The best lectures I attended as a student were given by a spellbinding psychiatrist. He used no teaching aid except his hypnotic Viennese accent. Yet once heard, his spoken lessons were never forgotten: they were unmissable theatrical performances, happening here and now.
Traditional lectures are very unpopular among the quality-management gurus who increasingly dominate university teaching. It is asserted that they are ineffective, while encouraging passive learning.
I suspect the real reason that quality managers hate them is that they leave no "paper trail" and hence cannot easily be audited.
When lectures seem unavoidable, we are advised that they should be jazzed up with visual aids to the point where the teacher's spoken words become superfluous. A quality-approved lecture takes place in the dark, with a disembodied voice intoning soporific commentary around a display of still-image and video projections. Even worse, it is recommended that handouts be supplied beforehand so there is no suspense, no surprises and nothing significant for the students to do but absorb. With such a flaccid learning experience, the students soon realise that the inconvenience of attendance adds little to their education.
But the fact that most students still prefer to enrol at residential colleges rather than take distance-learning courses implies that they want face-to-face teaching from teachers. Successful distance learning requires a high level of motivation and self-discipline. High-flyers can get by on self-education and a couple of hours of personal tuition each week. But the mass of students need to be, and are paying to be, taught. They deserve a well-filled timetable with plenty of formal instruction and this, inevitably, means large group lectures.
They are not just a poor second choice to small group seminars; they are the best method for teaching certain kinds of knowledge, such as the essentials in tough subjects including the natural sciences, medicine and law. They have special value in making abstract systematic material more accessible.
It is easier to learn by hearing than by reading because direct speech was, for most of human history, the only way to communicate concepts. Literacy is a recent cultural artefact requiring expertise, and the ability to learn from text varies widely among students.
The situation of a formal lecture also puts teachers at the focus of attention, which bestows authority and high status. Humans spontaneously attend to people of high status and tend to remember what they communicate.
So a formal lecture creates a social framework that makes it easier for less motivated students to pay attention and to remember what has been said.
And it is the process of taking lecture notes that converts a passive experience into an active one, since the need for attention, selection and organisation encourages deeper understanding and improves recall.
Residential universities should stop apologising for lectures. Instead of trying to make ourselves into expensive and second-rate versions of the Open University, we should be offering our students frequent formal, traditional lectures with an expectation of attendance. And each student should be told that a set of self-prepared lecture notes is the best way to remember what they have been taught.
Finally, there is the matter of job satisfaction. We can't all be Viennese wizards, but the magic of formal lectures see us "dressed in a little brief authority" - which is nice, while it lasts.
Bruce Charlton is reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University.