Recently, I had a conversation around the lunch table with several of my colleagues. The discussion turned to the requirement to take pedagogical courses, now part of the criteria for getting an academic job at my university. Were these courses useful or just necessary? Do they teach something relevant for improving one’s teaching? As good scientists, we stopped discussing the courses and focused thereon on the definition of “teaching” or, more specifically, on what “good teaching” should stand for. Of the many things we discussed during that lunch, the idea of the outdated lecture stayed with me, I decided to dedicate this post to a critique of this method of teaching.
Lectures are a very common (I could safely generalize and say even the most common) method of teaching at the university level. This does not mean that there are no labs, seminars, discussion sessions, group projects etc. It only means that if we look at the academic schedule of most disciplines, the majority of the booked times are under the heading “lecture”. During these lectures, the teacher imparts information on a specific topic to a group of students. What happens is known as “information transfer”: the teacher shares her knowledge with the students, who take notes and can ask questions whenever something is not clear. At the end of the session, the teacher and the students are in possession of the same amount and quality of information about the specific topic – the transfer of information has been completed.
But is the transfer of information mediated by a teacher the same thing as learning? Learning is about the long-lasting acquisition of information, it is about remembering the information and being able to retrieve it and apply it at the appropriate time in the appropriate circumstances. Lectures can ensure the short-term memorization of information, as teachers who give quizzes at the end of their presentations have certainly proven. However, it is highly questionable if lectures can deliver this kind of long-lasting knowledge. Others have demonstrated the need to complement lectures with other didactic exercises. This is where terms such as peer instruction, or (inter)active learning come from: from the need to make students engage with the information received from the teacher, to make it their own, and to apply it.
In this kind of learning, the teacher spends much less time talking to a quiet classroom (sometimes the lecture is entirely virtual, like in audio or video broadcasts that are available before the physical meeting in the classroom). Instead, the teacher’s task is to provide personalized and qualified feedback for the learning activities of the students. The students, armed with the lecture and the associated readings, discuss and respond to various hands-on exercises. The teacher assists the discussions, monitors them, and gives responses to the quality of the debates and of the results of the exercises.
Nothing of what I write here is revolutionary. Almost all of this has been common knowledge for many decades. Lectures are not the most effective way of learning. Instead more participatory forms of pedagogy give better results both in national tests and in professional life after studies. So why do we still have the lecture as the number one teaching tool?
I single out here two reasons: inertia and money. Academia is an environment well-known for its slowness in embracing change. The lecture has been around practically since the Middle Ages. It is the way to teach, and both students and teachers expect it. In order to change the teaching format from lecture-based to more hands-on student-focused learning, one needs to change the infrastructure of the university (everything, from the way to count worked hours to the classroom design). This change is met with resistance because of inertia but also because of the high material costs. And it is not just the costs of change that deter the dethroning of the lecture. One should count here also the higher amount of contact hours, since the student discussions/labs/seminars can only be carried out by few students at a time. The teacher would have to work more hours to attend these meetings and to give specific, customized feedback to every group, instead of delivering a finished product to many students at the same time.
- Eric Mazur – Peer Instruction  (1996)
- Craig Lambert - “Twilight of the Lecture ” in Harvard Magazine (2012)
- David Perkins – Making Learning Whole  (2010)
- Susan A. Ambrose et al. - How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching  (2010)
- Donald Finkel - Teaching with Your Mouth Shut  (2000)