Originally posted on Ideas:
Each school day, millions of students move in unison from classroom to classroom where they listen to 50- to 90-minute lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 humans in the room, there is little actual interaction. This model of education is so commonplace that we have accepted it as a given. For centuries, it has been the most economical way to “educate” a large number of students. Today, however, we know about the limitations of the class lecture, so why does it remain the most common format?
In 1996, in a journal called the National Teaching & Learning Forum, two professors from Indiana University — Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish — described how research on human attention and retention speaks against the value of long lectures. They cited a 1976 study that detailed the ebbs and flows of students’ focus during a typical class period. Breaking the session down minute-by-minute, the study’s authors determined that students needed a three- to five-minute period of settling down, which would be followed by 10 to 18 minutes of optimal focus. Then — no matter how good the teacher or how compelling the subject matter — there would come a lapse. In the vernacular, the students would “lose it.” Attention would eventually return, but in ever briefer packets, falling “to three- or four-minute [spurts] towards the end of a standard lecture,” according to the report. This study focused on college students, and of course it 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.