Should lectures be banned?

I’ve just been listening to Donald Clark at the #altc2010 conference in Nottingham.  His keynote speech argued that lectures are rubbish.  Thought I’d share a hastily-written post in the aftermath.

Clark asked why students are still lectured to. He suggested that a complete rethink is necessary, not just the odd tweak.

photo by iwouldstay

Would you like to see the back of these? (photo by iwouldstay)

@GeoShore sums things up amusingly via Twitter:

#altc2010 keynote summary: “Lectures don’t work. Lecturers can’t lecture. Everyone’s been doing it wrong. Arse. Feck. Nuns.”

Despite a couple of questions from the audience asking about alternatives to the lecture, no specific answers were forthcoming.  Clark replied at one point that the answers are “staring us in the face”.

I’ve attended both great lectures and awful ones.  That suggests lectures aren’t automatically a bad thing.

The lecture is just one part of the learning process.  We read, we’re lectured to, we participate in seminars, we have one-to-one tutorials, we form study groups, we have online participation…

Clark said he enjoyed TED talks and appreciated their production values, but he seemed to be looking for more.  TED talks are still, essentially, lectures.

Same with podcasts and videos.  Clark agreed that it’s better to record a lecture than do nothing at all.  However, he argued that this method merely results in a load of poorly delivered lectures streaming out, providing no further value to learners.

Other than end lectures altogether, I’m not entirely sure what is required.  A complete rethink may result in new delivery methods, so will they look like lectures at all?

If new techniques do resemble lectures, why have other delivery styles so far been given a lukewarm reception (if that) by Clark?

If new techniques don’t resemble lectures, the result has been to abandon lectures, not rethink them.

Clark suggested that there needs to be more collaboration and discussion present in this type of learning.  That’s what seminars and tutorials are all about.  This isn’t an either/or situation; different methods of teaching and learning are delivered.  If lectures were the single focus for all information intake, we’d be in trouble.  But they’re not.

Over to you.  Are lectures dead?  Is the lecturer to blame?  What are the alternatives? Are podcasts and video lectures good, or not good enough?  Is the physical process of attending lectures a hardship in itself?

I’d love to hear your views!


  1. I think a better question is – have learners changed? – it seems that information is everywhere, so meaning making is more important that point of source. A lecture is a performance – and with growing desires to hire casual staff, provide equipment that baffles the tech-avoiders (other that PPT) – that it is not so much yes or no, more degrees of worse that which chan be sourced online. The production value of TED is meaningless to students goggled into YouTube. Wander any library – what are they doing FB and YouTube. Why? because the lecture should be GOAL orientated not information orientated – they should have more to do, more to make meaning from – and piss off this rote/memory stuff. Don’t think can I lecture to 500 students – think – what can I do with 500 tech savvy researchers. Jeez, it’s not hard.

    1. Have learners changed? That’s a good question.

      I think learners are more aware of what’s available and find it difficult to deal with a lecture that has no real engagement.

      Look back in time and people would hope to find a book that spoke to them on their topic of choice. The same information can be presented in extraordinarily different ways.

      Today, many learners realise that it’s not just books that speak to them differently. A more engaging lecture online, a goal orientated piece (as you mention), even a passionate call to action…if a student can find these with ease, the dull performance is dead before it’s even begun.

      While I don’t think it’s as simple as considering 500 tech savvy researchers (not all students are as tech savvy as it may seem), I believe you’re right to question ways of learning. We don’t need to be fed dry information when that’s no longer the big requirement.

  2. Like you I’ve been in good ones, and bad ones (and I like to think I give good ones – certainly attendance figures and student feedback suggests so).

    The issue is that lectures are often used for the wrong reason. TED talks work because their purpose is to provoke questions, to nudge people to think about something differently, or to open up an area the audience haven’t considered before. That’s what I do on my lecture programme, and why I invite others to contribute.
    Dissemination of knowledge, well there are other ways to do it. Just reading out material that’s covered in the set text seems a waste, but sometimes it’s good to see someone do it in front of you – I’ve been learning stats recently and subscribed to a good lecture series from Berkeley on iTunesU. Seeing someone actually work through the problems is helpful. Those aren’t lectures so much as demonstrations.

    Another good aspect of lectures is the opportunity to hear someone interesting just speak. We have a very popular series of Saturday night lectures in Dundee that mixes authors with world famous scientists and the occasional journalist…

    Let’s face it, most of Radio 4 or BBC 4 seems to be based on this principle. But just as those channels know that the secret of a good talk is a purpose, or a moderator, or a follow-up discussion, then the secret of a good talk at university is something similar.

