Lecturing - Is there No Other Way?

Lecturing - Is there No Other Way?

Jesse Martin 01/05/2018 9

As methods of teaching go, lectures are the most widely used (80 - 90%) method of teaching in higher education today with about the least amount of effectiveness of any form of teaching.

There has been a long-running debate among academics about the effectiveness of lecturing. Corrigan has looked at the debate and says, about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

The research is unequivocal. As Gibbs states:

More than 700 studies (referring to Blighs 1972 work that was increased to 1200 studies in his 2000 update) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

Add to that another 600 – 1000 studies carried out over the past 15 years saying the same thing and you have a mountain of evidence stretching from the mid-1940s to the present day. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of lectures, however, they are few and far between and in no way compare to the evidence against lecturing as an effective form of teaching. Kind of like the climate change debate. Anyone who seriously researches in the area of climate comes to the unanimous agreement that climate change is real. There are others who write about climate change from outside the field of study who disagree and these are the studies that are held up as the clear proof that climate change is not happening and that there is some kind of conspiracy to destroy our society. I guess that those researching in the area of lecture effectiveness are trying to destroy higher education. It is a good thing that we have some brave souls from other fields who are willing to write about the beautiful virtues of lecturing as an ideal learning experience.

Given all of the evidence demonstrating that lectures don’t work when it comes to learning and thinking, why do we still use them? Unless a working academic has not engaged in a single conversation about teaching in the last 30 years (and I daresay there will be some), they will have heard that lectures are ineffective. Given that Bok reported (in “Our Underachieving Colleges”) that fewer than 5% of working academics will read anything about teaching in a given year, is it any surprise that nothing changes. The reasons why we lecture are straightforward.

Students’ love and demand lectures. They demand PowerPoint slides of their lectures? They know that there is a world of knowledge available to them on any given subject. They also know that they will be tested on some of this information. Why not demand that the lecturer condense, organize, and present the information that is considered most important – saves the student from having to do it themselves. I’m waiting for the real advent of Twitter in education. Give me a 90-minute lecture with 24 slides highlighting the most important points, accompanied by a single tweet (140 characters) of exam question probabilities. Lectures are easy.

Why do lecturers prefer lectures? In one hour (or 90 minutes or whatever) you can deal with 40, 50 100, 200, 1000, or more students. In and out with minimal effort (plus the accompanying buzz). In addition, lectures are sustainable – easily recycled and reused. Lectures are the easy way to teach and with virtually no incentive to do better than minimal, why do anything more than minimal. I know professors who lecture to five students - with PowerPoints.

For administrators, they are heaven sent. Pack all the students together in a bunch, timetable them into one ginormous room for a few hours a week, and that’s all there is to it. Any other form of teaching takes additional resources and support that cost time and money. Not something an administrator wants to consider in a world obsessed with efficiency. This is not the fault of the administrator – this is his or her job.

Easy, Easy, Easy – but difficult to defend. Providing traditional lectures satisfies all of the principle stakeholders. Satisfying the stakeholders is where education and learning part ways. We are providing an education that is minimally interested in learning.

The system works. Administrators build bigger lecture theaters. Lecturers put in minimal effort. Students put in minimal effort. Graduates get degrees. Everyone is happy. And, there are very few people who just lecture because (of course) “…my lectures are different. …students do (fill in the blank here) as well. …assess them in ways that…”.

Because it is easy for the students, easy for the lecturers, and easy for the administrator. Passive learning is the hallmark of Higher Education today. I know there are excellent examples that break the mold, but for every excellent example, there are 99 examples of conformity – lectures with PowerPoint.

Lecture theatres are an anachronism, but they are still the most popular teaching facilities in higher education today. Recent research shows that students prefer lectures by a two to one margin and that over 85% of them expect PowerPoint slides in the presentation. I would guess that if lecturers were surveyed, the margin who would prefer lectures would be even higher, with the use of PowerPoint at least as high. Even less amazing, I would predict that if administrators were surveyed (those who arrange, timetable, and resource teaching), they would prefer lectures and PowerPoint 99 times out of 100.

