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“The way we teach today is not the only way to teach,” Sanjay Sarma said in a talk at McCosh Hall on Monday, Oct. 2. Sarma, the Vice President for Open Learning at MIT, helps oversees MIT OpenCourseWare and is a strong proponent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Though a professor of mechanical engineering, Sarma has spoken extensively on problems he sees inherent in the current education system.

Teachers often use the direct instruction model — lectures — to teach students, Sarma said. This model, he noted, is largely outdated.

“Videos should be six to nine minutes, lectures should be six to nine minutes,” he said, citing research that most students tune out from lectures and videos after that time period. Sarma acknowledges that lectures of these lengths are rather inconvenient to have in practice.

But this hints at a larger problem with long lectures. Students today, Saram said, do not want to be told what to learn; rather, they want to do it themselves. “They want to build stuff,” Sarma said. “[Students] all grew up on Khan Academy. They don’t want to sit in a lecture hall. They want to go out and build a robot.”

Not only that, but students learn better when they are actively working, instead of listening, Sarma explained. He cited a case study in which a patient, denoted Patient HM, had parts of his brain removed. The patient could not remember much, unable even to realize that days or years were passing. He was taught to draw, and, though he could not remember drawing from one day to the next, his performance did improve.

“[Students] are more and more resistant and intolerant to passive learning,” Sarma said. 

Sarma compared students’ attention spans during passive learning to practices of a leprechaun. All the leprechaun is supposed to do, Sarma said, is transport nuggets of information back and forth. The leprechaun reformats the information and inserts it in his brain. The leprechaun’s professor, however, does not use teaching methods sympathetic to the leprechaun's learning practices.

“At some point, the leprechaun gives up,” Sarma said. That leprechaun, Sarma argues, is like most students. It takes seven to 11 minutes for students to give up and stop paying attention. After that point, the mind wanders, a natural mechanism for the unengaged student.

Sarma lists two ways to attempt to resolve this issue and keep the student attentive. The first is spaced retrieval, which is a form of retrieval learning. Instead of continuous studying, Sarma argues that the teacher should wait until the ideas of a lesson are about to fade away. Then, the instructor should test the student on what was learned, retrieving an almost forgotten memory from the edge of the abyss. The testing and studying should also be alternated, or spaced out, with other lessons.

“The brain looks for differences,” Sarma said. “But the teacher is all about continuing.”

The second way to keep the student engaged, Sarma said, is to appeal to his or her curiosity. Trying to make students curious and keep students engaged, Sarma argues, is inconvenient in a lecture hall. 

“It’s not actual learning. It is obedience,” Sarma said.

Sarma’s lecture was held at 6 p.m. in McCosh 10 as part of the Louis Clark Vanuxem Lecture series.

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