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In Online Courses, Students Learn More by Doing Than by Watching

When students enroll in MOOCs, they almost always watch a series of video lectures. But just watching videos — without also engaging interactively — is an ineffective way to learn, according to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

The study, “Learning Is Not a Spectator Sport: Doing Is Better Than Watching for Learning From a MOOC,” looked at a generally available course, offered through the Georgia Institute of Technology, called “Introduction to Psychology as a Science.” Some students chose to take it as a traditional MOOC, spending most of their time watching video lectures. Others opted for a version that combined the MOOC and interactive materials produced by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative.

All of the students were assigned 11 weekly quizzes and a final examination. Those in the MOOC-only course scored an average of 57 percent on the final. Those in the combined course scored an average of 66 percent. And when students in the combined course completed an interactive activity, they learned six times as much as those who only read the material or watched a video.

“When one is watching a lecture or reading material, there’s an illusion of learning,” says Ken Koedinger, a professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, and an author of a report on the study. “Lessons communicated in a lecture don’t stick.”

When students listen to a lecture or read text, Mr. Koedinger says, it is easy for them to feel confident that they know the material. But that feeling is deceptive, because sometimes students come away from lectures with misconceptions. And without trying to replicate what they’ve learned in lectures or receiving feedback on their work, they won’t know when they’re making mistakes.

MOOCs — and the universities and companies that produce them — are generally applauded for their ability to distribute high-quality lectures to large numbers of students, Mr. Koedinger says. “They can be a great way to get learning distributed to more people. But we need to put more emphasis on developing interactive materials.”

Anant Agarwal, chief executive of the online-education company edX, says its courses already contain the kinds of interactive activities and instant feedback described by the researchers. Students in edX courses complete interactive exercises, he says; when a green check mark appears beside an exercise, they know they’ve done it correctly.

But Mr. Koedinger thinks that online-education companies like edX and Coursera could be doing more. Many of their courses include quick follow-up questions at the end of a lecture, he says, but they could still benefit from “more-engaged applications of knowledge that get at higher levels of thinking.”

The activities that the researchers envision aren’t necessarily complicated. Colleges and companies needn’t spend money on elaborate videos, Mr. Koedinger says, but should instead focus on constructing a few simple activities that address common misconceptions about the material.

When such activities are in place, he adds, both colleges and companies should help students understand why participating in interactive exercises will help them learn.

“Some of these students are coming into these courses thinking they’re going to learn from this fabulous lecture,” he says, “but it really isn’t sticking.”

Correction (9/17/2015, 10:45 a.m.): This post originally described the course studied by researchers as one taken by a group of Georgia students. The course was offered through the Georgia Institute of Technology but was open to students everywhere. The post has been corrected accordingly.

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