Lecturing – is there no other way?

As I immerse myself into the murky waters of trying to see over the horizon (rather ungainly mixed metaphors here) to the HE of tomorrow, I am amazed at the singularity of thought with lectures being some kind of pivot point. What is so special about a lecture that it needs to be preserved at all costs. It is like there is no mind that can imagine learning without lectures. I don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong. I lecture and I am good at it. I have won numerous awards for my lecturing, and my students heap accolades to my memory because of the entertaining and engaging manner that I have honed over the years. But, and this is a big one, I don’t believe that my standing up and delivering a good, entertaining, information packed 50 minutes is central to my students learning. Even if my students insist otherwise, I don’t believe that the lecture itself is that effective as a learning opportunity.

I have a background in cognitive psychology (the world calls me Dr.); how we perceive, process, categorise, store, integrate, and retrieve information.  For many years, because of my position in the University, I went to numerous educational seminars and conferences with a view to improve learning opportunities for students. Over and over, I was subjected to the world of learning styles – you know, the visual learner, auditory learner etc. etc. etc. I could never get my head around where this would fit in my understanding of how we process information, but somehow thought that educationalists were privy to some other body of research that I was unaware of. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I heard an eminent cognitive psychologist (in a different venue) trash the whole idea of learning styles. As a result, my world took a sharp turn, and I changed my field of study.

I now study how cognitive psychology impacts formal education – it doesn’t. The education world ignores what we know (see Carl Weiman’s comments) about how information is processed, because it doesn’t fit their model of what it means to teach. This is especially true in HE where the principle method of teaching centres around lecturing.

In the 70’s, researchers found that only 35% of information presented orally (under ideal conditions) could be recalled after a five minute delay. We have found that learners typically recall less than 10% of information (in the form of a psudolecture) presented orally after a one week delay. With such poor memory for information presented verbally, why is that the teaching method we insist on keeping.

On the Learner Weblog, there is a post about the proliferation of lectures. It is noted there that YouTube is increasing the number of videos available by over 13 hours every minute. A search of YouTube lists almost 100,00 hits for university lectures. How many more ways do we need to be told that 1 + 1 is 2?

Although Chris Lloyd talks about the need for fewer lecturers in 60 years, he still finds himself in a world where lecturing holds centre stage in HE, it is just that in his world, centre stage will be held be the cream of the lecturing crop.

In the age of information abundance, we don’t need a million more lectures. We have enough. Lecturing is an inefficient method of transmitting information that needs to be retained. At best, it can be entertaining, but as far as efficiency, it is really poor. Just because this is the way it has always been done doesn’t mean that this is the best way to do it. Can’t anyone think of a different way to foster learning (my own definition of teaching) or is the bulk of the HE world going to spend its energy proliferating lectures?


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