What Do We Actually Learn From TED Talks?

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Many of us have enjoyed watching TED talks, the online videos of scientists, artists, inventors and others talking about their work. But do we actually learn anything from them? That’s the question raised by a new study led by professor Shana K. Carpenter of Iowa State University and published this month in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Carpenter and her colleagues showed study participants one of two short videos of an instructor explaining a scientific concept (in this case, the genetics of the calico cat). In the “fluent” video, the instructor stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes. In the “disfluent” video, the instructor slumped, looked away, and spoke haltingly while referring to notes. After watching one of the videos, participants were asked to predict how much of the content they would later be able to recall, and then were tested on the content.

Participants who watched the fluent video thought they would remember much more information than participants who watched the disfluent video—but actually both groups remembered about the same amount.

TED talkers are nothing if not fluent. Could it be that the effective presentation of the speakers in TED-style videos fools us into thinking we’re learning more than we are? As someone who watches TED videos often, and who has given a TED talk herself, I’m biased. But I think there are good reasons to believe that these videos can be vehicles for genuine learning. Here, five ways that  well-made videos (including MOOCs and other kinds of digital instruction) can help us learn:

• They gratify our preference for visual learning. Effective presentations treat our visual sense as being integral to learning. This elevation of the image—and the eschewal of text-heavy Power Point presentations—comports well with cognitive scientists’ findings that we understand and remember pictures much better than mere words.

• They engage the power of social learning. The robust conversation that videos can inspire, both online and off, recognizes a central principle of adult education: We learn best from other people. In the discussions, debates, and occasional arguments about the content of the talks they see, video-watchers are deepening their own knowledge and understanding.

• They put practitioners in the role of teachers. We take in knowledge most readily, not when it’s presented in the abstract, but when it’s embedded in a rich context of stories and experiences. TED’s speakers are effective teachers because most of the time, they don’t teach; they do.

• They enable self-directed, “just-in-time” learning. Because video viewers choose which talks to watch and when to watch them, they’re able to tailor their education to their own needs. Knowledge is easiest to absorb at the moment when we’re ready to apply it.

• They encourage viewers to build on what they already know. Adults are not blank slates: They bring to learning a lifetime of previously acquired information and experience. Effective video instruction build on top of this knowledge, adding and elaborating without dumbing down.

It’s become fashionable to mock the distinctive style of TED videos; their success makes them a tempting target. But in a world in which we want—and need—to be learning all the time, they’re excellent arrows to have in our quiver. (An abstract and link to the Carpenter article can be found here.)

What do you think? Have you learned from a TED talk or other online instructional video?

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20 Responses to “What Do We Actually Learn From TED Talks?”

  1. Julia Zhou says:

    It’s funny, I was talking about this exact topic over brunch this weekend with my friend who is a PhD student at NYU. She was saying that TED Talks have set this expectation for teachers to be entertainers as well as educators. It’s not enough to merely have a mastery of your topic; now you’re expected to put on a performance when you teach.

    Rather than the student and the teacher making a joint effort to engage with (often difficult) content — the student by making an effort to learn and the teacher by presenting the material well — now the burden has shifted entirely towards the teacher. If the teacher isn’t as riveting as a TED Talk, then the student can’t be faulted for not paying attention.

  2. Ruth Greenwood says:

    This finding seems related to the work on difficult-to-read fonts and their unexpectedly positive impact of learning (see http://web.princeton.edu/sites/opplab/papers/diemand-yauman_oppenheimer_2010.pdf). We so wish that the medicine that tastes good would be more effective, but perhaps we attend better when we are struggling to ingest something. TED Talks (which I too love) go down easily but perhaps “How MUCH did you learn from that TED Talk” is the wrong question, asking about quantity. Each TED Talk powerfully makes a single point and, often, that point is motivational, rather than informational–more a call to action than a lesson, more sermon than Bible class. Learning facts is secondary to “getting it.” And we have internalized this medium to the extent that any TED-like presentation is viewed (I believe) differently than a recorded lesson. We get the point but may not retain enough facts to deliver the same lesson ourselves; we’re not asking, tacitly or aloud, “Will this be on the test?” But perhaps this will change as educators learn to be compelling on video and we no longer associate learning with dry delivery…perhaps Edison’s 1913 prediction of educational delivery solely via moving pictures may come to pass: “We have been working for some time on the school pictures. We have been studying and reproducing the life of the fly, mosquito, silk weaving moth, brown moth, gypsy moth, butterflies, scale and various other insects, as well as chemical chrystallization. It proves conclusively the worth of motion pictures in chemistry, physics and other branches of study, making the scientific truths, difficult to understand from text books, plain and clear to children.”

  3. Jay says:

    I have to watch TED talks few times before I can say I learned anything. Often it is hard since TED Talks are big into story telling which makes the presentation very entertaining but then you are not sure now much information did you actually get. You feel like you went to a Chinese restaurant, ate a good meal and are still hungry.

