Are lecture-based classes or discussion-based classes more conducive to learning?



graphic by Jocelyn Wang


Discussion-based learning emphasizes the importance of comprehension and analysis rather than blind memorization. According to the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, retention of information and a deeper level of understanding are the natural results of a well-executed class discussion. Rather than mindlessly scribbling down lecture slides and taking information in at face value, students are forced to think for themselves, piecing together justifications for their arguments while trying to understand differing opinions or interpretations of information. The result is a classroom of students equipped with the skills needed to think critically and uncover information for themselves.Close your eyes and picture this: the lights are dimmed in your classroom, and a bright SMART Board projection is the only thing illuminating the room. The dead silence is broken periodically by the tapping of pencils on notebooks. One student is on his phone. Another is pretending to take notes on her computer while scrolling through her Facebook feed. A third is pinching himself to keep from falling asleep. Fortunately, this scenario is becoming less and less common as classes have begun to integrate Socratic seminars and group dialogue into their respective curriculum. Given that discussions encourage critical thinking, increase active engagement and equip students with skills useful past high school, it is no wonder why discussion-based learning is gradually taking over the classroom.

A well-planned class discussion not only challenges students to think critically, but also requires them to articulate their thoughts, strengthening class engagement and communication skills. A lecture-based setting will often have little student participation, with the most engaging aspect being the periodic question asked to the class to check for understanding. A study published by the Journal on Excellence in Public Teaching found that of 246 random students surveyed, more than 70 percent drew a positive connection between their own participation in discussion-based learning and success in their classes. Engaging students with discussion instead of lectures challenges them to convey their thoughts rather than regurgitate facts, arming them with a healthy thirst for knowledge and strengthened communication abilities.       Most importantly, a discussion-based setting helps students develop abilities that are extremely useful outside of the classroom. Soft skills like active listening, public speaking, empathy, organization and independent thought are best learned by practicing them, not seeing them as bullet points on a slideshow. A 2017 Forbes Magazine article lists traits like self-awareness, an explorer mindset, emotional intelligence and grit as among the top 14 qualities that companies look for in new applicants. Students in discourse-based settings are often encouraged to convince others of their points, articulate and refute counter-evidence and listen to other perspectives. Even in math and science classes, where student input has little relevance on the subject matter, discussion-based learning is still applicable in the form of group problem-solving exercises and collaborative projects, according to an article from the Grand Canyon University Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching. “The end result is that students have taken a problem, gathered information and data, worked collaboratively to find a solution, and communicated that solution,” it said.      

Given the depth of knowledge that discussion-based learning entails, it is easy to see why sleepy lectures are being replaced by active discourse. Critical thinking, active engagement and real world experience all factor into the execution of an excellent discussion-based environment. For these reasons, dialogue trumps monologue; the voices of many drown out the voices of one and lecture gives way to discussion.