This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2017. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
A lecture: A long serious speech, especially one given as a scolding or reprimand. Otherwise known as a chiding, a rebuke, a reproof, a reproach, a remonstration, a berating, a castigation, a tirade, a diatribe, an harangue, an admonishment, and a lambasting.
So, it’s fair to say that the humble lecture has acquired something of a bad name for itself.
The Harvard physicist Eric Mazur said it was “almost unethical to be lecturing” these days and, as long ago as 1869, Charles Eliot – in his inaugural address as president of Harvard University – declared that “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves (and although) the water may be wholesome, it runs through (whereas) a mind must work to grow”.
Even earlier, in 1852, John Henry Newman wrote that true learning “consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas”.
An article which appeared on the BBC News website as recently as November 2016 – beneath a headline which asked
Shouldn’t lectures be obsolete by now? – questioned why lectures remain by far the most common form of teaching in universities despite the fact many had predicted that digital technology would have killed them off by now.
In some ways, the article inadvertently proffered one reason for the enduring popularity of the lecture form: “When you look at some online courses,” it said, “instead of revolutionising higher education, they have often simply transported the classic lecture format to an internet audience.”
Lectures may have survived because they still prove popular with young people who actively seek out the online equivalent. And yet…
Lectures in universities tend not to be as well-attended as, say, seminars or tutorials. A Harvard study in 2014 found that, on average, attendance at lectures fell from 79 per cent at the start of term to 43 per cent at the end. But why?
Perhaps it is because the lecture has become synonymous with didactic teaching of the worse kind: laborious, long-winded teacher-talk leading to passive, not active learning.
But does it have to be this way? Do lectures have to be wholly didactic and, what’s more, is didacticism really the poor relation of active learning?
In short, can lecture-style learning not engage a student’s energetic action towards new ideas in the way that TedTalks and YouTube clips appear to do?
Time to forgive and forget?
Is it time to regard the lecture, not just as the passive preserve of universities, but also as a staple of the school timetable? After all, there’s a lot to say in its favour…
For example, the lecture is a cost-effective means of teaching large groups of students with fewer staff. It is a good use of precious learning space, too. And many new school buildings have purpose-built lecture theatres or large communal spaces – while older buildings often have equally suitable areas (such as halls, canteens, dance or drama studios and such-like) that can be appropriated for this purpose.
The lecture also gives whole cohorts a shared experience so that each student is made to feel a part of the group and knows exactly what is expected of them.
Lectures give students a sense of “belonging”, too – be that to an elective subject, a particular cohort or to a whole year group. Lectures can make studying in large groups a positive experience so that students feel valued and cared for. They can help students to gain a real sense of identity as a member of a bigger cohort, too, and they can enable students to see the myriad links that exist between different topics, modules and subject areas.
In this way, lectures can help students to see and appreciate the bigger picture which, in turn, can provide both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – gifting students with the want as well as the need to learn.
What’s more, lectures can teach students the art of attention – something which may be in short supply in this digital age of instant gratification. And lectures can provide students with their first crucial step towards developing the capacity for critical-thinking, because a good lecture offers not a simple recitation of facts, but a careful construction of an argument.
Lectures are also an exercise in mindfulness and articulate the emotional energy of intellectual endeavour. Students must be attentive – active not passive – if they are to follow the lecturer’s argument and act on its central premise in their own work.
The act of note-making (rather than note-taking) is also an art-form worth learning, and lectures provide plentiful opportunities for this.
The secret of good note-making lies in how the act of making notes – and the finished notes themselves – can shape a student’s thinking. Learning to take attentive, analytical notes (selecting and analysing information before committing one’s thoughts and ideas to paper) helps students to develop their own arguments and participate in debates.
Debates, after all, are really all about note-making; dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it to a single sentence.
In this sense, verbatim transcription (note-taking) is never the objective: rather, students should synthesise what the lecturer is saying as they listen to her or him (note-making).
That’s not to say that every student has to make notes in every lecture, of course. The teacher could assign a note-maker for each lecture whose task it is not only to produce the notes but also to present a critique of the teacher’s argument in the next lesson.
