Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In defence of the lecture

It's very fashionable to claim that the lecture is dead (I've done it myself) and that there is no need for the form in modern education. While I firmly believe that lecturing as the default form of university teaching is on the way out we need to consider when the lecture can be of positive value. In our enthusiasm to embrace the potential of technology in education it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The simple fact is that despite all the criticism lectures are more popular than ever. The iTunes U platform features almost half a million of them and they are downloaded and viewed by millions every week and if you throw in the lectures featured in all the MOOCs the sheer volume is astounding. Sure many of them are very traditional and not particularly inspiring but there is no disputing their popularity whatever we may think of the pedagogy.

However many MOOC providers have realised that online audiences learn more from more a series of concise lectures of 5-10 minutes rather than one hour marathon sessions. The staggering success of TED talks is a clear indication that we enjoy lectures if they're short and sweet. Maybe the appeal is linked to the massive appeal of stand-up comedy; one comedian on stage with no props or extras. TED talks feature the masters of stand-up teaching and they consistently succeed in inspiring and providing food for thought. Isn't that effective teaching? From sage on the stage to dean on the screen.

Tony Bates comes to the defence of the lecture in an article The beginning of the end of the lecture hall?. He makes the following list of occasions when a lecture would be a valuable feature of a course and asks if readers can add to it:
  • a lecture at the beginning of a course to set the tone and build a sense of community
  • a lecture at the end of a course to pull things together, to provide a synthesis, or a sense of completion or to ask: where now? 
  • a lecture in the middle as a check on where students are, what are the ‘sticking points’, and a realignment of expectations or resetting of students’ focus 
  • a lecture for a research professor to synthesize/summarize his/her findings or the field in which they are researching 
  • special occasions, such as analyzing a dramatic current event in terms of theories or principles studied in a course: why, how, what next, etc. 
  • distinguished visitors who have something extra to add to a course or program.
The conclusion here is that we should be careful not to simply dismiss traditional methods and rush to the shiny new ones. Many people learn a lot from lectures, some learn very little, some thrive in a traditional classroom, others do not. Let's integrate the old with the new to offer a wide range of learning paths to suit all tastes. 


  1. Just started to follow your blog and I´d like to add some thoughts:

    Firstly, lecture alone is seldom good. In order to truly learn from a lecture we must reflect deeply on what is said. We need to make sure that we got the message right and did not misinterpret etc. Then, we need to put what was said aside what we already know about the subject and check for any questions. We need to find good replies to our questions and finally to express to others what we have learned. These are the four skills of Fourfold Communication - and without such a practice the lecture is not very useful for the student. Question: If the lecture is 20 minutes. How much time does the student need to digest it?

    Secondly, I make my living from teaching adults and the market prices for well conducted lectures are high.

    Thirdly, if you want to learn new skills (short) lectures are necessary and efficient but never enough. We always need three more moments: Concrete examples of how the skill is practiced, then the student's own practice and finally the student's reflection and dialogue about the learning.

    So, to me the question is more about how we use lectures wisely and efficiently - both as teachers and as students - and both parties have to work for that! And if we do - there is - for some purposes - nothing that is better than a well prepared lecture.

  2. Thanks for the comments Eva. I firmly believe that we need to stop lecturing as a default means of teaching and that we should save the form for particular occasions or record them as input to be viewed and reviewed by students in line with the concept of the flipped classroom. Gathering people together for one way communication is not an effective use of time. However I see so many people claiming that the lecture is dead that I wanted to raise the question of when it should be used and when it contributes constructively to learning.