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Op-Ed: Students Don't Learn From Lectures


The scene is indelibly imprinted on anyone who's been to college: row after row of students gazing down as a professor or a TA drones on about chemical bonds or the Byzantine Empire. The long lectures widely accepted as an economical and effective way to educate large groups of students. But in a piece for Time magazine, Salman Khan argues that even the most brilliant speaker and the most compelling subject won't hold students' attention for more than 18 minutes. So call and tell us about the lecture you remember best. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Salman Khan is founder of the Khan Academy, author of "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined," and joins us now from a studio in Stanford, California. Nice to have you with us today.

SALMAN KHAN: Great to be here.

CONAN: And what is it that makes those lectures so boring?


KHAN: Well, I think all of us could answer that in a very anecdotal way. But, you know what I think a lot of people don't realize is that there's actually been research in the space to study the lecture, and it's pretty decisive. It's never been really contradicted that people can pay attention for about 10 to 18 minutes. Afterwards, they start zoning out, then they can kind of recheck-in for about 10 minutes, then they zone out for an even longer period of time and that keeps going on.

And studies have shown that when you do lecture at someone, that you actually retain some of the early information. You retain very little of the latter information. And just as you described, a lot of the reason why we do it this way is really logistics. Logistics come from - coming from a reality where we didn't have any other technologies to deliver the information. So we - for the most part in colleges and K-12 around the world, we still have a bunch of students sitting there for 60 to 90 minutes being lectured at.

CONAN: Well, that vacillating attention span you're talking about, you can miss out on entire pharaonic dynasties.


KHAN: No. No, that's exactly right. And, you know, there - it hasn't gone completely unrecognized. There have been attempts to address this issue. You know, I talk about this in the book, that there have been professors that tried to do these change-ups, try to ask questions, try to do little group things every 10 or 15 minutes to address this issue. But what I point out is that that's a bit of a halfway fix. What we really should think is, well, is this class time? This time that all these human beings get together is lecture even the best use of that?

CONAN: Well, you got to convey a certain amount of information to in - certainly, in the case of college introduction courses, a whole bunch of people at the same time.

KHAN: That's right. And 200 years ago, I probably couldn't have come up with a better way of doing that. But now, we have very on-demand ways to access media, obviously, things like YouTube, obviously, things like Khan Academy, what I work on. But there's other efforts. There's edX at MIT and Harvard doing where - and a lot of med schools have actually been doing this for a little while where students are getting the information delivery, the lecture at their own time and pace.

And there are benefits to that because you can pause. If there's a word you don't understand, you can look it up on the Internet. You can go ask a friend. If you forgot a little bit of your view material from a couple of years ago, no need to be embarrassed and raise your hand in the middle of class and stop everyone's learning. You can go review that material, and you don't have to take notes because it's always there. And then when you go to class time, you can use that for something more valuable like a conversation or a project or some type of peer-to-peer learning.

CONAN: But isn't it also the student's responsibility to absorb some of this knowledge?

KHAN: It is. It is. And it's always going to be the student's responsibility. In fact, I think that's the whole point of why I - that's why I think lecture misses because at the end of the day, learning is something that the student has to decide to do. And, you know, at the university level, especially, I've always said, you know, it'd be interesting to just administer a final exam two days before students thought that they were going to get the final exam and see what the delta is.

And you'll see that very little of the learning, or at least as measured by the final exam, occurs in the first, you know, 90 percent of the class. It's really the last two, three days before the exams, students are cramming and teaching each other. And that's what really, at least, moving the dial on their exams.

CONAN: I wonder, you said - and you don't have to take notes if you can have electronic copies of the lectures, digital copies you can go back and refer to. Doesn't the act of taking notes help you learn?

KHAN: The act of doing anything does help you learn. Fundamentally, if you are passive in anything, you're probably not that engaged. And I think a lot of students do take notes literally just to stay awake, literally to be engaged. A lot of students, they don't, you know, they don't use their notes later on. It's just really to somewhat stay engaged. But that's the whole point. If we want students to stay engaged, going through this exercise of taking notes while listening to a lecture, and oftentimes not being able to listen because they're taking notes, let's just make it more active.

Instead of doing this change-ups every 10 or 15 minutes, let's make the whole classroom change up. Let's make the whole classroom - students teaching each other, students having a conversation with each other. The one thing I point out a lot in the book is, you know, we talk about this human experience of education. But when students are sitting in a classroom and there's someone lecturing at them, maybe they're taking notes, you're in room with 30, maybe 300 other people of a college level, that's a very dehumanizing experience.

I've sat in classes for the whole semester and I didn't know 98 percent of those people. I didn't know their names. What we're really advocating - and we're starting to see in a lot of schools and universities is - well, let's have those 300 people interact with each other. Instead of having a study group just the last three days before the exam, why don't we have it for the whole semester?

