Lectures aren’t as bad as people say

5 Jan
I’ve been teaching in higher education for over ten years, and in that period the one point I’ve seen made about teaching more than any other is that lectures are not a good means of teaching. Indeed, the phrase ‘ chalk and talk’ has almost become a synonym for ‘poor teaching’. For someone like myself who is interested in good teaching it is therefore more than a little ironic that my teaching now consists entirely of lectures delivered to 200+ students at a time.
This paradox came to mind recently when I read an excellent article in praise of lectures, that chimed with many of my opinions. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best examples of ‘teaching’ that one sees are invariably ‘lectures’, from the Xmas Lecture Series of the Royal Institution to Richard Feynman’s celebrated lectures on Physics. Indeed, even in the world of television, work from documentary makers like Ken Burns or naturalists like David Attenborough are essentially just very well-illustrated lectures. Against this it seems very odd that educationists will advocate almost any teaching method above lectures.
It’s interesting to contemplate how we might have arrived at this paradoxical situation. My own view is that when educationists talk about lectures being the worst way of ‘teaching’ in higher education what they are actually talking about are ‘poor lectures’. Anyone who has spent any time in higher education will know the sense of depression that sets in when you are trapped in a classroom with a lecturer who doesn’t seem interested in the material, is reading reams of text direct from the Powerpoint slides and is barely audible as they fail to use microphones correctly.
Now, or course I’m not saying that there aren’t teaching situations where a small-group tutorial wouldn’t be a much better solution than 200+ lecture, but I am saying that the ‘anything but lectures’ approach is just ridiculous. So one of my new years resolutions for 2014 is to interrupt anyone who ‘chalk and talk’ is bad, and ask them for their evidence.

9 Responses to “Lectures aren’t as bad as people say”

  1. Paul Braterman January 7, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    Lectures try to do two things at once – transmit information, and make it colourful and meaningful. So the student has two conflicting tasks; taking adequate notes of the content, and becoming aware of its significance. My eventual technique, which got rave reviews from the elite class I was privileged to teach, was to give out bare bones notes, which students annotated as they listened, and to avoid the temptation to cram more in as a result.

    • Teaching Rational Thinking January 7, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

      You’re right, I wouldn’t want to lecture now without giving students my slides in advance. I’ve never really understood colleagues who like to see students frantically scribbling during lectures. I’d much rather they were listening to me.

      • Paul Braterman January 7, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

        I remember one set of lectures I went to, excellent in many ways. I would listen, a classmate would take notes, and afterwards I would copy his notes and tell him what they meant.

      • Teaching Rational Thinking January 7, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

        I have to admit that me views on lectures (and style of lecturing) are influenced by my own undergraduate experience. I could never take notes and listen at the same time.The minute I started taking notes I lost the thread of what the lecturer was saying. I had to just sit and listen to a lecture and then write down what I thought it was about afterwards.

  2. chemvig October 27, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    I am sorry, I shall have to vigorously disagree. You ask for evidence against lecturing, please see http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.full That’s a 250 paper meta study. In return you provide no evidence in support of lectures apart from your opinion. There is no such thing as a good lecture, judged from the perspective of the amount of learning taking place. It can be well presented, entertaining even, but ultimately its a woeful waste of the time of the people involved when compared to active learning alternatives. Eric Mazur, Ross Galloway these are wonderful lecturers, judged by the criteria that seem to appeal to you, but they’ve stopped lecturing because it doesn’t work.
    Comparing lectures with or without handouts, chalk versus powerpoint, handwriting versus laptops is all utterly missing the point. The real comparison is between transmission and construction.

    • Teaching Rational Thinking October 27, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

      I’m not sure we’re actually that far apart ! I’d entirely agree that ‘construction’ is what HE ought to be doing. Surely, in a flipped classroom you still have ‘transmission’, it’s just that the ‘transmission’ is occurring before the scheduled class time rather than before it, thus we are actually talking about ‘transmission’ only versus ‘transmission’ plus ‘construction’. If the ‘flipped’ element is where ‘transmission’ is taking place shouldn’t we be interested in how that ‘transmission’ is being facilitated ?

      • chemvig October 27, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

        Yes! Some transmission will always be necessary. although I do think we need to take a long dispassionate look at our degrees and ask if there isn’t much more content that can realistically be taught. And of course I mean taught I do not mean ‘covered’ and then superficially examined. Furthermore the focus should always be on concepts not facts.
        So how best to achieve transmission? A very good question. A year ago I would have said a captured ‘good lecture’ ;), watched at the student’s convenience and at their pace. Now I am not nearly so sure. Variety will be essential. Anyone for making notes on a chapter of a textbook?

      • Teaching Rational Thinking October 27, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

        I’m very taken by the TED ED model, and at a more easily-achievable level the Khan Academy, although I dread to think how much support I’d need to produce material of TED ED quality.
        The ‘read is chapter and make notes’ model is very intuitively appealing (i.e. It’s what we all did when we were students), but I wonder how sustainable it is in the medium term. We already have a fresher generation for whom Google has always existed, and I suspect in ten years time we may struggle to explain the concept of a printed book ! Sadly I’ve yet to see an entirely successful implementation of an e-textbook (despite my own institution giving all new undergrads a free tablet and books !).
        I’d love an equivalent of PowerPoint for making ‘educational’ videos. I’ve experimented with Camtasia, which is excellent in many ways, but skill requires a good deal of production skill. Does anyone have any experience of Apple’s e-publishing platform ?


  1. Is the ‘flipped classroom’ the answer to all our problems ? | Teaching Rational Thinking - October 27, 2014

    […] I do, I still can’t decide whether it’s a good idea or not. I’ve always been a supporter of the ‘lecture’ as a  great way of demonstrating ‘the academic process…, so hopefully the best of my lectures set out to make a specific point, and along the way use […]

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