Students learn less when lectures have interesting details

(Via Robin Hanson at 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?


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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