The lecture model of teaching is growing increasingly unpopular amongst progressive teachers as educationalists trend towards more student-centred methodologies that focus on putting students in charge of their own learning.
To those of us on board this train, adherents to more teacher-centric methodologies, such as the traditional lecture format, are often seen as old fashioned, endangered—even though they actually far outnumber us worldwide!
However, it seems to me that the lecture is far from dead—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The lecture still dominates
First of all, it’s worth pointing out again that the vast majority of teachers and institutions around the world still rely on lectures as their primary model of instruction, meaning that those of us who favour a more practical, student-centred, learning-centred approach are technically still on the fringe when it comes to applied educational theory.
When I train teachers to use more student-centred, discovery-based, skills-application techniques in the classroom, I refer to historic figures such as Einstein and even Socrates as examples of how this approach to teaching has been with us for a very long time. We tend to refer to them as modern approaches, but the truth is there have been great teachers putting their learners at the centre of the learning process for centuries now. Unfortunately, they have never been part of the mainstream.
Lecturing has been the preferred method of teaching for so many educators for so long for fairly obvious reasons. It is founded on the principle of one way communication, which means that the students in a lecture are quiet, meaning easy classroom management; there is very little consideration to students’ individual needs, meaning that the teacher need only write a lecture (note, I say “write a lecture” not “plan a lesson”) once to keep delivering the topic year after year in exactly the same way; delivering content this way ensures that large numbers of students can be pushed through the system and expected to come out with fairly uniform results at the end of it all, meaning that more students can be educated in larger batches much more quickly than if teachers took a more personal approach to educating students as individuals.
By now, these principles have become so ingrained as to seem like the only way of doing it to many people. Indeed, parents of students often find it difficult to understand or accept anything that differs from the schooling they received when they were children, and as such, teachers attempting to break the mold are often labelled radicals and attract commotion and complaints, all of which the school administrators are either poorly equipped or else disinclined to handle.
Therefore, we have a school system that looks very uniform across the board and throughout most of the world, and subverting it is no mean feat. However, perhaps completely erasing all traces of the lecture format from education is not necessary. Perhaps it is sufficient, and more feasible, to simply alter how it is used.
Lectures don’t have to be all that bad.
There is an interesting dichotomy arising around the lecture, but many people who are interested in replacing lecture driven teaching with student-centred approaches don’t even realise it. All the while we are striving to move our teachers from their spot in front of the whiteboard to a more mobile presence around the classroom, lectures are in fact growing in popularity in a different sphere.
The sphere that I am referring to is the digital world, or perhaps it would be more appropriate at this point to call it the digital universe? More and more people are consuming Podcasts, Youtube Vidoes, Audiobooks, Online Courses and more, all of which deliver content in long-form, lecture style formats. I myself listen to an inordinate amount of podcast material.
Lectures like those available through The Great Courses Online as well as a wide range of Youtube videos or educational podcasts often run anywhere between one and two hours per episode/installment. And when time allows, people will often binge on podcasts for hours and hours on end. Indeed, when I find a great podcast that already has a back catalogue of episodes, I can catch up on months’ worth of content in just a matter of days!
This proves that not only is the lecture alive and well, but it’s popular amongst students too. The important thing to note here is simply that all of these are open to the public, whether free or paid, and we choose to listen to them as long as they interest us. The main reason that lectures are often so ineffective is that they are boring; students feel forced to sit through long, boring lectures for the sake of fulfilling credit requirements, for example, and spend most of the time battling the temptation to doze off. On the other hand, apparently, as long as we are motivated to listen, then lectures can be a great way of delivering content.
So it’s popular, but is it effective?
The push to scrap the lecture model—a push, remember, that I generally endorse—is not just populist response to student preferences. Study after study has provided supporting evidence relating to students’ lack of progress when lectures are the standard method of delivery and to the inability of people to maintain focus and attention for longer that 15–40 minutes depending on various factors.
However, what I am suggesting here is not that it is a good idea for courses to be delivered solely through lectures. Far from it. I continue to maintain that this is bad teaching and ineffective education. However, if lectures are one method applied amongst many in a varied course of learning, and if our students are equipped with effective learning strategies so that they can make the most of the lectures they attend, then I fully believe that there can be a time and a place for lectures.
One of the most important factors that is necessary to make lectures an effective mode of learning is that learners must know how effectively to interact with lectures. This will involve, amongst others, effective note taking and the use of retrieval practice, two strategies which should be explicitly learned if they are to be implemented effectively.
When I attend a lecture, I make extensive notes using a combination of techniques, such as sketch-notes and Cornell notes, and following the lecture I engage in retrieval practice by quizzing myself and by writing on the topic, for example, and I do further reading on the subject to deepen my knowledge. If we can encourage students to respond to lectures with these strategies, then there is no good reason to have such a fundamental problem with them.
How should lectures be used?
With all of this in mind, I can see two primary ways that lectures can be used effectively. The first is online where they are already booming. As I have mentioned already, the key to the effectiveness of these online lectures is that people only choose to watch the lectures they are interested in, so they are already strongly motivated to learn from them more effectively than if they were forced to watch a lecture they didn’t care about.
The second valid use of the lecture format is to have them dispersed throughout a course that otherwise prioritises a more student-centred methodology. Certainly lectures should not represent all lessons in a course, but if every now and then, once every x number of lessons is a lecture and the students are encouraged to engage with the lecture using some of the strategies suggested above, then this can be a good way of delivery certain knowledge-based or complex topics.
In the ideal scenario, the element of choice that is central to the content available online would also be incorporated into classroom lectures. Courses could offer optional lectures, for example, for those students who want to take a deeper dive on the subject of a unit, or students could be presented with multiple units and given the choice to study the things that they were most interested in.
As widely used as lectures are today, sadly they do not take into consideration many of these ideas. And for teachers who might want to try out these strategies, much of what I have suggested in this article cannot be easily implemented overnight. I also hold my hands up and say that there is no research available on these approaches, given that they have yet to be implemented on a large enough scale. However, if you are keen to put the spotlight on your students when it comes to designing learning, and if you value giving your students a voice and authority, then readdressing if or how you use lectures in the classroom might be something to think about.
How do you feel about the lecture model? Have you used it effectively in your teaching, or do you think it should be scrapped entirely? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and don't forget to sign up to the mailing list to keep up to date with new posts and upcoming events.