Chapter 3: Methods of teaching: campus-focused
3.3 Transmissive lectures: learning by listening
[Lectures] are more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants the audience to learn something.’
This specific definition is important as it excludes contexts where a lecture is deliberately designed to be interrupted by questions or discussion between instructors and students. This form of more interactive lecturing will be discussed in the next section (Chapter 3, Section 4).
3.3.2 The origins of the lecture
Transmissive lectures can be traced back as far as ancient Greek and Roman times, and certainly from at least the start of the European university, in the 13th century. The term ‘lecture’ comes from the Latin, meaning a reading. In the 13th century, most books were extremely rare. They were painstakingly handcrafted and illustrated by monks, often from fragments or collections of earlier and exceedingly rare and valuable scrolls from ancient Greek or Roman times, or were translated from Arabic sources, since much documentation was destroyed in Europe during the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman empire. As a result, a university would often have only one copy of a book, and it may have been the only copy available in the world. The library and its collection therefore became critical to the reputation of a university, and professors had to borrow the only text from the library and literally read from it to the students, who dutifully wrote down their own version of the lecture.
Lectures themselves belong to an even longer oral tradition of learning, where knowledge is passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. In such contexts, accuracy and authority (or power in controlling access to knowledge) are critical for ‘accepted’ knowledge to be successfully transmitted. Thus accurate memory, repetition and a reference to authoritative sources become exceedingly important in terms of validating the information transmitted. The great sagas of the ancient Greeks and, much later, of the Vikings, are examples of the power of oral transmission of knowledge, continued even today through the myths and legends of many indigenous communities.
This illustration from a thirteenth-century manuscript shows Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, Italy, in 1233. What is striking is how similar the whole context is to lectures today, with students taking notes, some talking at the back, and one clearly asleep. Certainly, if Rip Van Winkle awoke in a modern lecture theatre after 800 years of sleeping, he would know exactly where he was and what was happening.
Nevertheless, the lecture format has been questioned for many years. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) over 200 years ago said of lectures:
‘People have nowadays…got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken…Lectures were once useful, but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary.’
What is remarkable is that even after the invention of the printing press, radio, television, and the Internet, the transmissive lecture, characterised by the authoritative instructor talking to a group of students, still remains the dominant methodology for teaching in many institutions, even in a digital age, where information is available at a click of a mouse. It could be argued that anything that has lasted this long must have something going for it. On the other hand, we need to question whether the transmissive lecture is still the most appropriate means of teaching, given all the changes that have taken place in recent years, and in particular given the kinds of knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.
3.3.3 What does research tell us about the effectiveness of lectures?
Whatever you may think of Samuel Johnson’s opinion, there has indeed been a great deal of research into the effectiveness of lectures, going back to the 1960s, and continued through until today. The most authoritative analysis of the research on the effectiveness of lectures remains Bligh’s (2000). He summarized a wide range of meta-analyses and studies of the effectiveness of lectures compared with other teaching methods and found consistent results:
- the lecture is as effective as other methods for transmitting information (the corollary of course is that other methods – such as video, reading, independent study, or Wikipedia – are just as effective as lecturing for transmitting information);
- most lectures are not as effective as discussion for promoting thought;
- lectures are generally ineffective for changing attitudes or values or for inspiring interest in a subject;
- lectures are relatively ineffective for teaching behavioural skills.
Bligh also examined research on student attention, on memorizing, and on motivation, and concluded (p.56):
‘We see evidence… once again to suppose that lectures should not be longer than twenty to thirty minutes – at least without techniques to vary stimulation.‘
These research studies have shown that in order to understand, analyze, apply, and commit information to long-term memory, the learner must actively engage with the material. In order for a lecture to be effective, it must include activities that compel the student to mentally manipulate the information. Many lecturers of course do this, by stopping and asking for comments or questions throughout the lecture – but many do not.
Again, although these findings have been available for a long time, and You Tube videos now last approximately eight minutes and TED talks 20 minutes at a maximum, teaching in many educational institutions is still organized around a standard 50 minute lecture session or longer, with, if students are lucky, a few minutes at the end for questions or discussion. There are two important conclusions from the research:
- even for the sole purpose for which lectures may be effective – the transmission of information – the 50 minute lecture needs to be well organized, with frequent opportunities for student questions and discussion (Bligh provides excellent suggestions on how to do this in his book);
- for all other important learning activities, such as developing critical thinking, deep understanding, and application of knowledge – the kind of skills needed in a digital age – lectures are ineffective. Other forms of teaching and learning – such as opportunities for discussion and student activities – are necessary.
3.3.4 Does new technology make lectures more relevant?
Over the years, institutions have made massive investments in adding technologies to support lecturing. Powerpoint presentations, multiple projectors and screens, clickers for recording student responses, even ‘back-chat’ channels on Twitter, enabling students to comment on a lecture – or more often, the lecturer – in real time (surely the worst form of torture for a speaker), have all been tried. Students have been asked to bring tablets or laptops to class, and universities in particular have invested millions of dollars in state of the art lecture theatres. Nevertheless, all this is just lipstick on a pig. The essence of a lecture remains the transmission of information, all of which is now readily and, in most cases, freely available in other media and in more learner-friendly formats.