  4. John says:

    Why would anyone expect to have learned anything just from sitting and listening to a talk? The learning comes when you act on the information and reflect on your actions. People that rely on their perceptions of themselves, (ie, what they think they learned) instead of testing themselves with actions are not going to be successful. That has nothing to do with the savoir faire of the speaker; that is on you.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    The real learning doesn’t happen until you try and apply something you took away from a TED Talk, reflected in it, and internalized the experience. Think high school or college classes where you had both lecture and lab sessions. TED Talks give us the lecture component; life gives us the lab.

    Until then, talks just raise awareness, expose ideas, and illustrate concepts … all of which are necessary, but insufficient to be considered “learning.”

    • Judy says:

      I’m with Annie, Tyler. The point is not recall of the information after watching a fabulous vs. lame video by yourself. The point is that the fabulous video inspires you to talk about it, share, apply, learn more. The fabulous video is contagious.

      I’m fine with raising kids’ expectations for lectures. My daughter’s high school friends watch a TED talk and discuss it — with more energy than most of the discussions their teachers lead. One of her friends calls Ted Talks “brain porn”.

      But thank to Tyler’s comment, I will now laugh. at. every. misplaced. pause.

  6. Do we learn anything from TED Talks?

    I would say that’s a big affirmative, though it comes down to the individual because if you have an open mind and a growth mindset you will, and if you have a closed mind and a fixed mindset, you won’t.
    If someone is saying they aren’t learning anything from TED Talks and other sources, it reveals more about the person than the material presented, because there are learning opportunities wherever you look.

  7. anniempaul says:

    This response was submitted to me via email by reader John Bennett:

    Do we learn from TED talks —or any source of information / instruction? Of course we do—a little for sure; maybe very little (“I remember having seen that video once because it was homework; but I wasn’t at all interested in the subject, did it because it was required, and will watch it again if it’s going to be on the test.”).
    But if we’re motivated to “consider” the material as an opportunity to learn effectively (“consider” being used by me to go well beyond watching / reading / listening to investigate broadly related sources using effective learning skills including critical thinking to understand a topic – to develop a vision of it that can be used to address important situations), then we can learn a great deal AND can apply it to useful outcomes.

    The keys are motivation and commitment to effective learning. We of course cannot motivate students or “give” them the material and procedures to achieve the learning. We can provide an environment that is conducive to their increased motivation and we can facilitate the development of effective learning skills and effective problem solving skills as well as opportunities for their practice and refinement. As with the example of the student doing the minimum effort “required” noted above, I don’t believe anyone can teach anyone not wishing to learn.

    Bottom line: Whether it’s TEDEd talks, MOOCs, or whatever, they can lead to effective learning—emphasis correctly on “can.” But I strongly believe that defining questions for PBL efforts are much more likely to generate motivation. And, while video presentations such as TEDEd or MOOCs can at this point be one of many options for discovery of needed information, the students will do even better finding the information (more, richer) if they are not “assigned” to use of the videos. Absolutely, the videos should never be represented as being either the authority or complete representation.

  8. And yet, with all this emphasis on the visual, actual research shows that students learn just as well — and often better — from lecture on prepared material as they do on visual, PBL.

  9. Mark says:

    I do learn from watching TED Talks, but the questions are:
    1. How much do I learn?
    2. What did I learn?
    3. How important are the things that I learn?
    4. How related are the things I learn from the topic itself?

    1. How much do I learn?
    This is hard to quantify. From what I “feel” I didn’t learn that much but I’ve learned a lot. How so? The question is quite subjective because you also have to ask how many did I watch? If I just watch 2 or 3 talks, then it’s understandable that I didn’t learn much. But out of these 2 or 3 talks, I have learned from all of them. So I would say I learned a lot as well.

    2. What did I learn?
    I learn something about science, humanities, arts, numbers, people, public speaking, and etc. That’s a lot but not too dense. But those that I have learned improves what I lack and what I don’t know.

    3. How important are the things that I learn?
    I don’t know. Maybe some will be useful in the future but I’m sure some will remain dormant. Hopefully I will be able to recall them after a month (which most of the time I won’t, unless I see the video again or an event similar to it triggering my memory to recall). Depending on how the speaker presents his talk, then that would be the time I would realize the importance of his talk: for example the talk about how doctors manipulate drug studies and how to provide purified water for everyone.

    4. How related are the things I learn from the topic itself?
    That’s hard to answer. From what I know I’ve learned things about the talk itself. But I can’t deny that I’ve learned something beyond the topic as well: the speaker, the way he presents himself, his background, the tone of the talk.

    We do learn from TED talks. But maybe the more precise question is: Are we able to recall all the important points in the talk itself? But do we have to?

    Are TED talks supposed to teach us just scientific talks? Or is it supposed to spark ideas?

