Why traditional lectures will thrive

A defense against those who say lectures should be “social”


Photo by poptech on Flickr

There are few long-standing traditions that have as rough a reputation these days as the lecture.

Many commentators on higher education tend to see them as boring, old-fashioned and unsuited to the modern world and the modern student.

Thus American psychology professor Pamela Rutledge  in this recent blog entry takes the lecture as typical of the hidebound university because it is “unidirectional and linear,” not social and students don’t get to decide when it’s over.

But despite her arguments, I feel confident that traditional lectures serve a unique purpose. I believe they will serve us well into the future.

In today’s “globally networked world,” Rutledge argues, we should see higher education not as attending a lecture, but rather as attending a “cocktail party” where everything is social and everyone is equal and everyone comes and goes as they please.

The fallacy here, of course, is the common mistake of thinking that because social networking has changed the way we communicate with our friends, that it must change everything. Even if social networking is like a cocktail party, it doesn’t follow that everything should be like that. Would you like your doctor’s appointment to be like a cocktail party? Would you still going to the movies if the light shone on everyone all the time and everyone was talking at once? Should we start serving Manhattans at Sunday school?

Even if social networking has changed how students expect to learn (and I haven’t seen it), it doesn’t follow that the university has to change to accommodate their expectations. Their expectations may need to change in order to succeed at university. Even if students are not used to sitting and listening (God forbid!) to someone else talking for more than a few minutes, the capacity to pay attention to others who have something important to say is an ability worth developing.

Okay, fine, but aren’t lectures boring? No, bad lectures are boring, but that’s no reason to condemn lecturing as a whole, any more than a bad song is a reason to condemn music. My lectures have some parts that are hard going I admit, but that’s an unavoidable part of serious learning. Some parts are going to be tricky no matter what the teaching format or style is. I take pride in making my lectures engaging, and informative, and even funny when the occasion demands. I can think of many great lecturers who taught me in my student days, and I bet those of you who went to university can do the same.

Still, we keep hearing that lectures are passive and learning these days should be active. Here again, good lectures are not simply the passive transfer of information. Good lectures can be interactive (depending on class size) and (regardless of class size) can always be engaging. Listening and thinking hard about what is being said is not “passive” in the intellectual sense, and the intellectual sense if what counts.

Commentators like Rutledge tell us that we must change everything to be relevant in the 21st century. I disagree. The university lecture has survived numerous technological innovations, from printed books to television. It can handle social networking.

Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University.


Why traditional lectures will thrive

  1. Thank you for mentioning my article, although I’m not sure we disagree as much as you describe. In my blog post, which was based on a presentation at the College Board Colloquium, I used the analogy of a lecture versus a cocktail party to illustrate the changes in the broader communications environment, not to argue that lectures themselves were bad or that everything should literally be structured as a cocktail party. There is no purpose to change for change’s sake. I was arguing that the shifts in the environment have impacted people in many ways, not the least of which is their expectations about how information is exchanged and their role as an active participant. This, in my mind, demands asking the hard questions about what still works and what doesn’t, particularly in light of the cost of higher education. Your students are lucky that you take pride in engaging them in your lectures. Essentially you are doing what I suggest, which is recognizing that education is about a relationship between you and the students and that engaging them and giving them something of value is the goal. My guess is that you not only take pride in delivering good lectures but also welcome questions and comments and that you are available to talk with students after the lecture is over. What could change with technology, however, is making your lectures available to those for whom an education at Cape Breton University is out of reach. And even more radically, it would be possible for those students to engage if not with you, then with others in the class. I’m suggesting that with the radical changes that come from a socially networked world, we should be willing to challenge the existing models to take advantage of the powerful tools we now have, that we shouldn’t be wedded to how we do things because that’s the way they have always been done. Wall phones worked fine back in the day; but my smart phone allows me to accomplish a lot more.

  2. Lectures come from a time when few attended higher education and books were non-existent.
    Things are different now. I note that the definition of a “good” lecture is more than someone talking for an hour. It involves checking for understanding through “clicker” technology, using question and answer as part of the sequence and small group pairing at key occasions for students to make sure they grasp what it being presented.
    This format resembles a powerful method called direct instruction which may incorporate lectures but within which a lecture or “lecturette” is only part of the process.
    More importantly the research is pretty clear that the old school lecture, even those all-too-rare exciting ones, have limited impact unless there is some degree of student interaction.