Dump lectures

10 reasons to dump lectures

Donald Clark says, “I give a lot of talks at conferences but always make it clear that this no way to deliver learning. Unfortunately people are addicted to the format. Why? It’s easy just to turn up and listen. It’s a lazy format for lazy learners. Also, I’m astonished at the number of people who turn up for conferences talks and take no notes. It’s is like turning up for a tennis match with no racquet.

This brings me to the one-hour format. Conference talks, lectures in universities, periods in schools and the ‘one-hour’ of e-learning pricing model, all of these fall foul of the deep addiction to the ‘hour of learning’ delivered as a lectures”

1. Babylonian hour: we only have hours because of the Babylonian base-60 number system. It has nothing to do with the psychology of learning.

2. Passive observers: lectures turn students into passive observers. Research shows that participation increases learning, yet few lecturers do this (Brophy & Good, 1986; Fisher & Berliner, 1985; Greenwood, Delquadri, & Hall, 1984).

3. Attention fall-off: our ability to retain information falls off badly after 10-20 minutes. The simple insertion of three ‘two-minute pauses’ led to a difference of two letter grades in a short and long-term recall test (1987, Winter).

4. Note-taking: lectures rely on note taking, yet note-taking is seldom taught, massively reducing their effectiveness (Saski, Swicegood, & Carter, 1983).

5. Disabilities: even slight disabilities in listening, language or motor skills make lectures ineffective, as it is difficult to focus, discriminate and note-take quickly enough in a lecture (Hughes & Suritsky, 1994).

6. One bite at cherry: if something is not understood on first exposure there’s no opportunity to pause, reflect of get clarification. This ‘one bite of the cherry’ approach to learning is against all that we know in the psychology of learning.

7. Cognitive overload: lecturers load up talks with too much detail leading to cognitive overload. In addition they often go ‘off on one’, with tangential material.

8. Tyranny of location: you have to go to a specific place to hear a lecture. This wastes huge amounts of time.

9. Tyranny of time: you have to turn up at a specific time to hear a lecture.

10. Poor presentation: many lecturers have neither the personality nor skills to hold the audience’s attention.

‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book’ Samuel Johnson

I am an unabashed fan of Donald. This is one of my favorites from his Plan B blog

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The Learning Habit

Another gem from Donald Clark

Habitual Learning

7 habits of highly effective learners

1. Stick with a new habit until it takes root. Habits fall away unless stuck to for some time and with some vigour.

2. Always take something to read or listen. Autonomous learners always have something in their pocket or bag in what Marc Auge calls Non-Places – trains, airports, planes, automobiles, hotel rooms etc.

3. Take notes. The best way to ensure that knowledge sticks is to write it up in your own words. Studies show between 20-30% increase in recall when you take notes.

4. Habitually encode. Habitual learners simplify and structure the stuff they want to remember in the right order.

5. Replay and recall. Effective learners voluntarily recall what they’ve learnt at intervals after the event. Recall that talk on the way home from the conference, recall your holiday on the plane back.

6. Customise habit forming feeds. Customise your home page to encourage your bountiful learning habits.

7. Kick-start new learning habits. Blog, subscribe to a new magazine, feeds from new sources, use a new tool on web – good learners are always adding learning habits to their repertoire.

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Plan B on Timing

Donald Clark is a brilliant, acerbic, contrarian, feisty, hilarious Scotsman who founded the UK’s largest eLearning firm, sold it, and retired to ruffle people’s feathers and hurl witticisms into the blogosphere. On his Plan B blog, Donald tells it like it is. He makes me laugh and learn.


1. Agricultural timetable
Schools, colleges and universities work to a pre-industrial, agricultural calendar, resulting in one long summer holiday (period of forgetting) and several other long holidays, all suited to the needs of (harvest and fruit-picking) and now timetabled holidays for teachers. Most educational buildings are therefore empty most of the time.

2. Hour of learning
One hour lectures and e-learning bought by ‘hour of learning’ metric. Yet there’s nothing in the psychology of learning that says this is right. We have hours simply because they’re easy to timetable. Even worse, consider the fact that we only have hours because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system. It’s a pathetic learning period.

3. Fixed length courses
In my kids’ school we have fluent, first-language French and Spanish speakers in French and Spanish GCSE courses for years on end! Many courses are too long, some too short, and of you want to go into further education in October, you’ll have to wait for nearly a year to start your course.

4. Tyranny of timed talk
Timetabled talks – lectures – are the mainstay of higher education. But having to sit and listen to someone (ofte a poor presenter) talk at you (for an hour) is hard going and educationally inefficient. The ‘chalk and talk’ model has being going on for so long that we’ve simply forgotten that it doesn’t wash.

5. No recording and distribution
Preventing learners from access to learning content when they want is criminal. Why don’t we record lectures to be reviewed when students want, and to allow them to stop, rewind, reflect, take notes etc? Novelists, journalists, movie makers, bloggers, wiki contributors and almost everyone else on the planet distribute material to be available to audiences – all, apart from learning professionals!

6. Course vacation
The timing of courses is often dislocated from the opportunity to put what you’ve learnt into practice. Induction courses that start weeks after you’ve joined, IT courses long before the software is available and so on. The time of a course is often not immediately before its practical application, introducing a period of forgetting or skills decay.

7. No spaced practice
The ‘sheep-dip’ experience, is standard in the vast majority of courses. It completely ignores the need for spaced-practice over time, denying reinforcement and retention. To be blunt – it simply means we forget most of what is taught on courses.

8. Attention and learning
Psychological attention is a necessary condition for most meaningful learning. By tying learning to specific times it is unlikely to be congruent with periods of optimal attention. Chinese schoolchildren have a nap after lunch to combat this problem. We heavily timetable ineffective, post-prandial periods of learning.

9. Time to attend
Courses and lectures demand ‘attendance’, thus wasting huge amounts of time, money and effort in just getting there. A ridiculous amount of time and money is spent on simply getting to the starting point and getting back – this can be up to 50% of a give training budget.

10. Time wasted
Within a course, people are always dropping out, cognitively. Classroom studies in the UK and US show that children spend as much as 50-60% just waiting on things to happen in fixed timetabled classrooms. Actual cognitive engagement and efficient learning, in classrooms, conferences and lecture halls, is surprisingly low.

In lectures, no one can hear you dream Studies suggest that learners attention, after a 2-3 minute settling down period at the very start, can be held for about 15-20 minutes Johnstone and Percival studied students with 12 lecturers in over 90 lectures. They spent 2-3 mins settling down, 10-18 minutes first lapses in attention after 10-18 minutes, then progressively shorter attention periods, dropping to 3-4 minutes towards end.
A later study, by Burns, matched student summaries with lecture content and found exactly the same thing , “As the lecture proceeded attention spans became shorter and often fell to three or four minutes towards the end of a standard lecture.” Highest recall was at the start with a fall off after 15-20 minutes.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

At the turn of the century, my vision of corporate learning put the learner at the center of resources that included the web, online learning activities, communities of practice, an intranet, and instructor-led training. My thinking has changed. Can you guess several ways I would re-draw the picture today?

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Marcia Conner


Fast Company profile

Live Laugh Learn Lead

Creating a Learning Culture
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Ralph Koster

Ralph Koster

Bio, blog, RSSTheory of Fun

Here’s the presentation that kick-started the book.

Theory of Fun website

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