CONAN: A study group of 300 - that's not a class, it's a potential riot.


KHAN: No, no, that's right. And I think that's where technology comes in again. You know, one, it can help deliver some of the information that lecturers used to do, but now you can also coordinate. You can see where every students are and kind of their skill levels. You can pair them up. You can give diagnostics to the teacher.

And you know, the whole point of, you know, some people say, well, students might not listen to lecturers if it's happening at home and, you know, before they had the homework that could have been checked. And what I point out -and most people agree with this - is that the homework or the problem solving is where the learning is happening. And so if students are going to check out one of the two things, I would say make sure it's not the problem solving.

CONAN: Going back to your days as a student, though, are there lectures that you remember particularly vividly?

KHAN: The - I talk a lot in the book, and you know, my own experience in undergrad, I talk about. I was a bit of a chronic class skipper, and that I think - well, sometimes out of laziness, but for the most part it was just out of finding the most productive use of my time. And I discovered there was this whole world - this was at MIT - of people who just never went to class and just would use that time to do problem solving instead.

And so for the most part, the ones were memorable were the ones where there was a shared experience. And - you know, there were some great orators, some great lecturers, some - that were inspiring, but it was good for moments. But it wasn't great when you were trying to dig deep into something, when you might be a little bit lost and you want to catch up when the class is going at a pace - you might be a little bit bored. You might know the material already.

I think the shared experience of a lecture is great for inspirational things. It's great for things that aren't super deep in terms of kind of the substantive nature. I think those type of things can happen on demand at your own pace. And then class time is all about problem solving.

CONAN: We're talking with Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a nonprofit that creates online educational videos. He's the author of "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined." We want to hear today from you about the college lecture you vividly remember: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Benjamin's on the line with us from Fort Wayne.

BENJAMIN: Hi there.


BENJAMIN: So what I remember out of all the lectures that I've had in college is from my sociology class. Robert Petit(ph), he's a great sociology teacher. He was using visuals along with his speech. And he was teaching us about socially constructed realities. And basically he was petting an invisible cat on his desk.


BENJAMIN: And was saying, you know, if you - if we all believe there was a cat here, then therefore it does exist. And it was really interesting. And so I found that incorporating visuals with, you know, speaking made it easier to remember, more likely to remember.

CONAN: Clearly, you remember that one. How long ago was that?

BENJAMIN: That was - I would say two years ago.

CONAN: Oh, so that's not all that long ago.

BENJAMIN: No, not at all.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for your phone call. Appreciate it.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

CONAN: So even some simple devices acting out and some visuals, Salman Khan, can help someone.

KHAN: And, you know, it sounds like that was a great instructor, a great lecturer. But what I would say is that actually he should share those skills - and it sounds like he was humorous and all the rest - I mean that instructor should make videos, put them online, his students can access them. And then when they go to class, they can actually have that debate about whether if everyone believes the cat is there, whether it really is there.

CONAN: Let's see if we go to James. And James is with us from Montrose in Colorado.

JAMES: Hi, Neal.


JAMES: Yeah. I just wanted to share my - really my most memorable, and this little instance was the only memory that I have of the entire semester in this class.


JAMES: Physical geography, where my professor was teaching for the first time in America from China. And nobody could understand a word she said until she made one comment about how she recently arrived in America and a friend called her from China. And she's, you know, trying to describe the Earth's rotation around the sun and how days and nights are different on different sides of the planet. Her friend says, hi, how are you doing? And she said, well, how the hell do you think I'm doing? It's 3:00 in the morning. I'm sleeping.


JAMES: That was the only bit that me and probably 175 other students caught for three-and-a-half-plus months.

CONAN: How did you do on the course?

JAMES: You know, that was about 12 and half years ago. I want to say I did pretty well. I enjoyed the class. But you know, honestly, I can' remember a lick of it.

CONAN: And I guess, Salman Khan - thanks very much for the call, James - that makes your point.

KHAN: Yeah, that's exactly - I mean, you know, most of us can't remember actually the courses we took, and I'm not that far out of college, but much less the actual content of a lot of it. And even when you were there, you know, running up to the final exam is - this is why there are so many students cramming, is that they've learned very little. They've gone through the motions. They feel like they're paying tuition. It's part of the, I guess, the ceremony of going to college, of showing up at these lectures because that seems to be what everyone else is doing. But I've actually found that the students that are most productive are the ones that use that time to go do something else.

