Must Lectures Be So Long? Rethinking the (Online) Class

Decorative: Student sleeping in a row of chairs in class


"Remote Learning Begs the Question: Must Lectures Be So Long?" (post) presents some engaging and effective options to "virtual courses that tr[y] to preserve the existing lecture format" -- and outlines a way of approaching such restructuring.

  • Consider "lecturing" vs "learning."
  • "[T]hin[k] of the [learning] period as a block of minutes that needs to be carefully structured to maximize the potential for student engagement."
  • Use the "time to focus on aspects of learning other than acquisition of knowledge."

1. What Lectures Do

  • Of four learning outcomes -- "acquisition of information, promotion of thought, changes in attitude, and development of behavior skills" -- lecturing generally helps primarily with the first.
  • "[S]tudents’ attention spans and memory stamina vary widely, [so] breaking the lecture into smaller increments of no longer than 20-30 minutes [is] optimal."

2. Alternatives to "Sage on the Stage/Talking Head" Lectures 

a. "[S]horter lectures support ...  knowledge transfer—while leaving time for other activities that can support educational goals."

  • A unit or less "might begin with a 'Do Now,' a brief exercise that introduces to students what they will be learning, followed by short segments that include a mix of lecture, group activity, discussion, or individual work."

b. Some Ideas from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Khan Academy, etc.

  • Shorter lectures (or lecture segments) are better -- ideally less than 10 minutes each.
  • "[O]nline 'field trips' to museums or research centers .. includ[ing] interviews with artists and scientists" (Many such virtual field trips are available free online.)
  • "[D]emonstrations that one could not experience in physical environments, such as dangerous experiments or imaging that let students virtually 'turn over' fragile artifacts" for "virtual hands-on" experiences
  • "[T]housands of museums and other institutions have made resources available for teachers to integrate into their online courses."
  • [D]idactic portions of [a] course [can be framed] as conversations between [an instructor] and a handful of graduate students, creating the impression that you were not being lectured to, but instead eavesdropping on intimate discussions."
  • "[E]xperiment with formats by simply thinking about where [you] ... point the camera, other than at [your] own face."

3. Steps to Get Started 

  • "Think of your courses as a set of units ... with each lesson broken into a set of activities organized by time."
    • Lay out the intended learning block in a grid.
    • Fill in each section with appropriate and reinforcing activities -- (spaced) mini-lectures, group work, individual problem-solving, reflection, quiz or survey, peer evaluation, online game, interactive multimedia, or other active-learning activities. 
  • "Determine how many of those activities require direct instruction versus discussion or some other form of teacher-to-student or student-to-student interaction or activity."
  • "Research the availability of instructional material (such as virtual tours or interviews with experts) that can help students accomplish learning goals that do not involve a teacher talking directly into the camera."
  • "Get creative with the format of your live or recorded lecturing."
    • "Conversations, interviews, theatricality (if you are so inclined) are all ways to get the lesson across without being yet another talking head in students’ virtual lives." 
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