There is a good reason why we have lecture theatres. They have a strong historical context.

When Universities were first started, there were few resources (books etc.), and these resources were prohibitively expensive. Students sat and listened to an expert who told them what they knew, and the students wrote their own resources (notes) so they would have them for themselves. This model has been in place for centuries – except a couple of things have changed.

Books and information are no longer scarce. Even as recent as 40 years ago, there was often only a single copy of a journal or book in the library that had to be shared out among 10, 20, 50, 100, or 1000 students all taking the same class. Much of the information the students needed was difficult to access and was a scarce resource. The lecturer stood in the front and dictated information to the students.

Why do we still do this? Why do we insist on clinging to a model that is well past the sell-by date?

Information is not scarce. In most areas of the world today, within the walls of the lecture theatre, there exists all the information a student could want. With the click of a button or the swipe of a finger, the internet is available and ready to disgorge all of its contents onto a waiting screen

Why is lecturing so ineffective? If you have been reading my Science of Learning articles you should have a good idea.

First, there are things that are fostered or can work using lectures:

  • Behaviorism
  • Conformity
  • Passivity
  • Cramming
  • Passing exams
  • Learning styles
  • Disfluency effect
  • Spacing effect
  • Testing effect
  • Some memory effects – although rarely long-term
  • Information scarcity
  • Usefulness and interest
  • Extrinsic motivation
  • Prep for a job (although what job is a good question)
  • Performance-based measures
  • Content

Second, there are things that are not fostered or don’t work using lectures:

Higher order thinking skills

Effort – lectures are passive learning experiences

Prep for a real job

Information abundance

Prep to change the world


Intrinsic motivation

Motivating students academically

Changing mindset

Short-term -> long-term memory transfer

Transference of learning



If lecture room walls could talk… What would they say? Against a backdrop of Anywhere U’s full lecture theatre (I’ve been there plenty) Michael Wesch asks what the traditional lecture theatre represents. He makes the following list:

– to learn is to acquire information

– information is scarce and hard to find

– trust authority for good information

– authorized information is beyond discussion

– obey authority

– follow along

In the 70’s, researchers found that only 35% of the information presented orally (under ideal conditions) could be recalled after a five-minute delay. We do much, much better with our lecturing because the research tells us that immediately following a lecture; students recall about 42% of the material. We have found that learners typically recall less than 10% of information (in the form of a psudolecture) presented orally after a one-week delay. A year later, they recall less than that.

If you see your job in teaching as helping students get a degree, then lecturing works fine. After all, eighty-five percent of the students entering university in 2017 were doing so in order to get a qualification that would lead to a good job.

On the Learner Weblog, there is a post about the proliferation of lectures. It is noted here that YouTube is increasing the number of videos available by over 13 hours every minute with many of these hours being lectures in one form or another. A search of YouTube lists almost 100,000 hits for university lectures. How many more ways do we need to be told that 1+1=2?

And, as far as most of the innovations in teaching are concerned (online learning, flipped classrooms, in lecture discussions etc.), at the heart, they are still lectures. Recorded or live, lectures are still lectures. Lectures are simply the oral transmission of information – millennia of tradition, but rather ineffective in today’s world.

At the risk of being repetitive, I’m going to go over the story of Libby, Montana again - I’ve provided a link, but reprint it here because it is important to know:

Libby had a vermiculite mine in it.

Vermiculite was used for soil conditioners, to make plants grow faster and better. Vermiculite was used to insulate lofts, huge amounts of it put under the roof to keep houses warm during the long Montana winters. Vermiculite was on the playground under the equipment. It was in the football ground. It was in the skating rink.

Gayla Benefield worked as a meter reader in Libby and was puzzled by the number of middle and late middle-aged who were not working and wore oxygen masks in the middle of the day. What she didn’t learn until she started working this problem is vermiculite is a very toxic form of asbestos.

