How useful are lectures, really?

A post by Chris RowanThere has been an interesting discussion amongst the geologists on Twitter, that I’ve archived over on Geotweeps Discuss…, over the role of the lecture in undergraduate education. This was in response to an NPR story claiming that in physics at least, lectures are very bad at enabling students to conceptually grasp the material being presented. That sort of understanding requires a more interactive style of teaching, with demonstration, and small-group discussions.

I’ve read a few of these in the last few months, and in some ways I feel they set up a false dichotomy between ‘all lectures’ and ‘no lectures’, when the reality is usually ‘some lectures’. I certainly feel, as did most people who joined the discussion on Twitter, that lecturing should not be the be-all and end-all of the teaching experience, but it still has a place.

My experience of lectures back when I was an undergraduate was that some were good, some were bad. Some were very bad. But they were almost always a good starting point, in the sense that you came out with an idea of what the person teaching your course thought were the important concepts you needed to grasp, and usually a couple of useful example problems or case studies. Attaining true understanding might have only come after practicals, and reading, and talking it through with my classmates and teachers, but the lecture was where I learnt what I needed to understand.

Of course, I’m perhaps a little bit of an outlier: I’ve stayed in the academic system and have spent time at the front of the classroom as well, and I went to a University which had no compuction in telling us that perfect regurgitation of lecture notes would not impress the examiners – whilst also giving us plenty of non-lecture contact time with the faculty.

In a time when Universities are having to accommodate more students with less money, and staff are finding their schedules ever more loaded, perhaps we are heading to a place where the lecture is often the only real point of contact between teacher and the students. Combine this with the fact that students are coming to university ever more accustomed to ‘I’m going to tell you what’s in the exam’ than to ‘Here’s what you need to learn about. Go forth to the library!’, and perhaps we have a problem.

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ thoughts on this. If you went to university, did you love lectures, or hate them? Get all you needed out of them, or nothing at all? Have nothing but lectures, or a bit more balance?

Update: Thanks for all the great comments. There were also a few responses on Twitter that I thought were worth adding for posterity.

@ I think YouTube adds a lot of value to them, since anyone from anywhere can watch lectures from the best schools & teachers.
Jason R. Hunter

@ if done well lectures can be very stimulating, but not every lecture can "wow" everyone in the class... a mix is best
Stephen M. Knipe II

@ When lectures teach beyond the textbook that's when they come alive. Complementary + new instead of pure repetitiveness.
Mark Hilverda

@ @ I go to Uni and I LOVE my lectures..There should be more but I guess that's not going to happen :/
Janine Marshall

@ Question should be how to deliver impt concepts to a cohort of 200+ ugrads not using a lecture? Logistical constraints there.
Dr Andrew Henderson

Categories: academic life, science education
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Comments (18)

  1. Brian Romans says:

    The either/or, false dichotomy aspect of internet discussions is like a strange attractor — discussions seem to go there, or at least head that way, and then resurface again. Weird.

    Anyway, I completely agree. The lecture, I think, has value. But it’s when it’s coupled with hands-on learning (lab and field projects in the Earth sciences) that it seems most effective. I tried to use lectures this past semester to summarize the concepts related to the lab/field trip, both before as an introduction and on the other side as reiteration. And, increasingly, integrating hands-on exercises directly into the lecture. (I participated as a TA in an intro class where the lecture/lab was all combined — a labcture? — which was pretty interesting.)

    Whatever it’s called, I think it’s good to have some formal, more traditional, lecture-style instruction to go along with and emphasize the hands-on stuff.

  2. Phillip Holmes says:

    When I did a geology degree (a long time ago !) we had a mixture – an hours lecture, two hours hands on practical. This was alongside the normal research, essays and field trips. I thoroughly recommend the mixed approach.

  3. Bob says:

    The thing to bear in mind as well is that there are lectures and there are lectures. Not all lecture(r)s are created equal – sometimes a lecture is enough when given by a charismatic individual, made well structured and interesting, other times it… isn’t.

  4. parclair says:

    Heh. I’ve been following the twitter discussion, but since I don’t tweet, I’ve been waiting for it to show up on a blog. Thank you.

    I spent my work career in information technology, and since I started in 1972, had to spend a LOT of time in education. In fact, I sometimes think that was really my role…

    Anyway, I discovered two tools that really improved my ability to reach my customers.

