Lectures are oral presentations given by an instructor who stands at the front of the class and delivers information. Lectures are typically characterized by a unidirectional flow of information from instructor to students; hence, they may be best suited to disciplines and courses where there is a lot of ground to cover (e.g., the history and background of a topic, a large number of theories or equations). In a comprehensive volume on the utility of lectures, Bligh (2000) determined that lectures are a suitable method of instruction when the pedagogical goal is to impart information (they are not a good method for changing students’ attitudes or behaviors). Although Bligh’s review of the literature determined that lectures are just as good as other instructional methods (e.g., inquiry projects, self-guided reading) when the goal is to transmit information, he also noted that lectures are no better than these methods. In spite of six decades of research indicating that lectures are often not the optimal instructional method, lectures nevertheless remain the most popular teaching method at the university level worldwide (Bligh, 2000).
Lectures originated in the medieval university, where scholars would read to their students directly from a text. With time, the practice evolved such that scholars created lecture notes and spoke from those. In the Romantic Era, the lecture came to be seen as a “privileged vehicle” (p. 347) for disseminating knowledge (Franzel, 2014). Modern best practices strongly suggest limiting the length of a lecture to 15-20 minutes, or breaking up a longer lecture with hands-on activities, as research shows that 20 minutes is about as long as humans can maintain their attention on one source of information (Bligh, 2000). Surveys of instructors’ actual practices, however, indicate that it is not uncommon in higher education to find lectures that last over 50 minutes (Bligh, 2000). Lectures remain a quick and relatively inexpensive way to deliver content to large groups of students, which likely explains their enduring popularity.
Matheson (2008) argues that lectures are advantageous because they allow an instructor to collate information from multiple sources, explain complexities, and share their expert opinion. Moreover, students’ engagement and retention of material, which are typically low in lectures, can be improved when instructors make efforts to keep students at the optimal level of arousal, which is most often achieved by breaking up the lecture with activities (Bligh, 2000). Successful activities get students actively thinking, moving, or talking to each other. Examples include 1-minute papers, problem sets, clicker questions, brainstorming sessions, and open-ended discussion questions. “Broken” or “interactive” lectures are beneficial not only for student engagement and retention of material but also because they provide an opportunity for formative assessment (Miller, McNear, & Metz, 2013).
Lectures have been criticized as creating passive learning experiences for students. Although students select which information to write down, and they may translate it into their own words when they do so, this is a relatively superficial way of processing information (Bligh, 2000). Moreover, research shows that students take fewer notes the longer the lecture continues (Scerbo, Warm, Dember & Grasha, as cited in Bligh, 2000). One study found that students spent 8.3% of the time they participated in class discussion trying solve problems or synthesize information while they did so only 1% of the time they were in lecture (Bloom as cited in Bligh, 2000). Furthermore Bligh argues that lectures cannot teach students how to think and they do not provide students with opportunities to practice thinking in the manner of their discipline. However, not everyone agrees with this argument. Proponents of lecturing counter that lectures are capable of stimulating higher-order thinking in students (Exley & Dennick, 2004; Small, 2014) and that not every lecture need be a painful experience (McLaughlin & Mandin, 2001). Matheson claims that students have come to expect a certain amount of lecturing in higher education and Exley and Dennick (2004) show evidence students appreciate when lectures are supplanted completely by active learning techniques, students request their return.
Faculty complain about low student attendance at lectures (Hilal, Mandiracioglu, Fatma, & Govsa, 2013); however, interestingly, attendance is not always reliably correlated with grades (Horton, Wiederman, & Saint, 2012). Providing students with the opportunity to ask questions during lecture, and programs that have a strong mentoring component, are associated with higher student attendance at lectures (Hilal et al., 2013). An increasing trend is to video-record lectures and make them available after class as a supplement to the in-class experience (e.g., Drouin, 2014) or in lieu of having a live lecture in class, as in the “flipped” classroom movement (Berret, 2012). Danielson, Preast, Bender, & Hassall (2014) found that students most value having access to videotaped lectures (also called e-lectures) when the course is fast-paced, relies heavily on lecture, and covers information not available in other formats. Some argue that providing e-lectures is a blended learning approach that gives students more flexibility about when, where, and how they learn (Joordens, Le, Grinnell, & Chrysostomou, 2009). However, Drouin (2014) cautions that making e-lectures available may diminish student attendance at the live class.
Current best practices recommend that lectures be used sparingly and thoughtfully (McLaughlin & Mandin, 2001). Preparing interactive activities to break up lecture times is time-consuming for instructors, but associated with learning gains for students (Miller et al., 2013; Steinert & Snell, 1999).
Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education
Berrett, D. (2012). How “flipping” the classroom can improve traditional lecture. The Education Digest, 36-41.
Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-5162-5
Danielson, J., Preast, V., Bender, H., & Hassall, L. (2014). Is the effectiveness of lecture capture related to teaching approach or content type? Computers and Education, 72, 121-131.
Drouin, M. A. (2014). If you record it, some won’t come: Using lecture capture in introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 41(1), 11-19.
Exley, K. & Dennick, R. (2004). Giving a lecture: From presenting to teaching. London: Routledge.
Franzel, S. (2014). Romantic encyclopedics and the lecture form: Schelling, A. W. Schlegel, A. von Humboldt. European Romantic Review, 25(3), 347-356. DOI: 10.1080/10509585.2014.899762
Hilal, B. A., Mandiracioglu, A., Fatma, O., & Govsa, F. (2013). Why do students miss lectures? A study of lecture attendance amongst students of health science. Nurse Education Today, 33(6), 596-601.
Horton, D. M., Wiederman, S. D., & Saint, D. A. (2012). Assessment outcome is weakly correlated with lecture attendance: Influence of learning style and use of alternative materials. Advances in Physiology Education, 36(2), 108-115.
Joordens, S., Le, A., Grinnell, R., & Chrysostomou, S. (2009). Eating your lectures and having them too: Is online lecture availability especially helpful in “skills-based” courses? Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 7(3), 281-288.
Matheson, C. (2008). The educational value and effectiveness of lectures. The Clinical Teacher, 5, 218-221.
McLaughlin, K. & Mandin, H. (2001). A schematic approach to diagnosing and resolving lecturalgia. Medical Education, 35, 1135-1142.
Miller, C. J., McNear, J., Metz, M. J. (2013). A comparison of traditional and engaging lecture methods in a large, professional-level course. Advances in Physiology Education, 37, 347-355.
Small, A. (May 27, 2014). In defense of the lecture. http://chronicle.com/article/In-Defense-of-the-Lecture/146797/
Steinert, Y. & Snell, L. S. (1999). Interactive lecturing: Strategies for increasing participation in large group presentations. Medical Teacher, 21(1), 37-42.
- Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-5162-5
- Exley, K. & Dennick, R. (2004). Giving a lecture: From presenting to teaching. London: Routledge.
- North London Health Health Education London, Multiprofessional Faculty Development http://www.faculty.londondeanery.ac.uk/e-learning/improve-your-lecturing (Tips on how to give a great lecture)
- Young, J. (January 24, 2014). The lecturefail project. http://chronicle.com/article/Lecture-Fail/130085/