April 14th, 2009

Classroom Teaching Methods: Are Your Lectures Sidetracking Student Learning


Most teachers work to add interest to lecture material in an attempt to keep students engaged. If they aren’t attending, they aren’t listening, and if they aren’t listening, it’s pretty hard to imagine them learning anything from a lecture. But is there a point at which the interesting details are more arresting than the content? And if that’s so, do those kinds of details get in the way of attempts to learn and apply content?

Shannon Harp and Amy Maslich (reference below) decided to test the effects of what they call “seductive details” in a short recorded college lecture on lightning. They define seductive details precisely: “interesting, tangentially related adjuncts that are irrelevant to the lesson.” (p. 100) So, for example, in the lecture of lightning, which focused on the steps in the causal chain that result in a flash of lightning, the lecturer mentioned that lightning kills approximately 150 Americans a year. The lecture also included details that explained why swimmers are sitting ducks for lightning strikes (because water conducts electricity well) but metal planes in flight escape damage because they offer no resistance and the lightning passes right through them.
One group of subjects listened and took notes to the lecture that included seductive details like these and the other group attended a lecture with these details omitted. At the conclusion both groups were given six minutes to write down everything they could remember from the lecture. Then they tackled four problem-solving questions, sequentially, in two-minute time frames.

The researchers discovered that students who heard the lecture with the seductive details recalled significantly fewer of the main ideas and provided significantly fewer acceptable solutions than students who were not exposed to the interesting but extraneous details.

The researchers point out, “these results do not mean that college lectures should be uninteresting. Although teachers should avoid using seductive details, they should not hesitate to use interesting details such as examples that clearly support the learning objectives. Seductive details, by definition, are irrelevant in terms of supporting the intended learning objectives: they are fluff.” (p. 102)

To safeguard against interesting details that sidetrack students, the lecturer must know clearly what it is students are supposed to learn from the material. The best way to find out what students are taking from the material is to solicit feedback about what they are learning. If they are repeating the details but missing the main point, then those details are getting in the way of learning. As these researchers point out, the best source of intriguing details is the material itself. Look there first for interesting facts that will corral student attention and make their learning of what they should be learning easier.

Excerpted from Can You Make a Lecture Too Interesting? The Teaching Professor, Aug-Sept. 2005.

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