Sal Khan: Students Don’t Learn From Lectures

This week on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Neal Conan interviews Sal Khan to get his thoughts on the current lecture-only model many college professors still use in their courses. In a piece for Time magazine, the founder of the Khan Academy maintained that even the greatest lecturers in the higher education system won’t hold their students’ attention for more than 18 minutes. In response, Talk of the Nation challenged Khan’s assertion and asked readers to call in and share the lecture they remember best. [Interview excerpts courtesy of NPR.]

Khan kicks off the interview by challenging the current lecture model, asking if having a professor talk at students for an hour is the best use of class time. To this, Conan replies that if a professor has to convey a large amount of information to a large group of people at the same time — then yes, it is the best use of class time.

“That’s right,” Khan agrees. “And 200 years ago, I probably couldn’t have come up with a better way of doing that. But now, we have very on-demand ways to access media… where students are getting the information delivery, the lecture at their own time and pace. And there are benefits to that because you can pause. If there’s a word you don’t understand, you can look it up on the Internet… If you forgot a little bit of your view material from a couple of years ago, no need to be embarrassed and raise your hand in the middle of class and stop everyone’s learning… And then when you go to class time, you can use that for something more valuable like a conversation or a project or some type of peer-to-peer learning.”

Conan then brings up Khan’s point about how videos will eliminate the need for students to take notes: “I wonder, you said – and you don’t have to take notes if you can have electronic copies of the lectures, digital copies you can go back and refer to. Doesn’t the act of taking notes help you learn?”

To which Khan responds: “The act of doing anything does help you learn. Fundamentally, if you are passive in anything, you’re probably not that engaged.”

Callers then began to phone into the show, sharing college lectures given by excellent professors that they remember vividly. Some help prove Khan’s point, that they remember entertaining bits or great jokes from the lecture, but were not engaged for the full class period. Some disprove Khan’s point, sharing that they had professors who kept 200-person lecture halls engaged for entire class periods.

Whether you agree with Sal Khan’s opinion or not, NPR’s Talk of the Nation has started a very interesting conversation on higher education’s current lecture model. Give the interview a listen on their website, or read the full transcript here.

Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.

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About Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.