I worked in a college where in one program all students had to bring laptops to class. At least in these classes, there were some activities related to the lecture that required the students to use the laptops during class time. However, in most classes this took less than 25 per cent of the lesson time. Most of the other time, students were talked at, and as a result used their laptops for other, mainly non-academic activities, especially playing online poker.
Faculty often complain about students use of technology such as mobile phones or tablets, for ‘non-relevant’ multitasking in class, but this misses the point. If most students have mobile phones or laptops, why are they still having to come to a lecture hall in person? Why can’t they get a podcast or a video of the lecture? Second, if they are coming, why are the lecturers not requiring them to use their mobile phones, tablets, or laptops for study purposes, such as finding sources? Why not break the students into small groups and get them to do some online research then come back with group answers to share with the rest of the class? If lectures are to be offered, the aim should be to make the lecture engaging in its own right, so the students are not distracted by their non-academic online activity.
3.3.5 Is there then no role for lectures in a digital age?
Lectures though still have their uses. One example is an inaugural lecture I attended for a newly appointed research professor. In this lecture, the professor summarised all the research he and his team had done, resulting in treatments for several cancers and other diseases. This was a public lecture, so he had to satisfy not only other leading researchers in the area, but also a lay public with often no science background. He did this by using excellent visuals and analogies. The lecture was followed by a small wine and cheese reception for the audience. The lecture worked for several reasons:
- first of all, it was a celebratory occasion bringing together family, colleagues and friends;
- second, it was an opportunity to pull together nearly 20 years of research into a single, coherent narrative or story;
- third, the lecture was well supported by an appropriate use of graphics and video;
- lastly, he put a great deal of work into preparing this lecture and thinking about who would be in the audience – much more preparation than would have been the case if this was just one of many lectures in a course.
McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best used for:
- providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source;
- summarizing material found in a variety of sources;
- adapting material to the interests of a particular group;
- initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas;
- modelling expert thinking.
The last point is important. Faculty often argue that the real value of a lecture is to provide a model for students of how the faculty member, as an expert, approaches a topic or problem. Thus the important point of the lecture is not the transmission of content (facts, principles, ideas), which the students could get from just reading, but an expert way of thinking about the topic. The trouble with this argument for lectures is three-fold:
- students are rarely aware that this is the purpose of the lecture, and therefore focus on memorizing the content, rather than the ‘modelling’ of expert thinking;
- faculty themselves are not explicit about how they are doing the modelling (or fail to offer other ways in which modelling could be used, so students can compare and contrast);
- students get no practice themselves in modelling this skill, even if they are aware of the modelling.
Perhaps more importantly, looking at McKeachie and Svinicki’s suggestions, would it not be better for the students, rather than the lecturer, to be doing these activities in a digital age?
So, yes, there are a few occasions when lectures work very well. But in a digital age they should not be the default model for regular teaching. There are much better ways to teach that will result in better learning over the length of a course or program.
3.3.6 Why are lectures still the main form of educational delivery?
Given all of the above, some explanation needs to be offered for the persistence of the lecture into the 21st century. Here are some suggestions:
- in fact, in many areas of education, the lecture has been replaced, particularly in many elementary or primary schools;
- architectural inertia: a huge investment has been made by institutions in facilities that support the lecture model. What is to happen to all that real estate if it is not used? (As Winston Churchill said, ‘We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us‘);
- in North America, the Carnegie unit of teaching is based on a notion of one hour per week of classroom time per credit over a 13 week period. It is easy then to divide a three credit course into 39 one hour lectures over which the curriculum for the course must be covered. It is on this basis that teaching load and resources are decided;
- faculty in post-secondary education have no other model for teaching. This is the model they are used to, and because appointment is based on training in research or work experience, and not on qualifications in teaching, they have no knowledge of how students learn or confidence or experience in other methods of teaching;
- many experts prefer the oral tradition of teaching and learning, because it enhances their status as an expert and source of knowledge; being allowed an hour of other people’s time to hear your ideas without major interruption is very satisfying on a personal level (at least for me when I’m lecturing);
- see Scenario C at the start of this chapter.
3.3.7 Is there a future for lectures in a digital age?
That depends on how far into the future one wants to look. When teachers and instructors had to go online during the pandemic, most merely moved their lectures online. Given the inertia in the system, transmissive lectures are likely still to predominate for another ten years, but after that, in most institutions, courses based on three one-hour lectures a week over 13 weeks are likely to have disappeared. There are several reasons why this may happen:
- all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost (see Chapter 11);
- institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media;
- third, open textbooks incorporating multi-media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures;
- lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.
This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include:
- a professor’s summary of her latest research,
- the introduction to a course,
- a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or
- the wrap-up to a course.
Lectures will provide a chance for instructors to make themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.
For a different and informed perspective on the role and future of lectures, see Christine Gross-Loh, 2016.
Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Boswell, J. (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson, New York: Penguin Classics (edited by Hibbert, C., 1986)
Gross-Loh, C. (2016) Should colleges really eliminate the college lecture? The Atlantic, 14 July
McKeachie, W. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin
Activity 3.3 The future of lectures
1. Do you agree that lectures are dead – or soon will be?
2. Look at the skills needed in a digital age described in Chapter 1. Which of these skills could lectures help develop? Would they need to be redesigned or modified to do this and if so, how?
For feedback on the second question click on the podcast below: