Oct 14 2013

The Science of Learning

As a perpetual student and frequent teacher, I am very interested in the science and technology of learning itself. In medical school, for example, we have to transfer an incredible amount of information to students over a relatively short period  of time. The trick is to get students to maintain their attention, focus on the important bits of information, and understand and remember that information.

This is very challenging. Simply lecturing is not very effective. There are different figures as to what the average “attention span” is, depending on exactly how it is measured, but the figures are generally less than 20 minutes, and as low as 5 minutes. Of course, this depends on attention to what. I can pay attention to a 3 hour movie without difficulty, if it’s Lord of the Rings or similar quality. Try listening to a 3 hour lecture on a dry technical topic, and effectively process the information presented the whole time.

So how do we get students to spend the day in lectures and actually learn a significant portion of the material?

There are many answers to this question, but a recent study perhaps adds another technique to improve lecture efficiency. Robert Collins conducted a multi-year study in which he used video during his lectures, but for the first year the video had captions turned off, and for the second year he had captions turned on. He found that during the second year class discussion improved, and grades significantly improved.

While interesting, this should be considered a preliminary study. It was not well controlled, which means the simple introduction of a change – any change – might be responsible for the effect observed, rather than the specific variable of captions. Better controlled follow up studies are needed to see what effect the caption variable has specifically.

But if we take the results at face value, they are plausible and largely consistent with other research. One way to look at it is this – what demands are we making on the cognitive resources of students during a lecture? It takes mental energy to pay attention, to know where to focus your attention, and to process the information being presented. You can really only do one thing at a time, so while you are thinking about the information just given, you may miss the next bit of information. Further, while you are trying to make sense of a graphic or animation in a video, you may not fully process what the narrator is saying.

A good lecture, like a good movie, does not just impart information, it manages the experience of the student. That means drawing their attention to the important bits, without making them waste mental energy finding the important bits on their own. You want all of their mental energy going to perceiving, understanding, and remembering the critical information – not trying to find it or separate it from the less-than-critical information.

Captions to videos is one small technique, but can make it easier for students to get the information. Sometimes auditory processing can be resource intensive – that’s why you should not talk on the phone while driving. Adding captions might make it easier to understand what is being said, especially if new and unfamiliar terms are being used. Even seeing how a word is spelled can enhance comprehension.

I have found this myself, while watching science programs discussing species names, or chemical names, or other technical information, I find myself wanting to see the words in writing. Just hearing them is very unsatisfactory.  Seeing the name reinforces what I just heard, and adds new information (word roots, etc.) that enhance the information. Good science documentaries also know when to have graphics that grab your attention and present the critical bits of information in an easy to read manner or an infographic-type display that enhances comprehension.


Effectively transferring large amounts of complex information is extremely challenging, but it is a science and a skill worth developing. I do think that a good overall approach is to think about managing the experience of the student, rather than just imparting information.

I do think there is a good analogy to be made with movies, something with which most of us have experience. What is the difference between an awesome movie, and average movie, and a terrible B-move? Well, lots of things, but perhaps most important is the difference between just telling a story, and giving the audience a cinematic experience.

Brilliant directors manage that experience in tiny detail – to where you are looking on the screen, to how expectations are created and then fulfilled, giving the audience time to absorb one development before moving onto the next, and a hundred other ways that you are likely not consciously aware of but which dramatically affect your experience of the movie.

A good lecture is similar. There are many variables to consider, and no one magic solution to making a great lecture. I do think that knowing when to caption audio is an important detail, and this new study (while preliminary) supports that.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “The Science of Learning”

  1. Jerry in Coloradoon 14 Oct 2013 at 10:41 am

    Lectures are instruments of the middle ages, first used in teaching before the development of books, let alone computers. Research into the learning process, especially in the sciences, has shown better ways of learning and teaching. See, for example, Lillian McDermott -Physics Education Research at the University of Washington.

  2. Cow_Cookieon 14 Oct 2013 at 10:49 am

    “A good lecture, like a good movie, does not just impart information, it manages the experience of the student. That means drawing their attention to the important bits, without making them waste mental energy finding the important bits on their own.”

    I’m taking a refresher course on infographics since it’s been a while since I did much design. One of the key messages is exactly what you write about here: managing the user’s experience. With an interactive graphic, for example, the user should be able to easily understand how to manipulate the variables and interpret the results so that they have more mental resources to actually analyze the data and spot trends. A good deal of the planning process involves anticipating the questions users will want to ask of the data and creating a design that intuitively directs users to those answers.

  3. Sherringtonon 14 Oct 2013 at 10:58 am

    I think this also gets at the issue of the proper use of PowerPoint in lectures. If the slides are too crammed with information — a common error — they become overwhelming. But when used to show main points, spelling of new terms, and illustrations, PowerPoint can be useful.

    In the college setting, another way to get at the attention span issue is to break up the lecture with active learning exercises that allow the students to “try out” their new knowledge. Such engagement has been shown to improve learning.

  4. fractalon 14 Oct 2013 at 11:12 am

    Sorry to deviate from the thread, but is the science-based medicine blog site down?

  5. tmac57on 14 Oct 2013 at 11:24 am

    A good narrative helps,as well as an enthusiastic speaker.
    In my senior year in high school,I had a Latin American History teacher that wrote his own textbook,and presented the material as an exciting story with all sorts of juicy details.
    He would pace the room,speaking excitedly while asking challenging questions to keep us on our toes.His assignments were demanding,and the tests covered exhaustive amounts of detail,so this was far from a ‘fluff’ course,but it was the only history class that I consistently made good grades in,and one of the few classes that I looked forward to each day.

  6. Laursauruson 14 Oct 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Fascinating topic! I really enjoyed this article.
    I wonder how video with closed caption stands up to PowerPoint. Probably too many variables to possible control, though.
    Cognitive development is a fascinating topic! This is an area of science that can be applied in so many areas of everyday life.

  7. Jauntyon 15 Oct 2013 at 2:36 am

    Hi Steve,

    The question of how best to spend class time has been researched quite a bit in science education literature. Most of the research I’m familiar with is in physics and astronomy education since I’m in astrophysics, but the main results have held up in other scientific disciplines when tested as far as I’m aware.

    You’re right on that lecturing alone is not a particularly efficient means of information transfer in the classroom. As Jerry & Sherrington mentioned, there has been quite a bit of research in the last several decades showing that classes with some form of ‘active engagement’ produce significantly better learning outcomes across all sorts of quantitative measures (particularly of conceptual understanding). What constitutes ‘active engagement’ can be pretty broad – group problem solving, discussions, anything that gets students working on metacognition.

    I’m sure a lot of this is applicable to med students as well since we want them to be good critical thinkers with a solid conceptual foundation in biology. Here are some links to some of the research for active learning in physics:

  8. BillyJoe7on 15 Oct 2013 at 7:19 am

    “I have found this myself, while watching science programs discussing species names, or chemical names, or other technical information, I find myself wanting to see the words in writing”

    I loved watching them, but that was the main problem* with the David Attenborough series of nature programs. No names printed on the screen. You are left to guess. By contrast, this enhanced Brian Cox’ series of science programs. The names even move along with the animal in the scene. Well done.

    *The other being his furiously shaking head.

  9. cjgon 19 Oct 2013 at 12:58 am

    This is interesting but it is just one study. It goes against much of what is known about the science of instruction and learning. Specifically the studies on Cognitive Load by John Sweller and the studies of Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard Meyer.

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