Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lectures can be good for you

I'll admit a little secret; I actually enjoy lecturing. I also enjoy and learn a lot from a well-delivered lecture from an enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker. I know I've written and spoken many times about the limits of the lecture and how new pedagogies are needed to facilitate more student-centred learning but sometimes I find the anti-lecture rhetoric in some articles rather too dismissive. Statements about the death of the lecture or the end of universities as we know them simply polarise opinion and only lead to unnecessary conflict between traditionalists and innovators that divert attention from the real issues. I wrote about this back in June, In defence of the lecture, and this week I read an interesting article by Abigail Walthausen in The AtlanticDon't Give Up on the Lecture, showing that, when done well, there is a strong case for the lecture to continue as an important feature in education.

One point in the article stood out for me. Many want the focus to shift from the information transfer of the traditional lecture to more student interaction in the form of seminars (face-to-face or online). Although I agree with this we need to question whether seminars or tutorials are always effective learning arenas. Often they are dominated by the most vocal students and the structure can be rather loose and chaotic for quieter students. I remember being overawed by some of my fellow students in tutorials and as a result I could never find anything clever enough to say and therefore kept quite. As Walthausen remembers from her own student days:

As a college student, I was often advised by well-meaning adults to sign-up for seminars rather than lectures in order to get “face time.” To be perfectly honest, though, the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them). Besides frustration with the dominant participants in many a seminar class, I have also wasted time distracted by the anxiety that I had to race others to an appropriate comment in order to accumulate those necessary class participation points.

Some learn a lot from seminar discussion and others find them intimidating and unrewarding. Same goes for lectures. Traditional educational methods should not be categorically dismissed. The world is full of creative and intelligent people who were educated in the traditional system so it can't be all wrong. There is a place for lectures and many other traditional concepts as long as we realize that the toolbox is so much bigger today and teachers need to be able to mix and adapt all these tools to their students' needs. Don't throw the baby out with the dishwater.

There is no one method of education that fails across the board, only the occasional rigid ideology that criticizes “one-size-fits-all education” while discontinuing a few of the less popular sizes.


  1. Good point, Creelman! My conclusion: Beware of the most popular recent trends in education! Always rely on your own experiences and keep on being suspicious to anyone pretending to know "the proper method"!

  2. and let's not forget that learning takes place in the head of the learner. forced group-work and constant discussion can, if overdone, inhibit learning. All about finding the balance and giving each learner enough space and time to find the mix that suits them best.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response to my article, Alastair.