Sunday, September 13, 2015

No, College Lectures Are Not "Unfair"

In her recent New York Times essay "Are College Lectures Unfair?" Annie Murphy Paul, a science writer, asks "Does the college lecture discriminate? Is it biased against undergraduates who are not white, male, and affluent?" She spends the rest of the essay arguing the affirmative, claiming that "a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation college students." She cites various studies that find that "active learning" and "flipped classroom" pedagogical techniques lead to the biggest improvements in performance among the groups who do the worst in traditional lecture-format classes.

Unfortunately, while it may well be true that flipping the classroom (having students watch video lectures at home and using classroom time for problem-solving and discussion) and making learning more active (increasing low-stakes quizzes, which enhance memory for concepts) are excellent ideas—and I personally think they are—the argument that the use of lectures has anything to do with fairness and discrimination is simply erroneous.

Here's why. First, if one group of students tends to perform better than another under a particular instructional regime, then it is likely that any change that improves everyone's performance (as active learning does, according to studies cited by Ms. Paul) should benefit most the group that starts out doing worst. This is a simple function of the fact that grades have maximum values, so there is less room for improvement for students who are already doing well. If this point isn't clear, imagine a hypothetical educational intervention that leads to every student knowing the answer to five particular questions on a 100-question final exam. The best-prepared students would probably have known several of those answers absent the intervention, while the least-prepared students would have good chances of not not having known them. Therefore, the least-prepared students might gain as much as 4 or 5% on their final exam grades, but the best-prepared students might gain as little as 1 or 0%. This would narrow the achievement gap between those groups. Any intervention that results in more learning is likely to have a similar pattern of effects.

So active learning should be good for any students who start out doing worse in general, not just for minority, low-income, or first-generation students. As Ms. Paul notes, "poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools" and get to college "with less background knowledge." Suppose you tried active learning in a school where the students were overwhelmingly the children of white, middle-class, college-educated parents. You would still expect the lowest-performers among those students to benefit the most from the improved methods. Likewise, the best-performing minority students should get less out of improved pedagogy than the worst-performing minority students. In other words, the value of active learning for traditionally underperforming groups of students has everything to do with the fact that those students have underperformed, and nothing to do with the fact that they come from minority groups.

Now to the question of whether older pedagogical approaches "discriminate" against those minority groups, as Ms. Paul says they do. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, to discriminate is "to make distinctions on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit, especially to show prejudice on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or a similar social factor." Teaching a course in an old-fashioned lecture format, though it may often be less effective than teaching in flipped or active formats, and for that reason may result in lower grades for some types of students than for others, makes no distinctions between classes or categories of people, and therefore cannot be a form of discrimination. Indeed, any inferior form of instruction should lead to wider differences between students who start at different levels.

Consider the limiting case: imagine a "form of instruction" that is no instruction at all: the professor never issues a syllabus or even shows up, but still gives the final exam at the end of the semester. Students who started out with the most "background knowledge" about the topic will still know the most, and students who started out knowing the least will still know the least. All pre-existing differences between ethnic groups and any other student groups will remain unchanged. On the other end of the instructional spectrum, suppose the professor's teaching is so perfect that every student learns every bit of the material: then there will be no differences between any groups, because all students will receive grades of 100%. Note that none of this concerns what groups the students are part of—it can all be explained entirely by the artifact of high-quality instruction benefiting poorer-performing students more than better-performing students. Therefore, Ms. Paul's essay uses the words "biased" and "discriminating" incorrectly, with the pernicious effect of accusing anyone who doesn't flip their classroom or give lots of quizzes of being prejudiced against minority students.

For what it's worth, I have been truly impressed by the growing body of research on the science of learning. I think it's one of the most exciting practical achievements of cognitive psychology, and I am trying to incorporate more of it into my own teaching. But I also believe that good, engaging lectures have their place, and may be more effective in some disciplines than others. To be clear, I have no objections to any of the research Ms. Paul cites in her essay. (Indeed, I have not even read most of that research, because what's at issue here is not the scientific results, but the meaning Ms. Paul ascribes to them. I've assumed that she described all the results accurately in her essay. If the researchers somehow managed to separate the effects of minority status and baseline knowledge or performance in their analysis of the active learning effects, Ms. Paul doesn't say anything about how they did it—and since that analysis would be the logical lynchpin for her claims of bias, discrimination, and unfairness, it is negligent to ignore it.) We have learned a lot about effective teaching methods, but none of it justifies the sloppy, inflammatory claim that lectures are "biased" and "discriminate" against students from minority, low-income, or nontraditional backgrounds.