When she figured out the puzzle, she started telling everyone she could what was happening, what had been done to her parents and to the people that she saw on oxygen tanks at home in the afternoons. But she was really amazed. She thought, when everybody knows, he or she’ll want to do something, but actually, nobody wanted to know.

In fact, she became so annoying as she kept insisting on telling this story to her neighbours, to her friends, to other people in the community, that eventually a bunch of them got together and they made a bumper sticker, which they proudly displayed on their cars, which said, “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana, and no, I don’t have asbestosis.”

But Gayla didn’t stop. She kept doing research. The advent of the Internet definitely helped her.

She talked to anybody she could. She argued and argued, and finally she got lucky when a researcher came through town studying the history of mines in the area, and she told him her story, and at first, of course, like everyone, he didn’t believe her, but he went back to Seattle and he did his own research and he realized that she was right. So now she had an ally.

Nevertheless, people still didn’t want to know.

They said things like, “Well, if it were really dangerous, someone would have told us.” “If that’s really why everyone was dying, the doctors would have told us.” Some of the guys who used to do very heavy jobs said, “I don’t want to be a victim. I can’t possibly be a victim, and anyway, every industry has its accidents.” But still Gayla went on, and finally, she succeeded in getting a federal agency to come to town and to screen the inhabitants of the town — 15,000 people — and what they discovered was that the town had a mortality rate 80 times higher than anywhere in the United States.

That was in 2002, and even at that moment, no one raised their hand to say, “Gayla, look in the playground where your grandchildren are playing. It’s lined with vermiculite.”

This wasn’t ignorance. It is willful blindness.

It is easy to say that what happened in Libby has nothing to do with higher education.

Of course, willful blindness is a problem of the uneducated, but those of us who work in higher education are educated, so wilful blindness wouldn’t effect us. Academics ignoring the evidence about lecturing and not teaching students higher order thinking skills, and even defending their practices in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is just plain wrong; willful blindness.

So, why might there be willful blindness amongst higher education professionals when it comes to lecturing? I really hope that it is not because they simply don’t care. The first, most obvious reason is that lecturing is what they want to do for the reasons outlined above. But why, in the face of the overwhelming evidence that lecturing is so ineffective, do higher education teachers insist on continuing to lecture. These are people with highly developed higher order thinking skills – or at least they are supposed to be.

The main problem is that they are not willing to self-correct in the face of evidence. The willingness to self-correct is the most difficult component of critical thinking. Although higher order thinking skills are usually well developed in higher education professionals, the problem of transference – the ability to take something that has been learned and apply it to other contexts and situations – means that the majority of their higher order thinking skills are confined within a narrow field of specialization that defines his or her expertise. Overcoming the problem of transference is difficult and there is nothing in our educational process, after primary school, that supports transference. Quite the opposite is what higher education is all about. A narrower and narrower curriculum is followed as these higher thinking skills are developed. That is the system we have inherited.

Changing from lecturing to the most effective form of learning (iterative discussion) is easier than most teachers think, but they are unwilling to change because, well, lectures are easy for everyone and that is what we have come to expect in higher education. Lecturing is proper teaching.

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  • Emma Wilson

    Lectures are ineffective for social or personal development

  • Michael Burkitt

    If we want to promote thought, inspire interest and teach behavioural skills then we need something in addition to lectures.

  • Kyle Withers

    Teachers cannot monitor their students' learning curve but they can create an environment that can engage them

  • Patrick Vargas

    Good stuff! Thanks for sharing. 

  • Caroline McHugh

    Awesome! Thanks for the advice!

  • Ryan Zambonini

    Brilliant insight from the first sentence onward.

  • Nirvik Mahin

    I learned so much with this article. I really appreciate what you do! Keep it up

  • Callum Low


  • Marco Silva

    Great article

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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