CONAN: An email from Alan in Augusta, Georgia: Of thousands of lectures I've enjoyed, the best is no doubt Jack Pettigrew's "Love is a Plastic State." I heard this as a student in his neurophysiology class in Caltech in 1975, but he delivered it elsewhere as well. The point was to discuss neuronal plasticity, how our brains change. And he illustrated it with numerous anecdotes, including how his brother-in-law lost his fear of a deadly snake while high. Jack really illuminated the subject, the impact of evolution on brain states.

We're talking with Salman Khan about lectures and re-imagining them. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Richard, and Richard is with us from Sioux City in Iowa.

RICHARD: Hi. Hello, everybody. Nice program.

CONAN: Thank you.

RICHARD: Thanks for having me on. I teach mindfulness, and I was in a mindfulness course at University of Missouri quite a few years ago, a graduate-level course. And the first lecture about mindfulness was - actually started with eating a raisin and where we - the raisins were passed out. And the idea is we're going to focus our attention on all of the sensuous aspects of the raisin before we even taste it, before we put it in our mouth. And mindfulness, as you may know, is, of course, the entire process of controlling your attentional awareness. And the intent of mindfulness is that we train our minds so that they don't drift away or drift forward or drift back, and we you have more disciplined thinking processes.

CONAN: And did it worked after 18 minutes or so with the raisin?


RICHARD: Yeah. I'd say with that course it really did, because it was an eight-week course, and it absolutely - it absolutely helps to discipline - again, your attentional awareness. Where is your attention at this very moment? Is it where it should be or not? And as a person who now prepares and teaches those programs for a couple of schools, I can tell you it does work. And it may be something that'd be of interest or that your guest may already be - of which they may already be aware.

CONAN: Salman Khan, are you aware of mindfulness?

KHAN: Yeah. Well, I think that example is - you know, the reason why it was so memorable is because the students were doing something. They were observing the raisin. They were given an activity to do. They weren't just being lectured at. And what I'm saying is that, you know, a lecture's invaluable. People have given some examples of some very memorable lectures they had. It's just that, is that the best use of when humans get together?

A lot of these very entertaining, very inspiring lectures, they, you know, I'm coming here as someone who has made 3,000 lectures on YouTube. So I'm not saying that they're not valuable. I'm just saying that they could maybe be best used off - when we're not in a classroom. In a classroom you should do things like that, you know, expose people to new experiences, make them think about it, have a two-way conversation.

RICHARD: I agree because in teaching mindfulness, I do have a didactic and then an experiential portion. And during the didactic portions, I do try to limit it to 12 minutes or so because I know what happens, and people don't pay attention. So...

CONAN: Interesting. Thanks very much for the call, Richard.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: But the - that amount of time, is that - is timespan, that ability to focus for 10 to 18 minutes, does that cover other aspects of interaction as well?

KHAN: You know, I haven't seen studies on that, but I would believe that that's probably the case. You know, even in our organization, we're not-for-profit but, you know, there's 36 people who work with me - we kind of, you know, we eat our own dog food. We say, look, if we ever have a meeting, no one should be talking for more than three minutes. If you're talking for more than three minutes, it's a lecture, make a video. We'll watch it at our own time and pace.


KHAN: And people can ask you questions when we get together.

CONAN: So you have to do that as well. Then the space of these interactive meetings, presumably people can concentrate a little longer.

KHAN: Yeah. Well, humans can have - we've all had hours-long conversations and enjoyed ourselves, and that's exactly where we learned a lot. A lot of what we learn from is from conversations with other people. And that obviously can go on well beyond to 10 minutes or even an hour because you were actively engaged. Your brain is actively processing and thinking of new things.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Jennifer. Jennifer is on the line with us from Orange County.


CONAN: Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Hi. So I had a disability and society class that - actually, it was a psychology class - in undergrad, and I really remember very little from undergraduate school. But there was a guest speaker who had cerebral palsy, and it was my first experience really hearing from a person who had cerebral palsy. Before that, my - I had no idea that their brains functioned exactly the same way that a normal person functions. It was just their muscles and their bodies just didn't work the same, and they weren't able communicate the same way.

And being in that room, there was probably over 200 people in that lecture. And - but the professor did such an amazing job of bringing people in and engaging the class and changing perspectives. And it was just - and then she - another thing that she did is she had us, in the midst of our lecture, walk around campus and picture ourselves in a wheelchair, and then come back to the room and talk about what that might have been like if we actually were in a wheelchair and how we would've gotten around.

CONAN: So experiencing something as well as just being lectured to. Jennifer, thanks very much for your time.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: One last email. This from Janice in Scottsdale: A professor of philosophy at Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York was assigned the day's world studies lecture to our sophomore class, approximately 100 students. The topic was Zen Buddhism. He went up to the podium and stood there in complete and utter silence, looking at us for 50 minutes.

Salman Khan, thanks very much for your time today too.

KHAN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.