Signal and noise in the lecture theatre

December 5, 2013

In a tone characteristic of many contemporary educationalists when proselytising about their bête noire, Graham Gibbs claims that the lecture is a demonstrably ineffective pedagogic form that in some cases is worse than “no teaching at all” (“The chalk and talk conundrum”, Teaching intelligence, 21 November). Gibbs backs up these trenchant and sometimes implausible claims by referring to research that appears to support the enduringly fashionable anti-lecture stance assumed by many educationalists.

The reality, however, is that much published educational research is weak and unreliable. A great deal of it is of suggestive or indicative value only; many of the findings are highly context-specific (for example, relevant only to a particular institution); and studies are frequently of questionable quality (with low sample sizes, unclear outcome measures and lack of controls). This is not to criticise those who conduct such research: it is inherently difficult to discern signal from noise when researching pedagogy because of the vast and omnipresent number of potentially confounding variables. However, this work cannot reasonably be taken to support dogmatic and simplistic claims about the effectiveness or otherwise of any pedagogic approach, including the much maligned lecture.

Gibbs points out that “more than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of”. But the mere counting up of confirmatory reports can never be a valid epistemological approach and ought not to persuade anyone with a critical eye for research claims. By analogy, the number of published reports “confirming” the efficacy of homeopathy greatly exceeds 700!

Gibbs then contradicts his position by acknowledging that lectures can “provide a conceptual framework…pace students through it, identify what needs to be studied, provide a social context for otherwise solitary study and so on”. Lectures do indeed provide these essential functions and this explains and justifies the fact that, to the dismay of Gibbs and his fellow educationalists, they remain solidly at the heart of university education.

Kevin Smith
Abertay University


I have always been baffled by the lecture’s standing in higher education. While Graham Gibbs can recall some good ones, sadly from my undergraduate days I cannot.

The mind/brain as muscle metaphor seems to work well here. Let’s compare the consumer culture of education with gym membership: students pay the membership fee, but in the case of the lecture attend the gym to watch others exercise. Anything that can be done to increase exercise hours is assumed to be a good thing. But the problem is that paying fees buys access, not intellectual fitness.

Knowledge, as opposed to the ability to do something with it, can now be obtained more easily than ever. So higher education’s role today must surely be the promotion of authenticity (see Carolin Kreber’s recent book Authenticity in and through Teaching in Higher Education), analysis, criticality, research capability and metacognition – a range of intellectual exercise equipment, available at any good university near you.

Peter Gossman
Centre for Learning, Teaching and Assessment
Glyndwr University

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