    The first was Jung’s temperament types. That is, people have inherent way of dealing with the world, as described by 16 different types. There are two books that were extremely useful in this area. The first is Please Understand Me which includes the Meiers-Briggs test (My friends and I have taken it over and over during the years and it holds true). I’ve even used it as a fun party game. The second is Type Talk, a more pop-style approach, but still fun.

    The other thing that really helped me transmit ideas was the Vak/Vark model of learning styles. This one has real application to the discussion at hand. To quote Wikipedia:

    “One of the most common and widely-used [16] categorizations of the various types of learning styles is Fleming’s VARK model (sometimes VAK) which expanded upon earlier Neuro-linguistic programming (VARK) models[17]:

    visual learners;
    auditory learners;
    kinesthetic learners or tactile learners.[1]

    Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing (think in pictures; visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, handouts, etc.). Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world; science projects; experiments, etc.). Its use in pedagogy allows teachers to prepare classes that address each of these areas. Students can also use the model to identify their preferred learning style and maximize their educational experience by focusing on what benefits them the most.”

    In other words, everyone’s right, it all depends on the audience. There are tests available for these online. If nothing else, learning where you, the teacher, are coming from can really help to focus on students.

    I cannot emphasize enough how these two tools really helped me explain very complex, technical ideas to people whose interests were not at all in the technical realm.

    Thanks for the opportunity to pass my expertise on….

  5. I was fortunate enough to do my undergrad geology degree at a small university with exceptional access to varied field trip opportunities. Our lectures reinforced our field work and vice-versa. The balance seemed to be just about right, and I strongly doubt that one mode of teaching would have been successful without the counterpart.

    Now that my wandering career path has led me back into a teaching role, I find myself in a location that is not so blessed with immediately accessible field trip sites, although we take advantage of every opportunity. Consequently, I look to my lectures as an opening to create virtual field trips via Google Earth and photos (and I will be trying my hand at working in some video this year as well). When it all clicks the way I intended (it happens – occasionally), lectures offer my students an opportunity to observe how theory, observation and application all mesh together. This is strongly reinforced in the lab sessions.

    It is simply not an either/or proposition in my mind – frankly, I’d be at a loss to effectively present my material without the lecture format. Perhaps that is a failure of imagination on my part. The main problem is that it is tough to always be on top of your game during a performance, and I do regard lecturing as a performance art. Certainly there are times when the delivery just doesn’t hit the high C’s (those students are usually nodding off in the back row!), but by making a habit of diarizing what worked and what didn’t immediately after a lecture helps an awful lot.

  6. Matt Hall says:

    Great post, even better discussion. Everyone seems to agree, more or less, that it’s the wrong question. And that made me wonder, “what’s the right question?”. I don’t know, but here’s a thought experiment: what would you do if you had to teach a class on a subject of your choice, but were forbidden from lecturing to them? Do you think the outcome would be better or worse than if you had lectured?

    Here’s another one… If you’re reading this, you are almost certainly a committed learner, a perpetual student (small ‘s’). How often do you seek out a lecture when you want to learn something new?

    In my moments of starry-eyed idealism, I sometimes wonder if we could we help students ask powerful questions, challenge their mentors, argue their cases, prove their points. Teach them to investigate the earth by collecting data, analysing it, building models, testing ideas. And yes, I mean do all this instead of learning by listening to dusty intellectuals. I mean do all this by doing some science.

    I’ve often heard (and thought) “students don’t read”. You know why? It’s because they don’t have a reason to give a damn about what we’re trying to teach them.

  7. Erik says:

    Maybe I’m already too much of a pragmatist after teaching at an small college for a few years, but the problem lies in the fact that before you can push students to “students ask powerful questions, challenge their mentors, argue their cases, prove their points”, they actually need to know something about the subjects. This means they need to either (a) read the information or (b) go to a lecture. I think we walk a dangerous line when too much of college education is letting students “talk about what they think” when they have no basis. The reason why many of us don’t go to lectures to learn? Because we have the knowledge and tools to know how to find information. Most students coming into college lack these skills. At some point, you do need to learn basic information and the “no lecture” format might promote thinking, but if that is now the true goal of college, then we need to get rid of majors and return to the “reading, writing, rhetoric” model of days gone by.

    Only lecture is not the option, and neither is no lecture. You need to effectively mix teaching the students information and skills on how to learn on their own. However, we need to be met halfway. Simply saying students don’t read because “they don’t have a reason to give a damn about what we’re trying to teach them” is a strawman argument because if we only teach what they “give a damn about”, then we’re stuck with texting and drinking. It is our job to disseminate information and inspire enthusiasm. Right now, the balance is a little too much on the latter and not enough on the former.

