For all its prestige, wealth, and resources, Princeton University has much to be desired as a place of education. It holds onto a series of pedagogically outdated systems and requirements that would be laughable if they were not such an integral part of its educational system. If students are actually here to learn — if an Ivy education is not just an overhyped way to go get funding to play in Cuba on the way to Goldman — Princeton might as well put some effort into actually making sure students are educated.
Take the inefficient waste we call the lecture. Lectures are the worst way to learn anything. Period. We can look at the literature on it. A paper in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, “Why Do We Still Lecture,” highlights that “passive lectures provide the lowest knowledge retention rate of any method of learning and encourage learning at the lowest levels of cognitive function.” The Peak Performance Center has a learning pyramid showing that lecture allows for 5 percent retention of presented material. Another paper, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” found that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 50 percent more likely to fail than students in classes with active learning.
Aside from these theoretical considerations of learning retention, there are plenty of intuitive reasons that lectures are bad. How hard is it to focus on someone who is talking for 50 or more minutes at a time? How easy is it to nod as if you understand the material without actively working on understanding it? Sitting down for long periods of time and listening is how people lose concentration and fall asleep — and many people do fall asleep in lectures. They’re boring. To a significant degree, this is the professor’s fault.
I do not mean to attack professors’ ability in lectures. They are researchers and academics first and foremost. They are not trained in education. They are not trained in presentation. Even when they are entertaining and insightful, they are still dealing with the structural problems inherent to the lecture itself. But oftentimes, professors remind us that they are merely human. They’re boring. They get off topic. They get taken in by a student’s question and go on unhelpful tangents. They repeat exactly what was in the reading, or worse, read from their own handout. Take a moment to appreciate this: professors at Princeton, recognized as being absolute experts in their subjects, are reading from their PowerPoint slides.
The most important saving grace of the lecture is to get exactly what the professor thinks is most important or salient from a course’s material, topic, or readings. Yet often it seems that professors could just provide their lecture notes online. It’d likely even take the professor less time to prepare. It’s hard to imagine a lecture that could do more than what a decent outline could do. Then again, it would be strange to imagine paying $65,000 a year for a school where professors only provided reading lists, graded essays, and sent out outlines. At the same time, lectures are so fundamentally useless that the difference between that hypothetical school and Princeton is far less than it might appear.
Not that students are really any better at being listeners than professors are at being lecturers. At worst, students skip lecture. Others will be checked out on laptops or sleeping. Others will be taking notes on a laptop, ignoring the reams and reams of evidence that indicate that typing on laptops is the worst way to take notes. Lectures are not ideal ways to teach information, and students are not ideal participants in lectures. This makes lectures even less efficient, to the point of uselessness. Even an actively engaged student, who handwrites notes, has done all the reading, and who is there to listen and engage with the material is still not getting the education that their dedication merits.
There is evidence at Princeton, too, to suggest that lectures are valued less. A glance at the course evaluations for ECO 300: Microeconomic Theory shows that lectures were ranked at 1.46 out of 5, while classes were ranked at 4.06 out of 5. Reviews for COS 126: General Computer Science also show a consistent preference for precepts over lectures. What’s important about these classes is that they are both gateway courses for students who are beginning to get a grip on the topic. They are both lecture courses at their hearts, although COS lectures are famously provided through a video format. Either way, these are two of the most important classes at Princeton, and they’re taught in the worst way possible.
These considerations gesture at solutions. First, lectures should be reduced as much as possible, and information contained in lectures should be put into outlines or videos for students. No course should have more than one hour a week devoted to lecture, with the remaining time devoted to actual active learning in discussion or workshop. Lectures should be the last resort, not the default.
Ultimately, it would be best to sweep lectures into the trash bin where they belong. Totally eliminating the lecture might seem too radical, but massive changes are required for Princeton to truly live up to its stated mission as a school, not just as a tax-exempt hedge fund attached to a set of academics. If we are truly here to learn, we ought to be taught.
Ryan Born is a sophomore from Washington, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.