  1. Very important observation.

    Coupe questions regarding the statement:
    "For what it's worth, I have been truly impressed by the growing body of research on the science of learning. I think it's one of the most exciting practical achievements of cognitive psychology, and I am trying to incorporate more of it into my own teaching..."

    Do any cognitive psychology researchers in particular stand out, regarding this growing body of research? Would you recommend any specific books that provide a clear and detailed overview?

    Thank you,
    -Vince Alia

  2. Yes, I would highly recommend these very readable books:
    "Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (Harvard University Press, 2014)
    "Why Don't Students Like School?" by Dan Willingham (Jossey-Bass, 2010)
    "Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn" by Hattie and Yates (Routledge, 2013)

    1. Thank you! I am profoundly in your debt!

    2. I would also recommend the free e-book by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (, the free summary from Deans for impact (, The summary of top 20 principles of learning from APA ( and at the risk of being self-aggrandizing, my video series on the cognitive principles of effective teaching (

    3. Agree with Make it Stick- fabulous read packed full of empirical evidence,yet written in an understandable and engaging manner.

    4. Agree with Make it Stick- fabulous read packed full of empirical evidence,yet written in an understandable and engaging manner.

  3. I'm not sure what my takeaway should be from you post. If we want to improve performance of traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education, shouldn't we adopt more effective teaching methods?

  4. Chris, here's what I wrote in response to one of our friends on Facebook: Well, speaking as a woman and as someone who came from a low-income family and was first to go to college, I found the piece patronizing and just plain wrong. A good lecture by a dynamic person with passion for her subject can be incredibly inspiring - much more so than listening to some doltish student who hasn't bothered to do the reading. What I find insulting is the idea that people from these backgrounds somehow lack the ability to sit quietly and think and listen - like we all want to run around and maybe fingerpaint or something.

    1. How bizarre - I must have once created an account called "Prof. FedUp"! Anyway, Fernanda here. :)

  5. I don't usually comment online, but I have a question that bothers me.

    Regarding Ms.Paul's assertion that a lecture based education is "passive," failing to prompt students "to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients" ...Is it possible that the effectiveness of the "active" style of education, e.g. students watching videos and doing online coursework at home while workshopping in the classroom, merely is a consequence of the poor study habits of students? When given outside coursework with accountability (videos and online quizzes, etc.) as compared to unchecked reading assignments, that students are required to fulfill their outside responsibilities and thus have greater levels of success?

    I struggle with the semantics of this conversation. My college lectures never felt passive – I was under the impression that the meat of the work was done outside of class, struggling with readings and materials; class time and lecture was spent with the Professor guiding the class through the material together, and to help direct the struggle and the questions, though not the conclusions. A lecture only seems passive when a student treats a lecture like Cliff Notes, rather than a commentary to be questioned and considered. And that returns to the nature of the students study habits, and how they view the nature of the education they pursue...

    1. No learning is passive. "Passive learning" is an oxymoron.

    2. No learning is passive. "Passive learning" is an oxymoron.

  6. Is the student interested in learning about the subject, and does the teacher communicate clearly and with a deep interest in the content, which must be appropriate for the course?

    Too often education professors seem to argue for group learning (at its best) against lecturing (at its stereotyped worst). Well, of course group learning will be better if that is the scenario.

    There's much inculcation of prejudice against lecturing per se. With that kind of attitude, of course even a good lecture will seem to be a failure.

  7. Thank you! That was organized, to the point, and over all just a fantastic article. Thank you.

  8. I myself am a professor of education. Chris, I disagree with your arguments and will explain why.

    As far as I can tell, you recognize that there are better methods of instruction than pure lecture. This is true. A significant body of research that has demonstrated the relative ineffectiveness of isolated lecture to support higher order cognitive and attitudinal growth (e.g. Cashin 1985; Day 1980; Frederick 1999; Omelicheva & Avdeyeva, 2008; Renner 1993). It isn't just what we learn, but the depth with which we learn it and the degree to which we can (and do) use it. Lecture (IN ISOLATION) is ineffective to this end, and is second (or 30th) fiddle to many other instructional methods.

