Lectures are an effective teaching method


Lectures are an effective teaching method because they exploit human evolved ‘human nature’ to improve learning

Bruce G Charlton

Lectures are probably the best teaching method in many circumstances and for many students; especially for communicating conceptual knowledge, and where there is a significant knowledge gap between lecturer and audience. However, the lack of a convincing rationale has been a factor in under-estimating the importance of lectures and there are many who advocate their replacement with written communications or electronic media. But I suggest that lectures are effective because they exploit the spontaneous human aptitude for spoken (rather than written) communications and because they are real-time, human-presence social events (rather than electronic media). Literacy is a recently cultural artefact and for most of their evolutionary history humans spontaneously communicated information by speech. By contrast with speech, all communication technologies – whether reading a book or a computer monitor – are artificial and unnatural. This is probably why many people find it easier to learn from lectures than from media; and why excessive or inappropriate use of visual aids can so easily detract from the educational experience.

The second reason for lectures’ effectiveness is that they are formally-structured social events which artificially manipulate human psychology. A formal lecture is a mutually-beneficial ‘collusion’ between class and lecturer. to improve learning. Lectures are delivered by an actually-present individual, and this creates a here-and-now social situation which makes lectures easier to attend to. The formal structure of a lecture therefore artificially focuses attention and generates authority for the lecturer to make their communications more memorable. Furthermore, to allow the potential for repeated interactions to allow trust to develop between lecturer and class, it is much more educationally-effective for lectures to be given as a course rather than as one-off interactions.

Despite the lecture method being so unpopular among professional educational advisers, reformers and intellectuals generally – and almost annual declarations that information technology will render lectures obsolete – many scientists continue to give lectures and students continue voluntarily to attend them. This fact that lectures have survived so much official opprobrium suggests that they are a much more effective teaching method than they are given credit for.

Indeed, my experience suggests that properly structured-lectures may be the best teaching method for many subjects and many students, and lectures may be especially well-suited to the transmission of conceptual and systematic knowledge. Lectures are therefore usually the best medium for teaching science up to the point where the student begins to specialize and train as a practicing scientist, at which point a more individualized and skill-orientated ‘apprenticeship’ becomes necessary. In itself, the greater ease of learning from lectures may indeed account for some of the disdain with which many intellectuals regard lectures – since intellectuals are experts at the cognitively-challenging business of learning by solitary reading. For example, intellectuals may deride clear, comprehensible and enjoyable lectures as ‘spoon-feeding’ students; with the implication that students should be forced to work hard for their basic knowledge in the same way that intellectuals do for their advanced knowledge.

Lectures are also criticized as inculcating a ‘passive’ attitude to learning. But we need to be clearer that making learning easier is an admirable objective, assuming that what is being learned is worthwhile (as it is in the sciences). Making learning easier is especially important for the less-naturally-gifted proportion of the population who make up an increasingly large number of higher education students in advanced societies due to the massive recent and continuing expansion of colleges and universities. If knowledge is valuable, then we should embrace effective methods of inculcating knowledge: the easier the better.

What follows are a series of personal impressions based upon 18 years of lecturing in universities and studying educational methods. I see many advantages to lectures, which seem obvious yet, are seldom noted or acted-upon.

The first is that it is easier for most people to learn conceptual information from spoken communications than from reading. The second is that the real-time, human-presence, social context of a formal lecture makes it easier for most students to focus attention and remember what is said that when students are required to work alone. A third factor which deserves recognition is that the proper unit of educationally-valuable lectures is a course of lectures, not a one-off talk. One-off talks may be entertaining (for the audience) and useful self-advertisement (for the lecturer) – but they do not have much to do with serious education.

