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Study tests effectiveness of podcasts vs. lectures
Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dr. Dani McKinney
Dr. Dani McKinney, professor of Psychology at SUNY Fredonia, has made national headlines for her work on the effectiveness of podcasted lectures.
It’s not often that a professor tells her students to skip class. But that’s what SUNY Fredonia Psychology professor Dani McKinney did to support a recent study — and its results have thrust her into the national spotlight, with stories appearing in media ranging from the “New York Times” to “New Scientist” magazine.

Dr. McKinney, together with fellow Psychology professor Jennifer Dyck and student Elise Luber, ’08, conducted a study which investigated the effectiveness of podcast lectures compared to their live lecture counterparts. The results have surprised some, and have people talking about what it could mean to the future of learning.

Interested in learning how much students can legitimately learn from digital and online media such as podcasts, McKinney and her colleagues had 64 students “attend” a lecture from an introductory psychology course. However, only half of those students actually attended in person; the other 32 viewed it via podcast. Both versions included slides that corresponded with the professor (podcast slides were synchronized in real time with the audio), and both groups were given hard copy handouts of the slides. All students were told they would be tested on the material in a week.

The results showed that the podcast viewers did considerably better than those who attended the lecture in person. The podcast group averaged nine points (out of 100) higher on the test than those in the live audience. Moreover, those who took notes during the podcast scored even higher, averaging 15 points higher than their live-lecture counterparts.

“But there’s more to it than that,” explains McKinney. “If they listened to the podcast just one time, they didn’t do any better than the people who came to the lecture. However, the people who treated it like a live lecture, and took notes or replayed certain sections… they did significantly better.”

The interesting information, from McKinney’s perspective, is not so much whether podcasts are superior to live lectures, but rather, how students approach learning, regardless of the setting in which they are physically situated.

“If you treated it like a live lecture, you did better,” McKinney concluded. “But if you just listened to it passively, you didn’t get any benefit. One student watched the podcast at the gym, and his score reflected that. One person watched the podcast seven times, and her score reflected that.”

McKinney is quick to point out that this was only a single lecture experiment, and that there are many limiting factors to the data, including the fact that students knew it was only a research experiment, and that the results would not count for class credit (although extra credit was given to all the participants). And while the highest scorer in each group earned a $15 gift certificate, she recognizes that this may not have been enough motivation for everyone in the group to put forth their best effort.

Nonetheless, she feels this is a great first step to continue the discussion and conduct additional investigations across other disciplines. Right now, she’s conducting similar one-lecture experiments in the fields of biology, chemistry, history and sociology, to see if there is any variance among the fields of study. And in the fall, she’s preparing to run a semester-long experiment, to determine how these vary, if at all, over a longer timeframe.

McKinney also points out that this technology and student behavior isn’t as innovative as it may appear.

“In the old days, you got your notes from a friend. In the future, podcasts might possibly replace that, because you can now gain all of the things that happened within the context of the class that notes alone might miss,” she explained. “But this approach to lecture learning isn’t revolutionary. It’s no different than when students used to tape record lectures. How many even went back and listened to them afterwards? For most, it was just an insurance policy. If something was presented too fast for them to take down, they could replay that section and complete their notes”

But to this point, McKinney believes there is a general conclusion to be supported from this initial study.

“Learning doesn’t change, regardless of the medium,” she stressed. “If you want to perform well on exams, you need to leave yourself usable ‘breadcrumbs,’ visual and mental cues. Study, take notes, listen and take more notes. That’s how you learn, regardless of whether you’re watching a professor in a class or an iPod in your hand.”

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