The Lecture is Dead…Again.

Each year it seems, several news stories appear which predict the end of the venerable teaching method, the lecture. Detractors (read:  “haters”) of the lecture method are quick to call out the inherent lack of interaction and often mind-numbing boredom that ensues listening to some instructors’ lectures. Indeed, I would assert that suffering through a boring lecture is an almost universal student experience, maybe even a rite of passage.  Based on this shared experience, critics find a large and sympathetic audience to vent their frustrations and offer instructional prescriptions to cure students of their lecture ills.

Yet all too often, these criticisms simplistically conflate students’ classroom experience with student learning, treating them as if they are interchangeable or worse dependent upon one another.  Of course we hope that classrooms are active, intellectually stimulating and engaging environments. But having such an engaging environment does not guarantee that students will learn nor is such an environment a prerequisite for student learning. In this vein, I was delighted to read a recent article in the Atlantic by Abigail Walthausen who offered an alternative view of lectures. In particular, Walthausen recounts that in her own experience:

…the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them).

Beyond one author’s individual experience, a close examination of the empirical literature finds substantial support favoring the use of lecture to foster student learning.

For example, in a meta-analysis spanning a 40-year period examining the efficacy of various training and development methods, the authors found that lectures had large and positive effects on student learning. What you may find more surprising is that lectures were shown to be effective for both cognitive (knowledge) and behavioral learning. That is, lecture not only helps students know things, lectures are also effective in helping them learn to do things, including tasks that are interpersonal in nature. In the authors’ words:

… despite their widespread use, they [lectures] have a poor public image as a boring and ineffective training delivery method. In contrast, a noteworthy finding in our meta-analysis was the robust effect obtained for lectures, which contrary to their poor public image, appeared to be quite effective in training several types of skills and tasks.

By way of analogy, I prefer ice cream over broccoli, but my preference for ice cream does not negate the fact that broccoli is still really good for me.

What makes the most recent round of criticism all the more curious is that MOOCs are being offered as an antidote to the poisonous lecture. Most MOOCs however, are built on a heavy dose of lecturing. Sure, a well-constructed MOOC points students to websites and uses video to engage in between technical content and does have the advantage of the “replay” button. But much of the same can be said for in-class lectures and few competent instructors today (especially in professional schools) engage in pure lecturing without some form of student interaction. Technology can enhance and support many aspects of instruction but ultimately, technology cannot supplant the need to package and convey a coherent body of knowledge. In the formal learning environment, such work almost always requires some form of lecture.

So, the next time someone tells you it’s time to kill the lecture, sit him down for a good long lecture of your own. He may not like it, but he’ll probably learn something.

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