During Lectures, Students’ Physiological Arousal Flatlines

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Last week at the MIT Media Lab, the founders of the online-learning initiative edX convened a group of academic leaders and other online-learning experts for a daylong summit meeting titled ‘Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.’

Larry Hardesty of the MIT News Office reports that questions about  the pedagogical efficiency of lectures made up one recurrent theme:

Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard, cited a study by MIT professor of media arts and sciences Rosalind Picard and her students in which subjects were fitted with wristbands that measured skin conductance as an index of the ‘arousal associated with emotion, cognition and attention.’

Mazur presented a figure from the Picard group’s paper showing wrist-sensor readings for a single MIT student over the course of week. The sensor recorded regular, strong spikes during periods of study, lab work and homework, but the readout flatlined during two activities: attending class and watching TV.” (Read more here.)

I checked out Picard’s study myself, and the graph to which Mazur refers is indeed striking. Many daily activities—including socializing and even sleeping—generate strong physiological arousal, as shown by a sharply jagged line. The line on the graph that covers the period during class, however, looks like the EKG of a patient who’s just died: perfectly flat.

The text of Picard’s paper notes that “electrodermal activity (EDA) is a sensitive index of sympathetic nervous system activity,” and reports that in the study of the MIT student who wore the wristband for a week, “intervals of elevated EDA frequently corresponded to times when the participant was studying, doing homework, or taking an exam. This is possibly due to the increased cognitive stress associated with these activities.” (A PDF of the Picard paper, “A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity,” is here.)

It’s not surprising that the other activity that caused the student’s physiological arousal to flatline is watching television: taking in a TV show and taking in a lecture both lend themselves to passive observation rather than active engagement.

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12 Responses to “During Lectures, Students’ Physiological Arousal Flatlines”

  1. Judy Lundy says:

    Yet educational institutions persist with lectures. Is this for purely economic reasons? Certainly can’t be for pedagogical ones.

    • Helen Acosta says:

      The institutions don’t persist with lectures. Individual instructors do. I teach at a Community College in California and I haven’t given a lecture in over a decade. Mine is an activity-based classroom. I still have colleagues who lecture but the number is falling. As professors read, we learn, just as everyone else does. Change comes to our classrooms as we learn about and implement the changes.

  2. Andrea McKay says:

    What strategies can transform a passive lecture into a brain-stimulating event?

    • Helen Acosta says:

      There are so many different ways to create an active-learning classroom. I use simulations, embodied experiences, problem solving activities, competitions, loads of learning games and many more. For some great free learning games do a web search on “thiagi”.

  3. Very interesting, though from my own experience I feel that I learned very well from lectures (and I also remember the content of books and TV programmes well too)… I agree that they are essentially passive but it is possible to be mentally engaged nevertheless. I genuinely can’t remember a single thing that I learned during homework activities. Perhaps the effectiveness of these forms of learning depends a lot on the individual.

  4. Stephanie Franks says:

    @Judy- I don’t think it has as much to do with economics as it does with the need for a quick dissemination of content. Professors often have to cover a great deal of content in a limited time. While I don’t think that lecture should be the only teaching strategy incorporated, I do believe that there is a place for lectures within educational institutions, especially at the collegiate level. I agree with John. Being auditory, I love a good lecture and often find myself listening to lectures on iTunes U to expand my depth of knowledge. I think what the professor does with the lecture is essential, as well as what the learner views as the purpose of the lecture is. Lectures don’t have to be passive. Here’s a good read on passive learning for the same author a year ago… http://ideas.time.com/2012/02/29/couch-potatoes-rejoice-learning-can-be-passive/?xid=huffpo-direct

  5. Stephanie Franks says:

    @Judy- I don’t think it has as much to do with economics as it does with the need for a quick dissemination of content. Professors often have to cover a great deal of content in a limited time. While I don’t think that lecture should be the only teaching strategy incorporated, I do believe that there is a place for lectures within educational institutions, especially at the collegiate level. I agree with John. Being auditory, I love a good lecture and often find myself listening to lectures on iTunes U to expand my depth of knowledge. I think what the professor does with the lecture is essential, as well as what the learner views as the purpose of the lecture is. Lectures don’t have to be passive. Here’s a good read on passive learning from the same author a year ago… http://ideas.time.com/2012/02/29/couch-potatoes-rejoice-learning-can-be-passive/?xid=huffpo-direct

  6. Kevin Doyle says:

    Maybe they need to assess their lecturing technique at MIT. I studied psychology at NUIG Galway, Ireland, and found most if not all the lectures very engaging and worthwhile.

  7. Robert Watts says:

    I’ve been reading about Mazur and I’ve read some of his published articles on student engagement and group work. Very helpful.

    Institutions and teachers persist with lectures because designing engaging activities and class exercises requires a major shift in focus …

    I teach English, and I try to conduct highly engaging discussions where I call on almost everyone. Students report liking my class discussions. Even so, I’m starting to feel that even discussions fail to get students as actively engaged.

    Recently I did an activity in class where instead of having the terms and concepts presented by me on a projector, I told the students to open their laptops and google the relevant terms. I then had them meet in groups and a member of the group had to send an email to me with the definitions of all the terms.

    I noticed a definite shift in the level of engagement. In the groups, they were talking and discussing and debating. Bottom line: the discussion we had after all this was incredibly lively. I didn’t have to draw them out at all. Their minds were already fired up … and so they put forth great answers to the terms I wanted them to define.

    So for the future: I’m going to look for more times when I can simply say, “google X” and write out what it means and be prepared to discuss with a group and then with the class.

    But this definitely takes a shift in thinking and some trial in error. Some activities seem so simple that at first a lecturer wouldn’t believe they would be helpful. But basically any writing, predicting, researching they do in class turns on their brains far more than the best lecture.

  8. Julie says:

    You can also learn more about the methods Mazur and his team (including myself) use to engage students on our blog – blog.peerinstruction.net

  9. Michael Medlock says:

    Maybe it says more about the quality of lecturers rather than the efficacy of lectures.

  10. meredith wodrich says:

    My master’s degree is in experiential education. Without a doubt this study makes sense to me. It is not that difficult to convert a lecture into an engaging discussion. And it is not that difficult to create a learning experience that offers some hands on components for multi-sensory stimulation and learning. This study reminds me of the excessive propensity this culture has to diagnose children with ADD/ADHD.

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