Informative stand-up guys

January 2, 2014

My claim that the lecture remains justifiably at the heart of university education is rejected by Graham Gibbs in his rather condescending appeal to authority, in which he compares me (along with other sceptical academics) to ill‑informed students who “spout nonsense” and appear as if their “corpus callosum has been severed” (“Split-brain scholarship”, 12 December 2013).

Unfortunately for him, research attempts to “scientifically” establish the inherent inferiority (or superiority) of any particular pedagogical approach are unlikely to succeed.

For a start, such approaches are impossible to clearly define: for example, when does a “lecture” incorporating interactive elements become a “workshop”? Further, the individual qualities of the “lecturer” present a large set of confounding variables, as does the nature of the students – the course they are studying, the specific topic, their own personal attributes and so on. Given this complexity, claims that unambiguous and generalisable cause-effect relations can be established between modes of pedagogy and their effectiveness amount to little more than pseudoscience.

Of course, poor-quality lectures are frequently encountered by students and this is to be regretted; however, low-quality pedagogy is certainly not the preserve of the lecture. By contrast, excellent lectures not only educate in a narrow sense, but can be truly inspirational, too. I have had the privilege of attending “sell-out” public lectures by Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan; most of their audiences appeared to be greatly inspired by the experience.

Presumably Gibbs and others ideologically opposed to lectures would deprecate the value of such events, on account of the enduringly fashionable notion that research evidence has established them to be ineffective.

Of course, most university lectures will not be delivered by figures of the prominence of Dawkins or Sagan, nor will the performances be as polished; nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to expect undergraduates to benefit from thoughtfully constructed lectures carefully delivered by highly knowledgeable academics.

Still Gibbs claims that the lecture is a demonstrably ineffective pedagogic form that in some cases is worse than “no teaching at all”. Really? A lecture is merely a formalised version of an age-old and very human method of imparting ideas: namely, a knowledgeable individual standing up and verbally explaining a particular theme or idea. (Indeed, this simplicity may underlie contemporary educationalists’ disdain for the approach.) It would be quite incredible if the practice were “ineffective” or worse than nothing at all.

I suggest that the onus lies with Gibbs et al to demonstrate the rank inferiority of the lecture: from the published literature I have read, convincing evidence of this sort has most certainly not been forthcoming.

Kevin Smith
University of Abertay Dundee

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Reader's comments (1)

I once asked a guy from the science department at Bristol what the difference was between a seminar and a lecture. He said "In a lecture I talk to 80, in a seminar I talk to 8". Trevor Habeshaw

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