    Note: Lecture in conjunction with other instructional methods can still be effective and still has a place.

    You then build your case about Ms. Paul's alleged wrongness with two points:
    • regression to the mean
    • definition of discrimination

    Your first argument is based on truth. Students who struggle more are more likely to benefit from ANY change than those who are already doing well. So? When an improved instructional method is used, everyone would benefit because it is an improved instructional method. Those who were strong previously will grow yet more and be able to use it and recall the lessons better because the methods were improved. Those who would have experienced greater degreees of failure will now experience more success. That is, the mean success of the class will theoretically improve. You summarize your poin saying, "the value of active learning for traditionally underperforming groups of students has everything to do with the fact that those students have underperformed, and nothing to do with the fact that they come from minority groups." Here you blindly assume that underperformance is not linked to SES, for example, despite abundant literature that demonstrates that SES is the #1 predictor of achievement, and achievement gaps (on the large scale) do exist between groups based on race, ethnicity, and disability. In short, it is your word against a great deal of research.

    EVEN if you were right, Ms. Paul's approach would suggest closing of the achievement gap between lower and higher achievers. And that is a good thing. I just don't see the significance of your point in suggesting that Ms. Paul is wrong.

    As for your second point, you have again mis-stepped. Discrimination need not be (and usually is not) intentional. We are referring to systematic discrimination. As a person with a hearing impairment, if I were to return as a student to a lecture hall with no support, I would be being discriminated against. The professor, I am sure, would not be doing it on purpose, but the discrimination would be very real as an effect occurring between my environment and myself.

  9. Continued...

    Being a person with a hearing impairment predisposed me, in other words, to unintentional, but systematic discrimination in that setting.

    So it is with people belonging to other social groups. We aren't talking about skin pigmentation. There are different subcultures in America that are formed around different linguistic and social traditions. Different people may display learning differences based on the SES or other social cultures from which they come here in America. Without knowing it, applying only one form of teaching may inadvertantly cause discrimination against certain groups.

    By applying quality, diverse teaching implicit to what Ms. Paul refers to as "active learning," results in greater opportunity for expression and engagement for *all* students, which is the epitome of anti-discrimination.

    I am afraid that your article, inasmuch as it is read and disseminated, may be understood as supporting lecture as fair for all. I don't actually think you believe that given your introduction, but the rest of your essay would make that an easy conclusion to draw.

    I would suggest that even if the only difference between students who did and did not gain from lecture was the amount of knowledge that they had coming into the class, that is enough. College isnt a place to just go and listen to lectures about things you already know. It is a place to learn new ideas. A place to find a voice. A place to learn to contribute. And that is something that must be open to all.

  10. Part of the series: Resume & Job Interview Tips. When dressing for a college scholarshipinterview, wear clothes that would be appropriate for a job interview college interview tips and strategies

  11. Discrimination is a very painful thing to the person involved, and i would say that it would be better if no no one was to go through that path. 'are college lecturers unfair?' maybe, maybe not but i hope not as it would greatly affect the education of many.Reliable privacy policy

  12. I would like to agree with you.It is actually true that today's lectures are not fair and because of that students have no respect and responsibilities. Lectures must be read this post to understand about today's condition.

    how to write genuine thesis essay

  13. All the best blogs that is very useful for keeping me share the ideas
    of the future as well this is really what I was looking for, and I am
    very happy to come here. Thank you very much
    earn to die play
    earn to die
    earn to die 3
    Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and finally got the
    earn to die 4
    courage to go ahead and give youu a shout out from
    earn to die 6
    Austin Texas! Just wanted to tell
    earn to die 5

  14. Well, that is awesome that you are trying to incorporate more into your own teaching. I really appreciate it. What is more, in case you need the trusted Custom essay writing service for good money, do not hesitate to check it

  15. Discrimination is really a sharp issue. Considering the educational process, some students or the groups of students suffer from a particular form of discrimination. dissertation editing service

  16. One of the skills that almost every student is expected to do really well in his or her academic life is writing. In their college life, students are assigned to write a number of different academic papers which they find really challenging to write. cheap paper writing service

  17. Hi, thank you for sharing. I'd like to recommend you this writing service It gives you very good quality and saves a lot of time.

  18. Try to use any word by enriching vocabulary. Learn the history of word formation, diversify your language, have a glimpse at essay tips to find some help.