Lectures – and the explicit teaching of note-making – help students to realise that listening is not necessarily synonymous with thinking. Indeed, critical-thinking depends on the mastery of facts, not the regurgitation of someone else’s opinions.
Making lectures work
Lectures work best when they arouse students’ intrinsic motivation – in other words, their want to learn. They do this when they get students excited, curious, and fascinated in the subject matter, perhaps by posing a big question which begs to be answered, an interesting hypothesis to be proved or disproved, or a problem to be solved.
Lectures also work best when they provide a purpose for the learning, a rationale, a necessity; when they clarify what students need to learn, and what they need to be able to do by the end of the unit. Lectures are most effective when they keep students active because students learn best by doing. One way to do this in a lecture environment is to ask lots of questions. For example, teachers can encourage students to debate with each other by asking probing questions such as “what else?”, “why else?”, “how else?”, and so on.
If students are meaningfully engaged by talking to each other, explaining things to each other, arguing with each other, and helping each other to understand a topic, they are more likely to learn and retain information.
The Nobel prize-winning physicist Professor Carl Wieman replaced traditional lectures with this kind of “active learning”. He set out a problem at the beginning of a lecture, divided students into small groups, and walked between them to listen to and guide their discussions.
Wieman proved, therefore, that lectures don’t have to be wholly didactic – although there’s nothing wrong with some quality teacher instruction. They can also help students to find out where they are in their learning, what they have mastered, and what they still need to practise.
Once they have practised something, students can get feedback on their performance from each other, working with the person to their left and right, and in front and behind.
Lectures work best when they engage students in making decisions, assessing their own learning and each other’s thinking; helping students to get their heads around how assessment works long before their learning will be formally assessed.
Occasionally, lectures can also be used as a means of providing students with material to assess – be that examples of good or bad work. Students can then break the work down and analyse their constituent parts, coming to understand what makes them good or bad – resulting in a useful list of components that can then become assessment criteria for their own work.
By collectively crafting the assessment criteria in this way, students are likely to feel an increased sense of ownership of their learning, and they will acquire a greater understanding of what’s required and what excellence looks like.
This process also helps students to better understand the intended learning outcomes, and what evidence of achievement will look like in the end.
A lecture environment is a good place to engage in this kind of assessment activity because it ensures every student in the group – be that a whole year group or a specific subject cohort – is equally aware of the shared expectations about what is required of them.
In a lecture, there can be no mixed messages or “dumbing down” for certain students. Every student is set the same high expectations and every student is made aware of the same success criteria.
A lecture environment also provides the opportunity for students to seek clarification as a group so that, collectively, their questions are answered and everyone is party to the same information.
Making lectures inspiring
To conclude, lectures can work and it is time for us to forgive and forget, moreover, it is time for us to welcome the form back into favour.
But lectures don’t just have to be “functional”, they can also be inspiring…
Take, for example, the “lectures” (though we might not call them that, lectures they most certainly are) given as TedTalks and those hosted by other online platforms such as YouTube and the Khan Academy.
Students like and learn from online “lectures” all the time. They watch YouTube videos which explain how to apply make-up, bake cakes, build impressive structures on Minecraft, and so on (I know because my daughters have learnt all of these things simply by watching YouTube “lectures” again and again in their own time on their mobile phones).
In short, students rely on quality instruction in their private lives – they watch lectures, learn lessons from them, then emulate what they have seen and heard, challenging themselves to improve by increments), so why not in their academic lives also?
Students are more likely to engage with lectures and find them inspiring if the lecture form is explicitly linked to students’ experiences of online lectures and to the way in which they take what they have learned by watching YouTube or Ted and apply it in practice.
Students need to know that they are similarly expected to take learning away from a lecture given in school or college and then apply it in practice. As such, lecture material should – where possible – be active not passive, applied not theoretical.
And finally, lectures can be inspiring if they arouse students’ curiosity and interest in a subject, and motivate them to do a lot of reading and studying outside of the lecture theatre.
The lecture, therefore, should not be the sole means of learning new information, but should be a catalyst – or a trigger – for learning.
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