Reviewing the Effectiveness of Lecturing

Reviewing the Effectiveness of Lecturing

Jesse Martin 03/09/2020 4
Reviewing the Effectiveness of Lecturing

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


There has been a long-running debate 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.

Skirting the research? 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.

Given all of the evidence we have accumulated over the years demonstrating that lectures don’t work to 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 don’t work. Given that Bok reported (in “Our Underachieving Colleges”) that fewer that 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 straight forward.

Why Lecture?

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, but they also know that they will be tested on some of this information. Why not sit and passively demand that the lecturer condenses, organizes, and presents the information that is considered most important in an easy to read and follow format – 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 44 slides highlighting the most important points, accompanied by a single tweet (140 characters) with the exam probabilities. From a students' perspective, lectures are easy.

Why do lecturers prefer lectures? In one hour (or 90 minutes or whatever) you can deal with 40, 50 100, 200 or 1000 students. In and out with minimal effort (plus the accompanying buzz). In addition, lectures are a sustainable resource – easily recycled and reused. Lectures are an easy way to teach.

For administrators, they are heaven sent. Pack all the students together in a bunch and 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 their 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. I have my students… I 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 mind-numbing conformity – lectures with PowerPoint.

Lecture theaters 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.

Historical Context

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

Science of learning lecture

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 30 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 its sell-by date? Information is no longer scarce. Within the walls of most lecture theaters, 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 its contents onto a waiting screen

Effectiveness of Lectures

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
  • Usefulness and Interest
  • Extrinsic Motivation
  • Reading
  • Prep for a Job
  • Performance Based Measures
  • Content
  • Online Learning
  • Second, there are things that are not fostered or don’t work using lectures:
  • Higher Order Thinking Skills
  • Effort – lectures are passive learning experiences
  • Information Abundance
  • Prep to change the world
  • Reading
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Motivating Students Academically
  • Changing Mindset
  • Short-Term -> Long-Term Memory Transfer
  • Transference of Learning
  • Creativity
  • Metacognition

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 2016 were doing so in order to get a qualification that would lead to a good job.

What do Lecture Theaters Say?

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

– to learn is to acquire information

– information is scarce and hard to find

– trust authority for good information

– authorised information is beyond discussion

– obey authority

– follow along

How Well do Lectures Work?

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 even less than that.

Ignoring The Evidence

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:

The town 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 in the playground. It was in the football ground. It was in the skating rink. 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 had happened, 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, they’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 neighbors, 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 struck 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 used to 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 was willful blindness.

It is easy to say that what happened in Libby has nothing to do with higher education. 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, is willful blindness. But nobody dies – do they?

Changing from lecturing to the most effective form of learning (discussion) is easier than most teachers think, but they are unwilling to change because, well, lectures are easy and that is what students want. Why upset the applecart? If this is really what everyone wants, just leave it alone - right?

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  • Will Tattz

    Welcome to virtual lectures

  • Colin Baldwin

    I don't miss uni, I learned so many new things at work. Online modules are better.

  • David Lightfoot

    Lectures are effective with captivating teachers and presentations

  • Mike Barnes

    Thoughtful read

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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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