Too Much of the Same Thing

Volume IV, #22

While out walking the other day, I spotted this poster on the street:

My first thought was this dangerous version of the charming 1960s’ stuffing-people-into-Volkswagens or phone booths could not be real. Indeed, I was unable to find anything on Youtube with the suggested keywords, although “taupok” is a Singlish (Singaporean English) word that means both flat, fried beancurd as well as a prank where people pile on top of another and flatten the person on the bottom like a piece of taupok. Second, I wondered why the instructions were so didactic: Try this! You MUST upload! NEVER an air mattress. Clearly the creator of this Yertle-the-Turtle-ish party game felt she was a mere viral marketing campaign away from the Twister of the Youtube era. Finally, why the prohibition against air mattresses? The answer came to me back home an hour later when my son popped a balloon next to my head.

After due consideration, I’d say this game looks like a good way to end a party. It’s been my experience that too much of the same thing (bodies or turtles) tends to end badly. It was that way in college when my roommate Chris decided his life’s work was to take the Doodle Challenge – at the time, beating the record of 19 burgers within a 2.5 hour session at The Yankee Doodle, the local greasy spoon. For Chris, downing 20 burgers meant two things: immortality by way of his name on a plaque above the door and not having to pay for the 20 burgers. While Doodle burgers were small, both the buns and patty were soaked in butter before frying. (The Doodle was renowned for its fried donut.) Chris trained for months with loaves of bread. On the day, we all headed to the Doodle, supportive of our hero, but also making side bets.

Chris, avant le deluge.

Chris was going strong at burger #8. At burger #10 he began to slow. And at burger #12, Chris coughed and a tiny speck of burger flew out of his mouth. We all knew this was the end. We paid the bill and enveloped Chris like a fallen prizefighter, hustling him out of the Doodle and back to our college. That was the last Chris saw of the Doodle for some time, but not the last he saw of those burgers.


“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep.” - Albert Camus

Lectures are the Doodle burgers of higher education. Too many are hazardous to your educational health.

The sage-on-a-stage model of instruction has dominated higher education since the Middle Ages when there was only one book to be read aloud to assembled students. Today, surveys of faculty members reveal that 70-90% of classroom time is spent “transferring information” via lecture. The problem is that virtually every study on the topic in the past twenty years has demonstrated that little learning results. In a meta-analysis study published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, student outcomes improved markedly in classes where faculty did practically anything other than lecture. Failure rates decline by almost half a standard deviation and the improvement in exam results is statistically significant. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has called lectures “a way to transfer the instructor’s lecture notes to students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either,” says “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.”

The good news is that there is now consensus on what works. Different terms are utilized – the flipped classroom, the dynamic classroom, active learning or interactive learning. But the elements are the same:

  1. Flip the classroom so “transfer of information” occurs ahead of class;
  2. Incorporate technology in the classroom (handheld clickers or smartphone apps) to quickly ascertain (typically via multiple choice questions) whether students have understood key concepts;
  3. Integrate active learning techniques to improve understanding of key concepts, including:
    1. Peer learning, where students with different answers pair up and try to convince each other;
    2. Group problem solving;
    3. Project-based learning; or
    4. Studio/workshop/experiential learning
    The above ideally including “perspective transformation” wherein students change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions;
  4. Through technology (again), ascertain whether learning has occurred i.e., do more students now understand key concepts?

Peer learning works particularly well as an active learning technique both because faculty have difficulty remembering how a beginning learner in the field thinks and because studies continue to show that the best way to learn is to teach i.e., students learn best by explaining the concept to other students. Whichever technique is selected – and there’s a good list of them here – the point is to continue to do something other than lecture in order to engender activity or practice around the material. Mazur likes to ask audiences to think of something they’re really good at and how they became good at it. He’s collected data from thousands of subjects and come to two conclusions: about 60% of people say “practice” and exactly 0% of people say “lectures.”


Why does the specter of the lecture continue to haunt higher education? There are three primary forms of resistance to the active learning model:

1) Faculty resistance
Migrating a course from lecture to active learning format is as much work as developing a brand new course. The added element of incorporating mobile technology makes it even more daunting. Delivery itself is also more work than bulldozing through lecture material; faculty need to be at the top of their game every class. All the additional work is exacerbated by the fact that active learning is different from how faculty themselves learned (and look how they turned out – not so bad, right?). And with current measurement systems and incentive structures, there’s little reason for faculty members to change.

2) Student resistance
Students have become used to lectures and resist a model that requires them to stay current with course materials. It’s difficult verging on risky to attend an active learning course without adequate preparation.

3) Architectural resistance
The vast majority of college classrooms are auditoriums designed to focus the attention of passive students on the active faculty member. Auditoriums are not great environments for active learning.

Nevertheless, Colleges and universities cannot responsibly leave the matter in the hands of individual faculty in the name of academic freedom. They must take concrete steps to begin to overcome resistance in all three areas. Even small steps will make a difference in student outcomes. Exposing students to a few active learning courses during their degree programs could be the equivalent of avoiding the 12th Doodle burger, or keeping the 10th person from jumping on the taupok pile.

The good news is that this is already an active conversation at most institutions. As a faculty member from University of Virginia wrote on RealClearEducation: “This past winter I visited a prominent research university, and an old friend told me: ‘I've been here 25 years, and I don't think I heard undergraduate teaching mentioned more than twice. In the last two years, that's all anybody talks about, all over campus.’”

Thanks to David Lenihan, President of Ponce School of Medicine and Health Sciences, for his assistance with this Letter.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.