The effectiveness of lectures
The most convincing evidence of lectures’ effectiveness comes from what people actually do, rather than what people say, because expressed-opinions have few costs or consequences are therefore are a less reliable guide to preferences than lived-choices. I find it highly significant that lectures are especially used in teaching the most quantitative and systematic sciences, and for intensive professional training courses such as medicine, engineering and law – lectures are less used (and less prestigious) in the arts and humanities such as literature and philosophy. In other words, lectures are a focus of teaching in exactly the situations where transmission of knowledge is most vital, and in subjects where learning is most easily and validly measurable. Of course, lectures will only get you so far, and individual teaching by ‘apprenticeship’ supported by self-directed study remain necessary for learning specialized and high level skills.

It is striking that, despite increasing choice of alternatives, the great majority of students continue to enrol in attendance-based and residential universities where lectures are a primary mode of instruction. And, when at university, they usually show-up for lectures, even when the lectures are not compulsory, and even when written hand-outs or transcriptions are available. (However, I believe that written material too closely-keyed into the specific lecture content probably has a tendency to undermine the effectiveness of lectures – see below).

Students still choose lecture-based teaching despite the ready availability of cheaper and more convenient alternative qualifications from highly-reputable ‘distance learning’ institutions which have grown-up to exploit new communication technologies as they were invented. Postal correspondence courses were popular from the early twentieth century. The UK Open University added TV and radio broadcasting to the postal system. More recently, the massive and expanding University of Phoenix in the USA has used e-mail and internet technologies. But although distance-learning is often both high in quality and reasonable in price, it has added to, rather than displaced, the demand for attendance-based, lecture-focused educational institutions. Apparently, many students experience difficulties in learning in solitude even from the finest written or audio-visual media.

Taking all these observations together, there seems to be ample prima facie evidence that lectures are probably the best practicable teaching method in many circumstances and for many students. However, it is not generally understood why lectures are useful, and the lack of a convincing rationale for lectures has been a major factor in under-estimating their importance. Because this rationale is not understood, the conduct of lectures has often been changed in ways that make them less effective – for instance inappropriate use of visual aids, and undermining the focus upon spoken lectures by excessive emphasis on written support material (eg. hand-outs and transcripts – nowadays often distributed by the internet).

Lecture teaching methods should not allow verbal information to become subordinated to ‘visual aids’, although it is another temptation to ‘spice up’ the lecture with attention-grabbing graphics. The primary visual aid should the lecturer him- or her-self, especially the lecturers face, in particular the lecturers eye contact.

A lecture which takes place in the dark, where a disembodied voice intones sentences while slides are shown, can hardly be described as a lecture at all because it lacks the basis of a social event. A slide-based lecture in the dark is more like visiting the cinema. Indeed, unless carefully used, technological visual aids can be a significant distraction from the conceptual basis of a lecture.

To enable lectures to be effective for learning, the process of communication therefore needs to be controlled by the lecturer. If communications from the audience are too frequent or uncontrolled, for example too many questions or discussions interrupting the flow of discourse, then this will sabotage the necessary authority structure in a way that will undermine learning.

Scientists, who usually have something to teach which is worth learning, should feel more confident about the value of lecturing and the appropriateness of the method. Students are not being fobbed-off with an inferior medium when lectures are the focus of teaching, nor should the spoken lecture be seen as secondary to the provision of written handouts or transcripts.

Consequently lecturers should resist the temptation to make lecturers more ‘entertaining’ by over-using ‘visual aids’. Since lectures are primarily ‘aural’, the visual material should generally be appropriate for recording in lecture notes – which usually means simple summary diagrams. In general, lectures should aim to be enjoyable, but should not strive to be entertaining as the major goal; because lectures should be memorable rather than diverting.

In a nutshell, lectures retain a major educational role because they exploit evolved aspects of human nature to make learning easier and more effective when compared with electronic and literacy-based media. And, as university teaching continues to expand, it is important to make learning as easy as possible.

Instead of trying to phase-out lectures, we should strive to make them better. To do this entails understanding how lectures exploit human psychology – especially the fact that lectures are essentially formal, spoken, social events.

Bruce G Charlton MD
Editor-in-Chief – Medical Hypotheses
Newcastle University
email : bruce.charlton@ncl.ac.uk

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