  19. Of course all that kind of recommends are great, but you know, when you really need professional writing, in my case it was part of my work project, better use service
    . These guys are professionals. The main thing that the writer collaborated with me all the time and helped even with a new ideas for my project. The method of payment is also very easy, you no need to have even a PayPal account. All other information you may find on website.

  20. Sneaker retailer size? could be the king when it comes to collaborations with adidas Originals. The two will once again link up adidas nmd for sale for a new Pack. The outcome is the size? x adidas Originals Superstar 80s collaboration.adidas Originals and size? will debut two pairs of the adidas Superstar 80s while using a premium theme. The duo yeezy shoes will feature tumbled leather along with tonal nubuck across the Three Stripes and heel. In addition, the trefoil logo seen on the leather tongue is laser engraved. One pair features White and Light Grey Yeezy Boost 350 Pirate Black while the second comes in Black and White. The two are finished off with the traditional shell toe and White through the midsole.The size? x adidas Originals Superstar 80s Pack will release this Friday, yeezy boost 550 September 9th in-store and online at size? Check out a detailed look of the two by scrolling below.
    Just the other day we saw a preview of what could have been a CNY Ultra Pharell Williams x Adidas NMD Human Race Yellow Boost from adidas Originals releasing. Now we have confirmation that this is in-fact the adidas Ultra Boost ‘CNY’ for 2017.This pair follows the 2016 release of the ‘Chinese New Year’ adidas Ultra Boost which adidas nmd sold-out almost instantly. For 2017, the brand will use a new Primeknit across the uppers along with branding on the tongue. Looking closer, it’s a logo that incorporates CNY. Finishing this adidas Ultra Boost Adidas Yeezy off is a White Boost midsole and Black through the outsole.Below you can check out more photos of the adidas Ultra Boost CNY which will give you a detailed look. While a specific release Yeezy Boost 350 Oxford Tan date is unknown, they should launch sometime during January 2017 for Chinese New Year.
    The adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 ‘Beluga’ released back in late September and as you probably guessed, sold-out instantly. Now Adidas Yeezy you will have to buy on the aftermarket and with that comes the possibility or purchasing fakes. Here we have put together a guide how to legit check your Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Beluga.The Yeezy Boost 350 V2 ‘Beluga’ adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 has been replicated months in advance of the release buy unauthorized factories. Although the factories have gotten better and mimicking authentic pairs, there are still ways to distinguish Yeezy Boost 350


  21. Wow!! Nice blogg post ever I am seeing, thanks mate for your efforts what you have been put into it.
    I am also trying my best on this Earn To Die Game Series blog.
    You can check it Play Earn To Die 4

  22. Your article and tips are really important, but I also may recommend for everyone to read a bookwormlab review cuz I use this service for writing my thesis. I may safely recommend it.

  23. I'm not sure what my takeaway should be from you post.

  24. It is imperative that we read blog post very carefully. I am already done it and find that this post is really amazing.
    downlodable tv shows

  25. The information you have posted is very selful
    This post is really valuable for those who play
    Please click on this post if you wanna paly with online casino.Thank you.
    thanks for sharing...

  26. Kini Telah Hadir Agen Poker, DominoQQ, Capsa Susun, & Bandar Ceme Online Terbaik dan Terpercaya.

    Hanya dengan Minimal Deposit 25 ribu Bonus 10 ribu dan Minimal Withdraw 25 ribu anda dapat bermain di Acehpoker;

    1. Acehpoker memberikan bonus Referral 15% (Seumur Hidup)
    2. Sistem keamanan terjamin dan Data pribadi akan aman bersama kami.
    3. Player Vs Player ( 100% No Robot)
    4. Dengan Sistem Confirm Deposit terbaru Max 2 menit (Jika semua Nama di Id dan di bank
    5. CS yang ramah dan Melayani dengan Professional
    6. Online 365 Hari 24 Jam
    7. Anda Menang berapapun Kami Bayar tanpa Maksimal Withdraw dan Tidak ada batas maksimal
    withdraw dalam 1 hari.
    8. Dapat bermain 6 permainan hanya dengan 1 Web , yaitu Poker , DominoQQ , Bandar Ceme, Capsa Susun, Ceme Keliling, Live Poker
    9. Bisa bermain di Android dan IOS
    10. Sistem pembagian Kartu menggunakan teknologi yang mutakhir dengan sistem Random Permanent (acak) , Dan tersedia Ratusan meja untuk tempat anda bermain

