Blog Posts

29
May

The Science of Smart: Do We Actually Learn Anything From TED Talks?

Many of us have enjoyed watching TED talks, the online videos of scientists, artists, inventors and others talking about their work. But do we actually learn anything from them? That’s the question raised by a new study led by professor Shana K. Carpenter of Iowa State University and published this month in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Carpenter and her colleagues showed study participants one of two short videos of an instructor explaining a scientific concept (in this case, the genetics of the calico cat). In the “fluent” video, the instructor stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes. In the “disfluent” video, the instructor slumped, looked away, and spoke haltingly while referring to notes. After watching one of the videos, participants were asked to predict how much of the content they would later be able to recall, and then were tested on the content.

Participants who watched the fluent video thought they would remember much more information than participants who watched the disfluent video—but actually both groups remembered about the same amount.

Ted Talks. Should we listen?

TED talkers are nothing if not fluent. Could it be that the effective presentation of the speakers in TED-style videos fools us into thinking we’re learning more than we are? As someone who watches TED videos often, and who has given a TED talk herself, I’m biased. But I think there are good reasons to believe that these videos can be vehicles for genuine learning. Here, five ways that well-made videos (including MOOCs and other kinds of digital instruction) can help us learn:

They gratify our preference for visual learning. Effective presentations treat our visual sense as being integral to learning. This elevation of the image—and the eschewal of text-heavy Power Point presentations—comports well with cognitive scientists’ findings that we understand and remember pictures much better than mere words.

They engage the power of social learning. The robust conversation that videos can inspire, both online and off, recognizes a central principle of adult education: We learn best from other people. In the discussions, debates, and occasional arguments about the content of the talks they see, video-watchers are deepening their own knowledge and understanding.

They put practitioners in the role of teachers. We take in knowledge most readily, not when it’s presented in the abstract, but when it’s embedded in a rich context of stories and experiences. TED’s speakers are effective teachers because most of the time, they don’t teach; they do.

They enable self-directed, “just-in-time” learning. Because video viewers choose which talks to watch and when to watch them, they’re able to tailor their education to their own needs. Knowledge is easiest to absorb at the moment when we’re ready to apply it.

They encourage viewers to build on what they already know. Adults are not blank slates: They bring to learning a lifetime of previously acquired information and experience. Effective video instruction build on top of this knowledge, adding and elaborating without dumbing down.

It’s become fashionable to mock the distinctive style of TED videos; their success makes them a tempting target. But in a world in which we want—and need—to be learning all the time, they’re excellent arrows to have in our quiver. (An abstract and link to the Carpenter article can be found here.)

What do you think? Have you learned from a TED talk or other online instructional video?

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

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Annie Murphy Paul

    Annie Murphy Paul is a book author and magazine journalist who writes about how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributor to Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart,” to be published by Crown in 2014. You can read more about the science of learning at her website, www.anniemurphypaul.com.