concepts or particularly complex topics might be best explained by the professor during class sessions. Mathematics and engineering, in particular, seem to be particularly difficult subjects to flip. Nevertheless, colleges must start experimenting by slowly phasing in flipped content, especially in those lecture courses that can be more easily redesigned. Otherwise, higher education will continue to leave too many benefits on the table.
Lecture-lovers will undoubtedly object that flipped classrooms cost too much and take too much time to create. However, the only real immediate costs come from producing the recordings, many of which already exist for classes that were filmed when universities transitioned online during the pandemic. These videos can be again transferred from drab pandemic learning into the flipped learning format. In addition, professors, with a smidge more creativity, can find ways to implement flipped learning, even in larger classes. It is likely true, though, that in the long run, effective flipped learning might require breaking up some of these gargantuan classes to improve their student-faculty ratio. But isn’t that a good thing?
Active learning in a class of 50 seems far better than passive listening in a 150-person auditorium. And institutions like Harvard have hefty enough endowments to invest in active, small-setting learning; if they need to hire a few more professors and a few more teaching assistants, so be it. The costs will have been worth it to improve the educational experience.
It’s finally time for higher education to start experimenting and innovating just like the rest of society. Step one: Move beyond the lecture.
Julien Berman ’26 lives in Canaday Hall. His column “Toward a Higher Higher Education” appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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