Op-ed: The bias of lectures

Why colleges need to incorporate 'active learning' in courses

The college lecture format is biased against minority, low-income, and female students, Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist who covers the science of learning, claims in a New York Times op-ed.

"The notion may seem absurd on its face," she writes. "Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others."

When compared against active learning, the bias is visible, Murphy Paul says. Studies show that students overall benefit from active learning, but first-generation and low-income students, minorities, and women benefit the most.

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One possible reason is that minorities and low-income students are less likely than their wealthy peers to arrive on campus with significant background knowledge. This group is more likely to have attended weaker high schools and lacked access to extracurriculars, and research shows that humans learn by attaching new material to current knowledge, Paul says.

"The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear," she says.

A study of a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill introductory biology course found that students in the active learning version were more likely to spend more time studying and to complete readings than their peers in a lecture format class. The achievement gap in the active learning section was also half that of the lecture's. Additionally, first-generation students performed better in the active learning class than their counterparts in the lecture section.

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Another similar study found the achievement gap between rich and poor students at the University of Texas at Austin was 50% smaller in an active-learning introductory psychology course compared with the traditional lecture format of the class.

The "high-pressure atmosphere" of a lecture class may dissuade these minority students from volunteering to answer questions, Paul writes.

A 2014 study found that although women comprised 60% of introductory biology classes, they accounted for less than 40% of the students who answered instructors' questions.

"Given that active-learning approaches benefit all students, but especially those who are female, minority, low-income and first-generation, shouldn't all universities be teaching this way?" she concludes (Paul, New York Times, 9/12).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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