Lecturing (Again)

Some of this post is using recycled material from earlier posts: It has been re-written for a different audience, but I thought it was good for this audience as well.

Bligh (1972, page 4) tells us that “In politics, lectures are called speeches. In churches they are called sermons. Call them what you like; what they are in fact are more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants an audience to learn something.”

In HE, lectures are the primary form of teaching – from Marris, 1964 to Lesniak, 1996, numerous surveys speak to the dominance of lecturing as the form of teaching, and it continues to be so today.

Academics love them, and swear by their effectiveness (based on a case study with an N of 1 – themselves). Without a doubt, there are good lecturers and poor lecturers. Nothing riles the passion of an academic more than an attack on their favourite pastime – in the UK we’re even called lecturers!

Students love them because they are both expected and easy. As brave teachers move away from lectures as the primary form of teaching, students rise up in anger, demanding that the lecturer do their job and tell them what to memorise (this is not a joke, but has actually happened in the recent past).

Administrators love lectures because in an hour or so, you can tick the box on hundreds of hours of contact, calling them effective learning experiences.

But, how does lecturing stand up to scrutiny as effective learning experiences?

In 1972, Donald Bligh wrote a comprehensive review of the research evidence on teaching in HE – curiously, the book title was What’s the Use of Lectures? In this review, he looked at over 700 studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of lecturing as a learning event.

Bligh looked at several areas, and reviewed the literature looking at how effective a lecture is at achieving particular educational goals. Here is what he found:


Educational Goal Number of Studies Found
Lecture Less Effective No Difference Lecture More Effective
The Lecture as a Method of Acquiring Information 27 57 20
The Lecture as a Method of Promoting Thought 12 17 0
The Lecture as a Method of Teaching Values Associated with the Subject Matter 28 24 7
The Lecture as a Method of Inspiring Interest in a Subject 16 11 4
The Lecture as a Method of Promoting Personal and Social Adjustment 14 8 4
The Lecture as a Method of Teaching Behavioural Skills 27 30 7


As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:

More than 700 studies (referring to Gibbs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

As academics, we need to decide if we base our working practises on gut feelings and the love of where we have come from, or look at what we do with a rational view of the effectiveness of our work.

As I read the reflections of my students who just completed my Science of Education module in the autumn, I actually had tears in my eyes as I read of their frustrations with the missed learning opportunities they had experienced (and paid good money for). They were lamenting the time spent wasted sitting passively through lecture after lecture, believing that they were engaged in an effective learning activity, only to find out, in my class, that lecturing is such a poor method of learning (they find this out themselves, I never actually tell them this – it is part of their self-directed learning experience into the Science of Education).

I believe that we can, and should, do better than this. It is really up to us.