Myths, Facts, Challenges And Tips With Learning From Lectures

We are not like Sponge Bob that can soak up information and learning at will. Image by Gekko93.

Myth: Our minds are like sponges that just soak up information which creates learning.

Many of us grew up believing that myth. We believed that we could sit in a lecture and the speaker’s information would magically transfer to our brains. We thought we could automatically recall everything the teacher said.

Without studying, our test scores proved differently. We could not recall at will what the teacher said.

Fact: Learning is a complex process that requires more than listening.

The Learning Process

Learning at its basic level is a cellular process. It involves chemicals and neurons firing in our brains.

When we learn something, we rewire our brains. Our brains are hard-wired to be flexible.

This learning process requires:

  • Attending to information, words and visuals
  • Providing context to them
  • Making meaning out of them
  • Connecting, comparing and contrasting them to our personal experiences
  • Comparing them to previous knowledge
  • And finally integrating them into what we have learned in long-term memory.

This process starts in our working memory (short-term memory) and moves to our long-term memory. This takes time.

Try to compress this process into a ninety- or sixty-minute lecture and the brain short wires. The more we hear, the more we experience cognitive overload. Too much information competes for attention in our working memory. Our working memory discombobulates.

Challenges That Complicate Learning During Lectures

Learning requires us to stop listening and start thinking. It requires us to move our attention from the presenter to what the presenter said and process it.

1. Give the brain a break!

The learning process takes time. The more we have to listen, the less we learn. We need to stop listening and start thinking.

Tip: The speaker should stop talking every 10-20 minutes and allow the learners to talk to each other about what has been said. Or ask the learners to write down how they would apply what they heard.

2. Learning requires thinking and thinking is work.

Lectures are easy to listen to because our brain does little work. We are passive and inactive. We don’t have to think.

This is why many people prefer lectures. It is not about their learning. It’s about checking out. They have misled themselves that they are learning because they are listening.

To learn, we have to think. We have to give meaning to what is said. We have to evaluate it. Thinking is work and our minds prefer not to work. We prefer to react.

Tip: Help attendees understand the ROI of investing in thinking so that they can recall and apply information. Then give them opportunities to think about what is being said.

3. Our past experience can cloud new information received.

We use our memory to predict where we should pay attention. Unfortunately, our memory is not always accurate. That’s why two people can perceive an event differently.

If we had a negative experience regarding a topic, it is hard to listen to a lecture about that topic. We don’t believe what the speaker is saying. We vehemently disagree and our emotions rise.

Our beliefs, especially when contrary to facts, can become our own barriers to learning and change. This is known as confirmation bias.

Tip: Create a safe presentation atmosphere where people are allowed to agree and disagree. The safer the learner feels, the more they will be able to evaluate past experiences and knowledge based on new facts. Give them time to discuss with each other what is being presented.

4. Lectures worked for us so they should work for others.

Once we believe something is true, we unconsciously interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we already believe. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. Our experience says that we learned from lectures in school. So therefore they work for others.

People forget the hours they spent studying information and practicing exercises in order to learn after a lecture. Our rehearsal, repetition and practice of information resulted in learning.

Tip: Intersperse lecturing with active audience engagement and exercises.

5. Inexperience lessens learning of new information.

If the speaker is talking about something that we have never experienced, the brain can’t comprehend it. Understanding is lost. We don’t get it. We can’t connect the new information to a past experience.

Tip: The presenter should use stories, examples and analogies to help the learner connect new information.

Old Ways Need New Changes

Scheduling lecture after lecture is not enough for learning to occur. It’s about thinking and planning what is best for the learner.

Who are some great orators that you remember and why did their lecture resonate with you? What tips can you share to improve lectures?

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  2. Jeff,

    Your post reminds me of a video I watched in my youth of effective study habits. While the name of the video escapes me I’ll never forget the visual…that we teach and are expected to study over a mountainous period of time (say like an hour) where learning could be plotted like the plunge taken on the Texas Giant (roller coaster for those not from the DFW area). The speaker in the video goes on to show that studies prove time and again that we are at our best when lecture and learning happen in smaller bursts that could be plotted like a 5 year old would draw waves on the ocean.

    Further proof that education still needs overhaul. My son sits in a desk at school, comes home and can’t tell me one thing he learned. He and I spend 15 minutes making a homemade rocket launcher…fire it off in the backyard and then discuss what’s happening to make it launch…and he talks about it daily.

    Thank you for continuing to profess this paradigm shift Jeff and for practicing what you preach. I am the better for it.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for sharing your memory of that video. The analogies you used of the rollar coaster and waves are perfect. I’m glad you added them!

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