Students learn less when lectures have interesting details

(Via Robin Hanson at overcomingbias.com) Ouch:

In Experiment 1, students received an illustrated booklet, PowerPoint presentation, or narrated animation that explained 6 steps in how a cold virus infects the human body. The material included 6 high-interest details mainly about the role of viruses in sex or death (high group) or 6 low-interest details consisting of facts and health tips about viruses (low group). […] In both experiments, as the interestingness of details was increased, student understanding decreased (as measured by transfer). Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.

In the course reviews I have seen, success seems mostly measured by student reviews, which clearly favor more interesting material. So are students hurting themselves by self-selecting a presentation style that affects their learning? And, more importantly – if you are a prof, what do you do? Should you exchange a few course loads worth of unnecessarily unprepared students for better reviews (at least until you get tenure), or do you somehow balance both?

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One response to “Students learn less when lectures have interesting details

  1. But this experiment measures the impact of interesting but *unrelated* details on students’ understanding. What happens if the actual material to be learned is presented in both a low-interest and high-interest manner?

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