top of page

Shouldn't lectures be obsolete by now?


Lectures remain by far the most common form of teaching in universities - right down to the way academics are called "lecturers". But many predicted that digital technology would have killed off the lecture by now. Why would you want to sit through someone telling you something, when so much more information is available at your fingertips whenever you want it? But when you look at some online courses, instead of revolutionising higher education, they have often simply transported the classic lecture format to an internet audience.

So why has the lecture refused to go away?

Attention deficit

It's not because it's particularly effective. Research shows that students remember as little as 10% of their lectures just days afterwards. A Harvard study in 2014 found that, on average, attendance at lectures falls from 79% at the start of term to 43% at the end.

And studies suggest other forms of teaching are much more effective in improving exam results and attendance. Professor Dan Butin, founding dean of the school of education and social policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, says the lecture has survived because research, not teaching, determines the success of a university and its academics.

Research status

Academics are hired and promoted based on their research record, and research output plays a large role in universities' rankings in global league tables. So there is little incentive for academics to spend a lot of time rethinking the lecture. More stories from the BBC's Global education series looking at education from an international perspective, and how to get in touch.You can join the debate at the BBC's Family & Education News Facebook page. "We put these brilliantly educated academics in charge of classrooms because of their tremendous research records, not because they have any idea how to teach," says Prof Butin. "But in fact, research and teaching are very different skills, and creating a good course is just as difficult as writing a good book.

"Academics put thousands of hours of work into their books and much less time into thinking about the effectiveness of their teaching style." A leading campaigner against traditional lectures is Professor Carl Wieman, a winner of the Nobel Prize for physics. He was converted more than a decade ago, when he was given a handheld electronic device for students to use in his lectures to indicate 'yes' or 'no' to a question. At the end of the lecture, he asked a question to which he had given the solution. To his dismay, only one in 10 students remembered the answer.

Keeping it active

He realised that talking at students and expecting them to absorb knowledge was not helping them to learn.

So he replaced traditional lectures with "active learning", where he sets out a problem at the beginning of a lecture, divides students into small groups, and walks between them to listen to and guide their discussions.

It seems to work - a study by Professor Scott Freeman of the University of Washington found that students' rate of failure was lower when they moved from lectures to active learning, and their exam results improved. Following a campaign by Professor Wieman and other physicists, Stanford, MIT and the University of British Columbia have introduced active learning into their physics courses.

In fact, many universities have begun to experiment with such alternatives to the lecture. New coding colleges in Paris and California have ditched the lecture in favour of peer-to-peer learning and project-based learning, in which students work together on real-world projects like building a website or a computer game.

Value for money

Charles Knight, a lecturer in project management at Edge Hill University in Lancashire in the UK, has replaced lectures with interactive sessions in which students use project management software used by consultancy firms to manage their work. After seeing students' grades improve, the university is considering incorporating some of his ideas into other courses.

Another practical reason for the lecture's durability is that it is a relatively cheap way of giving students contact time with an academic. There are alternative approaches but they usually come at a higher cost. MIT spent $2.5m (£2m) on refitting two lecture halls to allow students to sit around small tables with screens showing animated simulations to help them visualise concepts. Harvard used a $40m (£32m) donation to experiment with new forms of teaching, including active learning.

But as the cost of tuition increases, more questions are being asked about whether lectures give students value for their money. Lecture here to stay A Higher Education Policy Institute survey in 2014 showed a third of students in England considered their degree "poor" or "very poor" value for money.

Research from the US Department of Education found there is no difference between how effectively students learn from a lecture when it is delivered in a classroom or online.

With the rise of "massive open online courses" (Moocs) and digital technologies, universities are coming under more pressure to offer students a learning experience that is not freely available online. Prof Butin hopes this will encourage more universities to adopt active, project-based, peer-to- peer, and community learning more widely. But having worked with many universities on how to support lecturers to use more active learning strategies, he thinks this will be a slow and difficult process. "Most universities may talk about the quality of their teaching, but such changes are much easier said than done," he says. "So for the foreseeable future, the lecture is here to stay."

However doubts over lectures have a long history of their own - and lectures seemed to have been able to survive them. In the 1920s, a student in Canada wrote that his logic professor was "terribly dry in lectures" so "everybody skipped his class and went swimming during his lecture time".

bottom of page