    • Todd says:

      I agree. I also teach in a small community college in Canada, and the students in my Intro Earth Sciences classes are 80% arts students looking to fulfill their lab science requirements for transfer to a “real” university.

      It seems to me that the first year classes in earth science or physical geography are almost a tour of the vocabulary, and an attempt to get them to try and link processes and products (e.g., metamorphic environments related to subduction zones etc).

      I find field trips the most effective way of trying to take the conceptual info and make it real for the students. But even then, most of the students have the attitude that the only need the credit, and aren’t going to invest the effort to learn or think beyond what is needed to get the credit.

      I do think there is more that I could do to be more interactive, but at the end of the day, there are certain concepts and definitions the students need to know.

    • Matt Hall says:

      If we agree that students may not be very invested in their subjects, from our point of view, there are two ways to approach the problem. We could, as you suggest, try to teach them about things they apparently do give a damn about OR we could try to inspire them to give a damn about some of the same things we give a damn about. And I think the best way to do that is to get them working on solving problems, preferably real ones that we care about. Then they’ll actually want to read all the stuff we try to lecture them on. If we think they can’t do this because they don’t know enough facts (whatever those are), then truly I think we are making science out to be harder or loftier or factier than it is.

    • EdK says:

      The problem in some institutions is that this question of lecture vs. no lecture is driven by marketing concerns. The concept of “no lecture” or “alternative teaching methods” is not promoted in the interest of facilitating learning but as a way to attract students (revenue) and keep them coming. The methods being promoted are also considered to be more cost effective. Although there are institutions under severe financial constraints, this does not happen exclusively at those places. I teach at a school that is supposedly doing well financially and increasing highly paid administration and throwing up buildings like were in an economic boom. Their method of paying for this is to make degree curricula simpler with courses with catchy titles and low-levels of content and assessment. Along with this is an abuse of teaching methods. Some that work well in particular settings are pushed by the administration to be used in all courses simply because they are trendy and provide a way to push more students through the system. Grade inflation is part of this paradigm and that of course also attracts students. In the Geological Sciences Department at this institution they are cutting lab work and combining courses, but doing so in the name of “Problem Based Learning”, since PBL is the latest fad to promote the “brand.” Of course traditional lecture/lab/field instruction is problem-based learning.
      So when I hear that a false argument of lecture/no lecture being made I immediately suspect that marketing and cost-cutting are the real motivation, not pedagogy.
      Those who’ve worked in the business sector have probably seen a similar abuse of alternative and new methods conducted in the interest of marketing rather than quality.

  8. Arlenna says:

    I’m writing up a paper with a colleague right now on our results using a tutorial-style online homework system, and finding that the literature is growing to support the utility of these kinds of systems in balancing the needs of students against the economies of the large lecture-style classroom. My background reading has focused on chemistry and physics because of our topic area, but studies on the effectiveness of online homework systems in both of those subjects have shown that if well-designed with solid pedagogical principles, tutorial guidance and challenging content, these systems can bridge the gap by providing a kind of automated ‘mentoring’ on the content, giving immediate feedback. There’s also evidence (don’t have the citation handy right now) that these systems are more effective when combined with a more ‘interactive’ lecture style–but even without an interactive lecture style they can help the students.

    In our experience in using one of these systems for our non-chem-majors organic chemistry course, this has been a very effective way to get the students to master the fundamentals–something they need before they can even get their head above the water and give their brains a chance to take any more sophisticated next steps in their learning.

  9. Robert says:

    I am geology major and throughout my academic career the lecturers that use interactive styles of lecturing, “some lectures,” provide the easiest way to grasp abstract ideas. I’ve had classes that are “lecture only” and “no lecture” and neither were as effective, for me.

    Any tool that increases a students’ interactions with the ideas of the course allows the student to be present with the ideas instead of abstract and out of context.

    One thing I would like to see, at my university at least, is more emphasis on contextualizing all a majors classes together, i.e. the importance of chemistry and mathematics in Earth Sciences. In my case, combining two abstract ideas in context sheds light on how those two processes work (the tangible mechanics of abstract ideas). I understand that the role of the student is to combine these ideas for themselves, however a little help in the directions of connecting the abstract to tangible ideas would speed up the learning process. Lastly, I would like to see more importance placed on vocabulary, especially in the Earth Sciences.

