The Lecture Theatre

I can’t help it. I’m going to post again about the lecture and the lecture theatre.

I’m going to repost some of what I said earlier in order to set the stage for my thoughts.

If these walls could talk… What would they say. Against a backdrop of Anywhere U’s full lecture theatre (I’ve been there plenty) Michael Wesch asks what the traditional lecture theatre represents. He makes the following list:

– to learn is to acquire information
– information is scarce and hard to find
– trust authority for good information
– authorised information is beyond discussion
– obey authority
– follow along

This has been what students have experienced for years – even centuries.

Lecture Theatre Popularity

It is easy to say that lecture theatres are an anachronism, but they are still the most popular teaching facilities, and are widely used. Recent research shows that students prefer lectures by a two to one margin, and that over 85% of them expect Powerpoint slides in the presentation. I would guess that if lecturers were surveyed, the margin who would prefer lectures would be even higher, with the use of Powerpoint at least as high. Even less amazing, I would predict that if administrators were surveyed (those who arrange, timetable,and resource teaching), they would prefer lectures and Powerpoint 99 times out of 100.


Because it is easy for the students, easy for the lecturers, and easy for the administrator. Passive learning is the hallmark of Higher Education today. I know there are excellent examples that break the mold, but for every excellent example, there are 99 examples of conformity – lectures with Powerpoint.

Historical Context

There is a good reason why we have lecture theatres. They have a stong historical context.

When Universities were first started, there were few resources (books etc.), and these resources were prohibitively expensive. Students sat and listened to an expert who told them what they knew, and the students wrote their own resources (notes) so they would have them for themselves. This model has been in place for centuries – except a couple of things have changed.

Books and information are no longer scarce. Even as recent as 30 years ago, there was often only a single copy of a journal or book in the library that had to be shared out among 10, 20, 50, 100, or 1000 students all taking the same class. Much of the information the students needed was difficult to access and was a scarce resource. The lecturer stood in the front and dictated information to the students.

Why do we still do this? Why do we insist on clinging to a model that is well past the sell by date on the package?

Information is not scarce. Within the walls of the lecture theatre, there exists all the information a student could want. With the click of a button or the swipe of a finger, the internet is available and ready to disgorge its contents onto a waiting screen

Not only do most lecturers not use what is available, there are lecturers out there who want to ban laptops and tablets from the classroom. They want to have the undivided attention of the class in order to impart of their wisdom. No questions asked… and most students are happy to comply.

Easy! Easy! Easy!

Is it any wonder students want Powerpoint slides of their lectures? They know that there is a world of knowledge available to them on any given subject. They also know that they will be tested on some of this information. Why not demand that the lecturer condense, organise, and present the information that is considered most important – saves the student from having to do it themselves. I’m waiting for the real advent of twitter in education. Give me a 90 minute lecture with 24 slides highlighting the most important points, accompanied by a single tweet (140 characters) of exam possibilities.

Why do lecturers prefer lectures. I think the main reason is ease. Lecturing is easy to do. In one hour (or 90 minutes or whatever) you can deal with 40, 50 100, 200 or 1000 students. In and out with minimal effort (plus the accompanying buzz). In addition, lectures are sustainable – easily recycled and reused. They are an easy way to teach.

For administrators they are heaven sent. Pack all the students together in a bunch and timetable them into one ginormous room for a few hours a week, and that’s all there is to it. Any other form of teaching takes additional resources and support that cost time and money. Not something an administrator wants to consider. This is not their fault – this is their job.

Easy, Easy, Easy – but difficult to defend. Some might say that by providing traditional lectures, we are satisfying all of the principle stakeholders. I believe that this is where education and learning part ways. We are providing an education that is only minimally interested in learning.


7 thoughts on “The Lecture Theatre

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