    Pin BBM : 563AB8CA
    yahoo :
    Line: Lilly080615

    Agen Bola
    Daftar Bola BCA
    Agen Bola Terpercaya
    Bandar Bola IBCBET
    Daftar ID Bola Sbobet
    Poker Online Terpercaya
    Poker Bonus New Member
    Judi Poker Online
    Capsa Susun Uang Asli
    Bandar Ceme Keliling
    Cara Bermain Poker
    Cara Menang Poker
    Cara Daftar Poker
    Qiu Qiu Uang Asli

  27. What then does it mean to be an educator? Does it signify something different than the assigned job title? What I have learned through my work in higher education is that becoming an educator is not an automatic process. Everyone who is teaching adult students is not functioning as an engaging and highly effective educator. However, it is possible to learn how to educate rather than teach and that requires making a commitment to the profession.

  28. Project Management Online Help This was a great and interesting article to read. I have really enjoyed all of this very cool information

  29. To make yourselves available FNAF Friv Friv Games Thank you both for sharing Holy Mass with us each day Friv Games Twizl Juegos De FNAF when we were called out late at night and any other time and for your support and encouragement in every respect. Friv 2021 Twizl Juegos Yepi Juegos Twizl Thank you for sharing with me a few of your ideas regarding the possibility.

  30. Danke, dafur dass Ihr jeden Tag mit uns die Hl. Messe gefeiert habt, fur all die Reparaturen im ganzen Haus Jeux De Friv Jogos Friv Jogos Friv fur Euere Bereitschaft Juegos Friv Juegos Friv Juegos De Friv immer zur Verfugung zu stehen Juegos Geometry Dash Juegos Twizl Twizy Twizl Danke, dass Sie Ihr Muhen um den Aufbau des Leibes Christi mit uns teilten.

  31. A todos que partilham e trabalham sob estas mesmas convicções e princípios Friv Friv 360 Friv4school 2020 Senhor Deputado Cashman, agradeço-lhe a informação. Jeux De Friv 2018 Juegos De Roblox Juegos De Zoxy Mais uma vez, obrigada ao Parlamento por comungar da visão que informa a nova política dos consumidores Juegos Kizi 2017 Juegos Yepi 2017 Twizl 3 Zoxy 2 assente no mercado - a visão de um mercado de consumidores informados e capacitados que procuram e usufruem, com confiança,

  32. Wir danken Ihnen Friv4school 2018 Gry Friv 2 Gry Friv 5 dass Sie diese Hoffnung mit uns teilen und diesen Schritt auf dem Pilgerweg des Vertrauens Gry Friv Juegos Friv 100 Juegos Friv 1000 mit uns gegangen sind. Juegos Friv 5 Juegos De Friv 2 Juegos Friv 250 Juegos Yepi wir danken Ihnen für das Interesse an unseren Produkten und hoffe

  33. gracias por la detallada información. Gracias por vuestras reacciones a las transmisiones que os han hecho Gracias por compartir sus ideas con nosotros. Acogemos con agrado los comentarios de los lectores

  34. Thanks for the nice blog. It was very useful for me. I'm happy I found this blog. Thank you for sharing with us,I too always learn something new from your post. Homeopathic hospital in jaipur

  35. Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking.
    Situs Judi Online
    bandar ceme

  36. A few understudies find that utilizing paper help two separate organizers keeps them more composed.

  37. Irvine Howe was one of the first to advocate taking our youth out of these huge institutions also to place out residents into family members. academy

  38. I enjoyed over read your blog post. Your blog have nice information, I got good ideas from this amazing blog. I am always searching like this type blog post. I hope I will see again..

    starfall | brainpop

  39. Articles that are very interesting and I really like your thoughts in article writing is very extraordinary.
    poker online

  40. PK Domain is one of the most affordable and best hosting company in Pakistan which provides various cheap hosting packages for your needs which includes VPS hosting, cloud hosting, reseller hosting, dedicated hosting with a great deal of monthly bandwidth, data storage and email services. Buy cheap domain hosting from We guarantee 99.98 % uptime; cloud data center and leave no stone upturned in meeting your expectations.

  41. Here are several of the websites we advocate for our visitors
    Agen BandarQ