    I can say, without a doubt, that the geoblogsphere has provided an understanding of my field of study beyond what I can gather from my classes. Thank you (and anyone who shares their knowledge) for your selfless work in providing valuable information for any interested person to learn. I am, continually, referring my peers and classmates to geoblogs when we are discussing problematic or complex ideas from class.

  10. I loved lectures in college and love giving them, too. Students seem to enjoy them and most grasped the topics, so I think there is still a place for them!

    I am paying “blog calls” to each @scio12 attendee to say “Hi” and give your blog a shoutout on twitter. I look forward to meeting you in a few weeks!

  11. Passerby says:

    When I taught Environmental Engineering coursework at a large Western University, I worked hard to tie lecture material to tangible (real world) examples of principles and techniques ‘in action’. Objective was to motivate students to remove sensory filters (mostly visual information) so that they recognize and appreciate applied science as it impacts their everyday experience – at school, home or work or play.

    My Intro course was quite popular with geology and environmental science students (non-engineers) and also with non-Civil Eng students. The latter group usually hated CE courses required for engineering degrees (“too much chemistry and biology”), but appeared to appreciate my approach because it made them think about their personal lifelong involvement with pollution and waste, water and wastewater, and climate. I hope it made them better-informed citizens when they went to the ballot boxes to cast their votes on municipal services-related bond issues.

    While a grad student (and latter as faculty and professional scientist), I often attended advanced class and invited speaker series lectures in many disciplines. The interesting thing is this: exposure to emerging topics broadened my knowledge base and enabled me to grasp factor inter-connections underlying phenomena I was studying in detail (microbial cell surface-environmental phase interactions).

    Lectures (in vivo, video and print form) are the heart of lifelong learning.

  12. SiccarPoint says:

    To me, it’s not the distinction between lectures and no lectures that actually matters, it’s the tailoring of teaching to each student. Everyone learns different ways, so the only way to actually teach truly effectively is to find that out for each individual student. That means 1-on-1 contact, even if just for a few minutes, which means labs, fieldwork, and supervisions.

    That’s clearly not viable logistically as a mechanism for transfer of large amounts of knowledge, but I think when I teach 1-on-1, I subconsciously focus on showing a student how to place what they’re learning into the framework of what they already know. In other words, getting the benefit out of lectures is a skill that most people (including me!) need or needed to be taught *as well*. And we in general, I think, are pretty crap at this. Which gives an enormous advantage to auditory and visual learners in universities, when actually those aren’t particularly useful “science skills”, as such. Which seems ultimately counterproductive to me.

  13. Astrid Arts says:

    In grad school, I had one class where we were each given a topic one week and had to give a lecture on it the following week. We’d go research the topic, figure out what was important and then we would have to teach it to everyone else and provide a 1 page summary sheet. We covered a lot of material (I am still shocked at how much information is out there on cave pearls) and rather than being told what we needed to learn we had the opportunity to figure out what was important ourselves (this is definitely an important switchfor a grad student). I still have that binder of summary sheets and I refer to it regularly.

    I have always believed – the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else (until they understand it). When you really understand something you can explain it from so many different directions so that everyone can understand it. There is nothing worse than a teacher who can only explain something one way.

    My sisters both teach elementary school and they use the VARK Models that ParClair mentioned to help kids understand how they can best learn. People are usually a combination of 2 or 3 (visual, auditory & kinetic) – my nephew was an auditory kinetic learner and the only way he could study was through having someone talk with him while he threw a ball against a wall.

    I think when “teaching” you need to appeal to all 3 learning styles so combinations of lecture, textbook, labs/fieldtrips. Not all will work for each student but by appealing to all styles you have your best chance at engaging the most students

  14. ferrousalloy says:

    My adviser has always lectured but he has decided to switch things up this semester and change to a more discussion oriented class. I’m excited to see how it turns out, and it will be nice to compare different teaching styles with the same professor.

  15. Peter Council says:

    I won’t stand for disruptive behaviour, but I’m not that good at dealing with it, simply because it’s only recently become an issue. Also, (and this may sound like an excuse), university lecturers are not trained to deal with this kind of thing! In future I may adopt the ‘stop’ approach, but I’m still concerned that it happens at all, and I am trying to rationalise the reason for it.
    I like the idea of the screencast/videocast approach, although I wonder if the ‘silent majority’ of students might feel short-changed by it!
    Something else that I have tried, which works reasonably well, is to lecture for about 30 minutes and then have an interactive class problems session. Maybe attention span is a factor in all this, and the students we teach now are not used to concentrating for 50 minutes?
    Thanks again for your reply and support!