    It seems the word “lecture” is used to cover a multitude of purposes. It’s not the format that’s the problem, it’s the purpose. If you don’t know what it is you’re trying to do, chances are whatever you’re doing is wrong. This is one of the reasons why I cringe when VLEs and podcasts get mentioned as things we should be doing. Like lectures, they have their place (and I make use of them) but they are not the answer to all situations.
    Lectures aren’t the problem, teaching is the problem. Getting rid of lectures is like putting a sticking plaster over a nasty-looking mole.

    1. Provocation, interest, new ways of thinking… If you’re achieving this, no wonder your attendance and feedback are both good.

      I agree with your sticking plaster analogy. Any broad brush approach like this is daft. In that respect, Donald Clark was right to say that simply recording a lecture for people to reach anywhere is not enough. A dull lecture is a dull lecture.

      But that doesn’t mean the lecture is dead. Only the delivery.

  3. I’ve seen some of the comments on Twitter on this and it seems that the lecture format may soon have had it’s day. The solution may not fit well with the mass production model of learning whereby 100’s of undergraduates can sit in a lecture theatre listening (allegedly) and taking notes and I presume this is about undergraduate lectures.

    We can all remember great lectures (Supply and demand concepts explained through guns, butter, donkey and horse meat – astounding) and I have attended one course whereby the lecturer simply went through his book – dull as ditchwater, which didn’t enhance my enjoyment of accounting. However a few lessons from outside universities might help.

    In corporate learning lectures would be totally inappropriate as it takes far too long for the information given to result in a change in delegate’s knowledge of behaviour. It is too inefficient. Companies often use a mixture of readable materials, elearning, audio and classroom sized training sessions. In these there is a high level of interaction and (horror of horrors), entertainment.

    Another walk of life, the church: There’s an ex-military parson who works in an urban diocese in the West Country and every week fills his church with up to 400 people. They are not getting a degree but they still come.

    I didn’t hear his speech but if Donald Clark is right then the lectures that are rubbish are possibly given by lecturers who don’t know how to make their lectures more engaging, interactive and entertaining.

    1. Your thought that rubbish lectures are those by lecturers who don’t know how to be more engaging and entertaining is echoed by Jonathan’s comment.

      Just as companies use a number of methods, so do universities, to varying degrees. Once again, much of this rests on the academics delivering the course. If they haven’t prepared a range of materials for different experiences, the range is weak and learners suffer.

      Your lecturer who read from a book was boring. Understandable. I’ve had academics who are deeply passionate about their work and give an excited talk, yet it still falls flat. Why? From what I’ve seen, it’s because their passion doesn’t come across in a valid way. The information goes over heads, or it continues to be a bore to everyone else. Sadly, passion doesn’t automatically equal engaged listeners.

      If the lecture format has had its day, the alternative is to concentrate more on already established methods of content delivery and communication. There is no need to recreate the lecture if it no longer serves a purpose.

      However, I think lectures are still important. What might help is a move away from a fixed number of lectures throughout a semester/course/module and instead use them when most suited to the situation. There are plenty occasions when an alternative is preferable.

  4. There is a lot of evidence gathered through behavoural science studies that lectures are the worst way to teach. “Games” are far more productive, however the best teaching method of all is simulation.

    I fully agree with this, however, as with all rules there are exceptions and many people (*cough* in the meedja *cough*), when they see this evidence, seems to forget that. We are not all built the same, we don’t all think the same, so why should we all be tought the same way?

    We’ve all seen some amazing lectures which have effected us even years later, so I don’t think simply scrapping lectures as a broad policy decision is a good idea.

    That said, I don’t think there is a straight-forward answer here either.

    I would say that we should remove the necessity of a lecture to higher education study. Still allow them to still be an important part but give professors the freedom to decide if they wish to lecture, have a seminar or use new techniques and technologies. I know UEL use classrooms in second life to simulate scientific experiments, an idea I though silly until I saw it in action and agreed it was an excellent learning tool.

    If we allow professors to teach in a manner that they feel is best suited to their skill set we may also start seeing students pick courses or degrees which match their learning style. This can help all involved and-if we insist on moving towards a market based system like it seems may be the case-this academic freedom can help universities and professors create niches and USPs for themselves.

