During Lectures, Students’ Physiological Arousal Flatlines
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.