  10. Matt says:

    Hi Annie, I enjoyed reading your post.
    I guess how much we learn about the topic will be different from person to person. The great thing about TED talks is that we can watch them over again, something we can’t always do with other presentations.
    We can also learn a lot about how to deliver a presentation and that effective presenters don’t rely on reading a large PowerPoint deck or notes, they just really know their stuff. As well as this they also show us that you can say a lot in a short amount of time (15-20mins).

  11. Jann says:

    Loved the way you stand up for the visual learner! I think TED Talks haven’t so much taught me as influenced my thinking. I don’t come away with a basket full of rote facts, but with something I value more, a way to reflect on other people’s perspectives. Thanks for the post Annie!

  12. Tyler says:

    I’m in favor of video help in learning something. Computer graphics of complex, abstract concepts are really helpful.

    I’m all for making fun of TED talks. I can’t bear watching them anymore. Every speaker(non-entertainers)talks the same way, same timing. Those pauses kill me. It’s not a dramatic pause if you do it after. every. word. The videos on their site are edited to death too. If I could stand watching them any more, I’d say they are good for a brief introduction to some new concept.

  13. The current issue of Harvard Business Review has a really interesting article by Chris Anderson, the Curator of the TED talks. It’s called “How to Give a Killer Presentation.” It has some good information about what makes for an engaging presentation–anyone who likes TED talks will find it interesting:

    In my experience with instructional design, video can be a great tool. I often use it early in programs, as it’s a great way to get people engaged. If I’m trying to design a program to teach people about public speaking or executive presence, for example, I’ll often use short video clips–including several from TED–and have people weigh in on what they like and what, if anything, could be better in terms of the subject we’re going to be working on. Often this helps people get talking and realize that they are already do know something on the subject, which is a nice way to build confidence and get people interacting without much initial pressure on mastering a new skill.

  14. Ali B says:

    I do a writing club with a group of kids, grades 5-7. We often start by reading/watching/listening to something, then we do a prompt related to it. One of their favorite things is when we watch a TED talk. They literally beg for TED talks, and they cheer when they hear the opening song.

    As just a few examples, we watched Andrew Stanton’s “Clues to a Great Story” (minus the opening joke!), then gave them the ending line of a story and had them work backwards to fill in the rest. We watched Elizabeth Gilbert on the idea of creative genius, then did a series of activities related to helping them find ideas and then develop the inspiration into a concrete draft with a beginning, middle, and end. We watched Tyler DeWitt’s TEDX talk on storytelling in science and had them write a story about a scientific concept, using metaphor and narrative arc. One student, for example, wrote about states of matter from the perspective of an ice cube melting, then heating. Another student wrote about a solar eclipse in which the earth, the moon, and the sun were students having a hallway interaction.

    In each of these cases, the TED talk was a terrific jumping-off point for discussion, then taking something that they already knew how to do (a simple scientific idea, telling a funny story, having a good idea pop into their head) and going deeper with it, making it more innovative and fresh and exciting. I think the TED Talks helped make the ideas they already had more meaningful, more deep.

    More than that, I think the TED talks reminded them how interesting the world can be, how many ideas are buzzing around the world at all times, and how they can reach out and grab some of these ideas and take them to new places. In the end, I think perhaps that’s what TED talks do for us all.

  15. Karen Melaas says:

    I like TED talks. I try to watch one each morning to help me get motivated for a good day. Some of the presenters have done pretty significant work, and I find that the TED talks that most affect me are the ones that motivate me to take action, not the ones that encourage me to simply watch another TED talk. While TED talks are good at getting me to respond emotionally, I have to depend on myself to take action.

  16. Phi says:

    TED is one of the most valuable websites out there. The TED website has many kinds of videos that inspire me and broaden my knowledge. Moreover, TED is my technique for learning English. With its subtitle function, which can be switched on or off as I wish, I can practice my listening and build up my vocabulary.

  17. Mark Brady says:

    Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk profoundly changed my life. It made me go read her book. And watch her four Oprah Interviews. And confirmed a deep suspicion I’ve harbored for awhile: “I shouldn’t believe what I think when it hurts if no Cougar has my leg.”


    The language brain is a bully; and when it begins having all kinds of evaluative things to say to me and about me, it activates a threat response which actually turns out to have an adverse effect on my physical and mental well-being.

  18. Everything you listed above is true about TED. However, TED learning videos for me are more about sparking an idea and getting people to think adjacently about that idea. It helps even more if the speakers present said idea in a compelling and interesting way, unlike those presented in a normal classroom setting.

    One of my favorite TED talks is from Amanda Palmer. She’s a professional musician but has found an innovative way to profit from her works through crowdfunding. It’s an interesting talk that makes other musicians think of ways on how to get their due credit for the music or art they create without people simply downloading them illegally out the internet. Here’s the video, among other art-related videos, in case you haven’t seen it yet.


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