    This way we may be able to keep those engaging lectures and give them an audience who are effectively engaged by lecturers whilst others look at new an innovative ways to teach students who respond to those methods.

    1. I would agree that any class should be taught in accordance with the professor’s strengths. You mentioned games (which I’ve encountered most frequently in language classes), but in the wrong professor’s hands, they are ineffectual and frustrating for students.

      The best lecturers I’ve come across incorporate discussion and help to engage students by providing us with important names and dates on the board or on a Powerpoint. This helps us, the notetakers, to concentrate on the subject material rather than spending valuable time either asking for repetition or scratching our heads about which Edward or Philip or pope is being referred to.

      Like all education, lectures can only work if the students pay attention and can make some connection with the subject material. In my experience as a student, that’s best achieved by having professors who love and understand the material teach and by mixing lecture with discussion.

      Of course, being able to employ passionate professors is becoming more difficult here in the States, where tenured positions are phased out in order to temporarily employ adjunct or visiting professors or to give seminar classes over to often uninformed graduate students. (This has been my experience at one large US university in particular, so the student experience may vary greatly in other institutions.)

      Even if a professor teaches in a way that does not match a student’s skill set or learning style, passion and background plays a large part in engaging the class. Though I’m a visual learner, basic lectures can be amazing if done with the zeal of an interested professor. I don’t think lectures should be scrapped, as they are the most effective way to explore material in subjects like history or biology in my experience. However, lectures can be efficient by engaging every student on some level. This is a professor’s duty as an educator, and those only expecting to go through the material instead of actually teach may find their students confused, frustrated, or completely lost. I believe professors who focus on the amount of material covered won’t get through to students no matter what kind of teaching they use. It’s not a lecture’s fault if students aren’t learning; it’s the professor’s and each individual student’s.

  5. Finally someone who shares the same point of view regarding lectures. In my opinions, lectures in college are either supposed to convey me information that would ultimately save me time from digesting worthless/useless information within the context of a course, or stimulate my brain to look into an interesting subject further. However, from the standpoint of a recent college graduate in science/engineering, I found the majority of instructors failing to do that, despite my efforts in picking emphasis in their message before giving up and learning the material on my own while skipping classes. Many college instructors are trained to be scientists/researchers, not teachers, and many of them are uninterested in teaching (i.e. viewing them as a chore as part of their tenure). What do you think?

  6. I agree that there are good and bad lectures (just as there are good and bad texts). But–as a young professor–I still strongly believe there is a place for lecturing. I just don’t think that it should be the only tool employed by instructors.

    I think the question of whether learners have changed is an appropriate one. We frequently hear about how new generations of students have more limited attention spans and how technology is changing how they think and interact with information. But — and perhaps I am just old-fashioned — I think that if those reports are true than this is something we might need to work to counteract. Following a long lecture (or reading a long book, for that matter), even one that on its surface seems monotonous or boring, can eventually lead one on exciting intellectual paths that are not possible to reach in other, shorter, forms of presentation. Some of my favorite classes as an undergraduate were lecture courses: Magagna’s UCSD lectures on culture and politics with their long, esoteric outlines full of arguments that gradually built upon each other; Popkin’s discussions of US interventions in Vietnam that included important digressions with stories of his personal experiences over there.

    I would agree that not all learning activity needs to be lecture-based (it isn’t always in my own classes), but I would argue strongly for retaining lectures in academia.

  7. I do find it interesting that most Conferences are actually lectures. In this case it appears that the topic “Should lectures be banned?” was delivered in a lecture format. The comment “Despite a couple of questions from the audience asking about alternatives to the lecture, no specific answers were forthcoming. Clark replied at one point that the answers are “staring us in the face”. is interesting as from what I can tell (as I wasn’t there) I don’t think Clark was “walking the talk”. This probably proves points raised by others such as “Another good aspect of lectures is the opportunity to hear someone interesting just speak.”, etc.

  8. I agree to an extent. An inspirational or truly mind-blowing lecture is an amazing experience, best demonstrated by TED.

    However, mediocre lectures are ‘hosepipe jobs’. A flood of discourse which is very difficult to process into meaningful information. In that situation it is up to the student to develop an efficient note-taking system.

    I’ve posted about this on (A Better way to read) but I think a GTD-esque system of outlining the lecture would help. With a strong outline, the student can identify the verbs – the actions – in a lecture which are most relevant to their work.

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