No lectures on the failure of lectures, please

March 30, 2017

No lectures on the failure of lectures, please

The author of the blog “Lectures: as archaic as bloodletting in 
an era of modern medicine” (, 19 March) compares lectures to some kind of outdated methodology in another discipline (in this article, bloodletting), something I always find ridiculous. Consider that in every discipline/subject/lab/workplace and such, having an expert explain something to others in person is still a vital way to transfer knowledge. I say “still” because people expect too readily that anything that has been around for a long time will now be obsolete in our modern age. But despite huge advances in technology since the dawn of language, one of the most useful experiences for any learner is to have a difficult or complex concept/process explained to them face-to-face by someone who understands it inside out.

The article offers no detail of what these magical “more interactive” methods are. More crucially, following the link to the “countless studies” mentioned, one finds a much more balanced, more sceptical take on the position that lectures are terrible when compared with these (still somewhat vague) new methods. In the linked article, we learn that:

“The research summarised had a fairly narrow conception of the range of things that lectures are used for”

“It is much harder to research the way lectures fulfil multiple and subtle roles in complex pedagogic patterns”

“One of the limitations of studies in this area is that they usually consider lectures in isolation and compare them with other methods, also in isolation. In practice, lectures are only one component of a pedagogic system that includes study, assignments, exams and other classes.”

These criticisms are so fundamental that they invalidate any broad-brush conclusion based on such studies. Nobody realistically believes that students should just sit and listen passively to a few 50-minute lectures to master a subject. The model of “teacher standing in front of group of students” is the same model that I use in my lectures (50 students), my discussion groups (12 students) and also my office hours (sometimes two or just one student). Should we compare the lecture with the office hours as two different approaches to learning? Of course not.

Another thing that’s ridiculous is considering all this without mentioning resources. Lectures are very cheap and require next to nothing in terms of additional equipment or infrastructure. To compare lectures with other forms of learning, one must weight things to take this into account. Take the Oxbridge tutorial/supervision system: it’s obviously great to have such small-group teaching for every student as standard, but your institution needs to be rich enough to employ large numbers of qualified supervisors.


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