In a recent study published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, researchers examined the impact of “lecture fluency” on learning and on perceptions of learning. In the study, participants were given one of two different video lectures to watch. One group watched a lecture given by a presenter considered to be “fluent.” In this video, the presenter stood upright, maintained eye contact and “spoke fluidly without notes.” Another group watched a lecture by a “disfluent” lecturer. In this video, the speaker rarely maintained eye contact, was unable to speak without using his notes and slouched during most of the presentation. After watching the videos, participants were asked to evaluate the speaker’s presentation and to predict how much of the content they would remember from the lecture. The participants who had watched the fluent lecturer gave the presenter more positive ratings than the ones who watched the disfluent lecturer. The fluent lecture group also predicted they would remember more than the disfluent lecture group. The test results, however, showed something much different. Even though the presentation ability of the lecturers varied, the participants performed equally poorly on post-tests.
As with many good studies, this article is rich with interpretations and implications. The study calls into question lectures as information delivery models and challenges the use of student evaluations as a measure of instructor effectiveness. While these may be popular conclusions to draw, I think the real message of the study is what it tells us about students and their ability to attend to their own learning. Students who sat through the presentations by the fluent instructors felt they had learned much more than they really had. What caused this lack of metacognitive awareness? The authors of the study see instructor fluency as the main culprit behind the participants’ poor evaluation of their own learning. In the conclusion of the article, the authors write “students should be cautious about assessing their own knowledge based on the ease with which an instructor explains information.” The authors compare say that fluent instructors “make it look easy” which may mask the years and years required to reach that level of competency. In their mind, fluent instructors can cause students to inaccurately appraise their own levels of learning.
While instructor fluency may play a role in students’ inability to evaluate what they’ve learned, it’s only one of the challenges we face when fostering metacognitively aware students. As instructors, we want our students to attend to and assess their own learning. We know that this metacognitive process can positively impact their motivation and success in our classes. But when they are relegated to observers in a lecture-driven environment, how much self-assessment are they really doing? In the study, the participants were asked to predict how much they would remember from the lectures. This type of assessment did not have the students’ apply or examine their learning in any real way. To get our students to own their learning, we must provide real opportunities to have them actively assess their formative development and give them feedback and direction along the way. While many of us would agree that learning isn’t a spectator sport. It’s time we realize that metacognition isn’t one either.