Over the last 100 years the industrialized world has seen an excess fo growth and development in nearly every instance of human life. Research and insight have led to radical changes in the way we practice business, spend our days, and interact with fellow human beings. Yet one massive component of modern life has barely changed since its conception in the 1400s: Lecture format in higher education.
Within any 60 to 90 block of time, where one are expected to sit passively without entertainment, she is likely to lose attention after the first fifteen to twenty-one minutes. Such are the findings of a 1976 study that monitored the changes in student attention over the course of a lecture. After three to five minutes were spent getting acclimated to the environment and settling down, there was only a period of ten to eighteen minutes before optimal focus was lost. Yet the lecture continues for 60 to 90 total most of which the student isn’t attentive for. The study concludes that the student may experience further moments of focus, but they come in ever decreasing length (four to five minutes) at the end of the lecture. As Salman Khan, the Internet pioneer in education behind Khan Academy, points out in a recent article he wrote for Time, ” This study… was done before the age of texting and tweeting; presumably, the attention spans of younger people today have become even shorter, or certainly more challenged by distractions.”
To explore the issue on a shorter time-scale, Khan cites a study conducted in 1985 which fact recall from a 20 minute lecture. While the common assumption might say a subject could remember most from the end of the lecture when asked questions immediately following, the study showed the opposite. For the most part, subjects had zoned out at the 15 minute mark and could only recall components from the beginning.
These findings went nowhere to shorten the length of the lecture period but passed to teachers with the suggestions to switch things up every 15 minutes in order to keep students engaged. The problem with this approach is that professors are now expected to be not only experts in their field but also entertainers for the psychological fact that concentration weens after 15 minutes. While this can cause incremental increases in concentration the larger question looms: why should any lecture be longer than 15 minutes at all?
Khan proposes, as he practices with Khan Academy, that the 15 minute lecture is ideal and completely accomplishable using the Internet as a distribution tool. Lessons on Khan Academy are broken into these five to fifteen minute segments which the student can watch at her own pace, and re-watch until the subject material is understood. This allows for a development called “flipping the classroom,” wherein the lecture can occur as homework and in-class time can be devoted to more interactive pieces of leaning—learning where focus is not lost in passivity. Khan writes for Time:
So what do we do with that class time? Here we can take inspiration from the humanities seminar, where any “information delivery” happens outside the classroom through student reading, allowing class time to be entirely devoted to teacher-moderated discussion. This also happens in many business schools, where students read a case study ahead of time and the teacher leads a conversation about the issues facing the company or executive described in the case. With engineering or science, class time can be used for students to collaboratively tackle more challenging questions or projects.
This allows for the real substance of learning to occur in an environment where peers and professors are present. When knowledge is a backdrop, things like difficult problem sets or insightful discussion come naturally—or when there is an obstacle, the professor is present to guide and reorient the students. This is a radical change for the common definition of what a classroom and lecture should be like, but with little progress since the 1400s and with all the technology available, it’s time to re-imagine education.