In Defence of Lectures

[note: this was written on the move, in my phone, so please forgive (and point out!) any mistakes/glaring issues!]

A colleague pointed me in the direction of an article in the Education Guardian, which is guaranteed to get you going, one way or another. The article in question argues that the lecture is dead (long live the MOOC!).

Yet anyone who has taught 200+ students in the space of an hour will tell you that it is difficult to teach that many people effectively. It may not be the ‘best’ way of teaching subjects, but if you want to teach face-to-face (which is certainly the better option in my mind) your options are limited. So, perhaps the more accurate title is ‘in defence of lectures as the most context-appropriate approach, as part of a series of pedagogical interactions’. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Anyway, the author, Clark, makes a number of points. I will try to address them below.

1) The hour is outdated.
Clark highlights that our teaching times are based on a system that began in 3100 BC. This does not fit into the psychology of learning. Perhaps not – but in that case let’s also reform secondary school lessons. And those hour-long tv documentaries.

This is what we use to divide time. So we work with it. We are free, however, to set up that time as we like.

2) Lectures breed passive students

Perhaps. However, I’ve taught plenty of seminars (even with 4 people) where no-one has talked voluntarily. I wager most teachers can relate to this. The lecture simply gives students safety in numbers. That being said I’ve always allowed interaction in lectures, and someone will always speak up (eventually). Furthermore the majority of lectures I have attended or run have had interactive elements. At least in my experience, the 60 mins of being talked at isn’t quite the case.

3) Attention fall off

People can’t concentrate for an hour. True. Which is why you build in breaks, multimedia, tasks, and perhaps some good old fashioned patrolling to make sure students put their phones away.

4) note taking

Note taking is rarely taught, and this is the main way of synthesising info. This one I agree with. Personally, I like the idea of there being a critical thinking/skills course for new students where such skills could be taught. However note taking is also a personal business, and we all do it differently. For example I used to write down as much as possible verbatim. As I became more experienced, I found my technique. Notes are important, as is note taking. Do you want to be that person in the business meeting who hasn’t/can’t take(en) notes and therefore can’t report back because the handouts weren’t informative enough?

5) Disabilities

Some people have difficulties, which make lectures hard. I agree completely,  which is why we should give these people as much support as they need, and provide suitable alternatives if possible/necessary. This doesn’t mean we should ditch the lecture, however.

6) ‘one bite at the cherry’

This argument suggests that if you don’t get it first time round you’re done for. This is probably the one that annoyed me the most. This is the precise reason seminars are used alongside lectures – to discuss material. Not forgetting all the reading you’re supposed to do either side of your classes. And of course there is email support, office hours and surgeries.

7) Cognitive overload
There is a lot – sometimes too much – information to process from a lecture. I do have sympathy with this one. But this can be addressed through q&as, reading, seminars, and developing note-taking/synthesis skills. And no-one is expected to come out of a lecture with perfect recall and a complete understanding. Enter seminars, office hours, emails,  reading – again.

8) Tyranny of location

Students have to go to campus. Well, yes. But there are plenty of benefits to this too. Feeling part of a community, getting new experiences, meeting people… Also, does anyone apply to a university they can’t get to? Of course, we should remember that some people’s personal and financial situations may restrict these choices.

9) Tyranny of time

Students have to turn up at a specific time. Yep. But I have a sneaking suspicion they may be faced with such trials and tribulations in the world of work, too. I’m also guessing the majority of students have been trained to turn up on time by things like school…

10) Presentation

Some lecturers aren’t very charismatic or interesting. This can be a problem. But not everyone in our lives will have the qualities of a prime-time chat show host.

So, there are the problems. And what is Clerk’s alternative? Recorded lectures. He argues this is an effective alternative. But to me the argument seems to be ‘lecture my way, not yours’. He conveniently forgets all the other events that work alongside a lecture that enhance some things and help to reduce the negative impact of others.

And the final thing? Clark is trying to flog us Massively Open Online Courses. I see there is no discussion of the drawbacks of those, pedagogical or not. Interesting, that!



  1. I don’t agree with the original blog particularly, but a few thoughts on this one:

    9) The tyranny of time
    There are many reasons why this is incorrect, but to put it bluntly – there are expectations on students that make for some issues: 1) timetabling – my own university exists on several sites, and students are often expected to travel between them, this has caused issues of attendance in the past and will again. 2) At work you’re paid to be there day in and day out – students aren’t being paid, and they aren’t being given anywhere near the living wage: often students work, and often the lecture is seen as more flexible than the job. 3) There are a lot of expectations on students – to some extent they are the masters of time juggling, in all honesty.

    Whilst that isn’t an argument against or for the lecture particularly, but merely that situations occur and often and it is out of the individual’s control – in the case of the original blog the idea was a lecture recording: many universities use live lecture recording, and I advocate this as a good idea.

    5) Disabilty
    A lot of people need other forms of support that is under the level of a disability. It is also notable that David Willetts is talking about changing the DSA, which may mean that those who currently have that support won’t have it going forwards.

    1) ‘The hour is outdated’
    My own school had lessons of 35 minutes, not 1 hour for these reasons. I don’t think the one hour lecture is problematic, but I have seen lecture blocks to extend to three hours, and that is the primary learning opportunity – that’s not efficient by any stretch.

  2. Hi Sam,

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you! Largely I agree with your comment, you make some good points.

    The issue of timetabling and sites is a difficult one, but this is obviously more logistical than pedagogical. It could be sorted out largely by estates, for example.

    As for students not being paid – this is a genuine issue. The fact that a student’s part time job is seen as more important than the lecture is a paradox, considering the student likely has that job to help pay for university. I would be old fashioned here and say this is one of the reasons why grants or at least increased funding for students is a good idea.

    There are a lot of expectations on students. As an undergrad I filled my time with lots of extra curricula activities. I went on to do a full time MA whilst also working 20 hours a week in an office. The first three years of my PhD were funded, but when that ran out I ended up essentially having two full-time jobs (though the paid one was relatively precarious and not well paid. That being said I was in a better employment position than many people). This is one of the harsh realities that many people don’t (or can’t) understand before they go to uni. In some ways though it’s good training for life. Additionally, university is different from school and college. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You make your own choices and you divide your day and your labour as you see fit.

    Lecture recording is certainly a good idea. However, it should be a supplement to, rather than replacing, the lecture.

    Disabled students deserve a lot more support. The fact the Tories can even contemplate reducing or removing this funding is abhorrent. All this will do is put more pressure on everyone in the HE system, and make the lives of disabled students exponentially more difficult.

    I’m glad to hear your school used 35 minute lessons. When I was at school and college we had one hour or two hour lessons. I can only speak from my experience. Again, I don’t really have a problem with hour long lessons, depending on how that hour is divided. This is particularly so in HE where (you’d hope) the students are there because they want to be (although unfortunately this isn’t always the case).

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