Lectures – Relevant or Redundant?

In ‘Are lectures the best way to teach students?’ from the Guardian, a handful of academics discuss whether or not the traditional lecture, synonymous with higher-education for many years, is still relevant and effective in today’s climate.

Bruce Charlton, a reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University believes that we are now seeing a pale imitation of what used to be the ‘best pragmatic way’ of teaching those who wanted to be taught. Charlton bemoans how, in this day and age, lectures typically consist of a whole host of different problems concerning both the lecturer and the students. He paints a picture of a several hundred strong group of inattentive, heavily distracted students who are passive recipients to an interminably long and unenthusiastic PowerPoint presentation, of which they may have already seen online. Despite this claim, Charlton explains that the art of lecturing, when properly executed, is on par with live theatre and musical performances. In order to achieve this, high levels of effort and concentration are required from all involved. Without the positive involvement from diligent students and charismatic lecturers, Charlton fears that we are witnessing a decline of what has the potential to be a valuable and memorable learning experience.

University teacher Sam Marsh and senior lecturer Nick Gurski from the mathematics and statistics department at the University of Sheffield experienced such a decline in lecturing first-hand. In their first-year classes, Marsh and Gurski saw how attendance was becoming a major issue; almost half of the class stopped attending lectures by the end of the semester. Despite attempts to improve the syllabus, update the materials, add tests, and even change the lecturers, the problem still remained. In response, Marsh and Gurski decided to replace lectures with a series of short, filmed, online videos appropriate to the specific topics. The goal was to allow students to watch the videos at a time most convenient to their needs and then carry out a short test. Marsh and Gurski discovered that this new format succeeded not only by getting the students to learn and attend to the material on time, but also in improving students’ exam results. Due to the success of this new format, Marsh and Gurski concluded that, in their experience at least, lecturing is no longer a viable or effective way to best teach their students. Although these are just the opinions of a small number of educators, it provokes some important questions:

Is this newfound dependence on technology a positive step toward improving students’ potential to learn? Through moving away from lectures, are we losing what, as Charlton stressed, is an ‘irreplaceable’ medium of teaching? Do they still have a valid place in colleges and universities?