Let’s Ditch the “Hurry Up and Wait” Learning Experience

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Feb 14, 2019

In so many ways, our education system, particularly in higher ed, is too focused on making students hurry up and wait.  Hurry up and memorize these formulas. Wait until we lecture you on a laundry list of theories; after this background, maybe you will move on to the next concept. Wait until you take 2 years of general education before you get into the  courses that really interest you. It is no wonder that nearly half of our higher education students drop out–leaving a trail of unpaid student debts and a bitter taste from their experience in college.

Fixing the higher education retention problem is big, gnarly and complex.  But, improving the learning experience is a tangible step that can help students feel like they are learning today, and not just waiting.  Here are four evidence-based strategies:

Chunking. In 1956 a Harvard psychologist, George A. Miller, presented evidence that short term memory has capacity limits and that we can more easily digest new information if it is broken into bite-sized pieces and chunked into meaningful groups. This breakthrough applies greatly in a lecture setting, where research has shown that our retention diminishes after 10-15 minutes of listening to a lecture. A bullet-proof strategy is to break your session into 10-12 minute chunks–with lecture chunks interspersed with active learning strategies.

Dynamic Lecturing. The lecture gets a bad rap–mostly because it is overused in higher education courses.  But lectures can be highly effective and both students and faculty are very comfortable with the lecture construct.  There is a lot of research showing that effective lectures (in addition to being chunked) are carefully planned to focus on just a few concepts, relate these concepts to prior learning, use multi-media effectively, and provide time for both reflection and other effective learning activities. Christine Harrison at Middlesex College in New Jersey speaks and writes extensively on Dynamic Lecturing.

Peer-instruction. There is a lot of research showing that students demonstrate deeper learning when they engage in peer teaching.  Eric Masur, a physicist at Harvard, popularized a highly effective method of peer instruction, shown in this video, where you ask students a word-based question with no clear correct or incorrect answer then pair students who responded differently and ask them to explain their answers to each other.  When you resume the lecture, you can be sure the students are engaged.

Learning by doing. If you ask a room full of people how they learned the one thing they know best, I would bet that less than 10% of them will say “lecture,” but over half of them will answer “trial and error.”  Learning by doing is the process whereby people make sense of their experiences and apply them to new contexts. In a course setting, instructors promote learning by doing with such techniques as inquiry- or problem-based activities, hands-on maker activities, shark tanks, projects or hackathons.

We have a long way to go to ensure that more Americans successfully complete some form of higher education, but we can start one learning experience at a time.  Try something new this semester and another next term, and you will see students who are engaged and motivated, rather than hurrying up and waiting.

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