Group learning works better than lectures

argumentby Conor Lawless

Lots of Ink: A Nobelist (further) undermines the big-shot lecturer as essential to teaching er [Via Knight Science Journalism Tracker]

A number of outlets ran with the main news from an unsurprising, but remarkable anyway, report on how to teach college physics. In Science on Friday a physics Nobelist, Carl Wieman best known for his role in confining Bose-Einstein condensates in the laboratory, reported that people like him giving lecture is an okay way to teach college students. A better way, his study concludes, is to let teaching assistants ride herd and interact with students as they wrestle and collaborate over focussed challenges that compel them to embrace new information. In a one-week competition between traditional teaching and collaborative, interactive supervised learning without a professor in sight, students in the latter group crushed those in the former when they all took a standard quiz.

(By the way, Wieman is not only merely a Nobel-Prize winning physicist working for the White House who is not named Chu, interesting as that is. Now on leave from U. of Colorado and U. of British Columbia , he has a distinctive, fascinating early background. Check his Nobel Foundation autobiography and its passages on the backwoods of Oregon.)

While this topic is, strictly, one that might fit the education beat, many of the bylines with the stories are those of science reporters.


Having small groups working on focussed problems, facilitated by those with core knowledge, may very well be the best way to teach/learn a subject. It certainly is one of the best ways to solve most problems. There is increasing evidence that what we call reasoning requires a social setting. In fact, the best reasoners are usually those who make the best arguments – sometimes those arguments are wrong. Often because of confirmation bias. We only reason well when we get together and pick at each others arguments.

“Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

“Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We’re sitting here at a conference. We’re reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there, it shows the marks of its heritage. Even there, our thought processes tend towards confirmation of our own ideas. Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.”

Science works because it uses a set of logical and argumentative principles that reduces – but does not necessarily destroy – confirmation bias. (This is why scientists have a hard time debating lawyers. Lawyers have a wide range of argumentative tools that scientists do not. Thus lawyers often seem to ‘reason’ better than scientists.)

So we evolved to reason out the best arguments in a social setting. And the best decisions will be made when confirmation bias is removed. Which is what science tries to achieve.

Teaching by lecturing large classes would not be a good way to learn, based on this argumentative theory. In large lecture halls, the main reasoning argument to convince people is based on the authority of the speaker, not on what they say. “They are the teacher; they must be right.”

But split the class into groups and have them reason the way we have for eons – around a campfire or around a table. Now we start to reason the way we evolved with all the various argumentative approaches, some useful and many not. This is where the facilitator with knowledge can help steer the students to the correct result.

A successful facilitator will be able to use their superior reasoning skills – since they do know what the real answer is – to ‘convince’ the group. The group will not only remember the argument better; they will get to it faster and with deeper retention.

Because that is really how we evolved to deal with a complex world.

2 thoughts on “Group learning works better than lectures

  1. Wouldn’t this work as well in schools, even down to the elementary level? As well as in the home for most things? As long as you have a good moderator, group discussion is still, and always has been, the best way actually learn.

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