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The Much-Maligned Lecture

I love a good lecture - and the popularity of quality documentaries and high attendances at our own Research Tuesdays would indicate I'm not alone in that.

So why is there a general impression around currently that 'lectures are bad' and 'good teachers don't lecture'? Especially when we are told - even in the same breath - that we should be creating online lectures? (Aren't they 'lectures' too? How come they aren't bad?)

We will look at answering some of these specific questions further into this article, but first consider:

Humboldt, the Beacon, and the Lecture

A significant concern for Humboldt was that the lecture-based approach to education that had crept into the universities of his time segregated and separated research from teaching, academics from students or learners, and - on the whole - learners from learning. Most of us, if we're truthful, can see this in our current lecture-default-mode approach to university lecturing. It is ironic that for most of us our job title is "Lecturer" at the same time that the driving force within the university sector has been to focus on and achieve in our research, with little value for (outside of mandatory rhetoric) learning, teaching, educating or - really - students. (Except 'research students', of course).

The Beacon pedagogical approach - and particularly the Small Group Discovery Experience - echoes Humboldt's commitment to eliminate the distancing lecture (in which remote academics speak at masses of students with neither interaction or engagement and students take notes which they then take away to learn sufficiently to regurgitate), with all its attendant embedded messages of 'learning as rote', and replace it with classes in which academics and students interact and engage with each other and discover learning together.

This drive to replace lectures as a default-mode of course construction and design in our learning and teaching is not, therefore, a blanket prohibition on or condemnation of 'the Lecture' in and of itself. It is a rejection of the alienation of research from teaching, and of academics from learners.

With that understanding as the foundation to this topic:

This article will discuss the Lecture as an entity, as a delivery-of-information mode, as a form of Presentation that can be anything from brilliantly dynamic to mind-numbingly dull...

  • Who, whom, where and when

    There are multiple reasons for a common current view that lectures are a poor choice for genuine learning and teaching. Some of them are good reasons.

    For one thing, there are so many other options available now that weren't necessarily available in previous learning environments. We have vastly different student numbers and staff/student ratios. There are a wide variety of physical, mechanical, and technological teaching venues and resources that are fairly new in terms of centuries of academic learning and teaching. There is a societal expectation that universities should be turning out work-ready graduates rather than better-informed world citizens, and that university is about 'qualifying for a job' rather than about learning and personal development.

    For another we have a very different audience (student-set), coming from a very different environment, with very different experiences and expectations - and learning disciplines and study habits - than previously. And most of them come fully equipped with all the latest technological toys and tools and sense of timing and entitlement.

  • Keywords - 'good' and 'quality'

    But I would suggest the number one reason that lectures are so often designated as 'bad' is because - they so often are. Not all, just some. Or many. Not the fact that they are lectures, but the quality of the content and delivery of specific lectures. A lot of factors contribute to 'good' academics delivering 'bad lectures', and certainly there are a lot of factors involved in delivering a good lecture. I've attended many great lectures by a variety of people. On wildly different topics of variable personal value to me, and with different need-values in 'need to know'. Some were quiet, still and restrained. Some were loud, boisterous, exuberant. A few were honestly funny or warmly amusing. Some were easy to identify with while others were more distant and abstract. They were all different. But they were all good. Why?

    What makes a good lecture?

    Passion is a good place to start. Being passionately involved in your topic and sharing it with an audience is a very different experience - and output - than tediously working your way through an information set that you think your students need to be told. And infinitely preferable to give (and take) than a rehash of the text book - courtesy of publisher-provided text-book specific slides. In fact, genuine passion for your subject can over-ride almost all the other factors that usually define a 'good' talk or lecture.

    The mediocre teacher tells.
    The good teacher explains.
    The superior teacher demonstrates.
    The great teacher inspires.
    William A. Ward.

    The other factors and qualities?

    There are a lot of mechanics that any good public-speaking course will list and teach that contribute to an audience's enjoyment of listening to someone speak/lecture publicly. These mechanics include eye contact (and not reading from your notes or slides or addressing your talk to the ceiling or a corner of the room). Timing and pacing is critical - rhythm and metre, changing pace and giving pauses to reflect and time to assimilate ideas, alternating with faster paced moments of straight information-delivery. Interspersing demonstrations and visuals with talking.

    Strong vocal delivery is important, including tonal quality, adequate volume and measured but dynamic speed, variable and colourful dynamics, tone and shading, and eliminating vocal irritants (like monotone, repetitive coughs, ums and ers...). Body control - especially gestural control can be very helpful. Having dynamic movement or gesture - or dramatic stillness and intensity - and eliminating irritating movements (pacing back and forward on the exact same spot as if tied to an elastic, repetitive double-hand movements...) and you can probably name a few of your own 'preferences' by simply reviewing a short list of who you enjoy listening to and watching in public speaking or documentaries.

    Then there is the issue of the 'visuals'. There are a lot of rules (some quite conflicting) about what makes for good or bad PowerPoints. Whether it's better to have no visual distraction, bullet points, pictures, lengthy paragraphs on the screen... there are a lot of resources to help you sort through the issue of what should or should not be on the screen while you're talking.

    However, although such mechanical and physical attributes can add or detract from the performative nature of a lecture or public speaking, they are not a core issue in determining whether a lecture qualifies as 'good' or 'bad'.

    Content is king

    Is your content interesting? Relevant? New or fresh? Current? Engaging? (And engaging does not mean it has to be funny or humorous.) Can your audience effortlessly acquire the same information you're sharing in your lecture elsewhere - like the textbook? In a very time-poor era, most of us resent having to suffer regurgitation, even though most of us enjoy learning and knowing new things we didn't know before, being more confident that our presumed knowledge is correct, being confirmed (or even challenged) in our thinking. High achieving students resent being punished for doing the pre-reading by then having to listen to a lecture repeat what was in the textbook. Poor students love not having to 'waste time' doing the required text pre-reading because the lecturer will tell them what they should have read.

    On the other hand, a dynamic interesting lecture can be one of the fastest, most powerful, and interesting ways to acquire new knowledge, absorb new concepts, grasp new thinking, engage with new ideas.

    By the way - nothing makes a lecture as interesting as knowing that 'I absolutely need this knowledge and I'm not going to be able to get it anywhere else as effectively as by being here and listening to this'.

    A non-stop one-way talk-fest? (Learning is not a one-way street).

    Really good live lectures are usually interactive (documentaries are obviously a little constrained here - but they usually have stunning visuals to supplement!). Even before the invention of clickers, smart phones and student response systems, dynamic lecturers asked their audience questions. Sometimes rhetorical questions with adequate time to think about the answer and write down ideas (big hint: asking questions and going straight on instead of giving assimilation, thinking and response time after will alienate your audience and make them commit to not thinking). But also, frequently, asking real questions. Inviting real answers. Inviting further questions of the audience (and being willing and prepared to answer them).

    Interestingly, the interactivity and reinforcement of learning that occurs through questioning the audience also contributes to one of the mechanical dynamics mentioned above - it powerfully affects the pacing of the delivery of your lecture, which is an excellent interest-level dynamic, but also contributes strongly to good learning practice. In terms of retention, humans remember firsts and lasts. If you speak for an hour, there will be one or two things at the start of the hour, and one or two things at the end that students will remember quite easily. If your lecture is a series of ten minute or less snippets of information interspersed with other activities - even just silent thinking or a moment's writing - you have suddenly increased the number of firsts and lasts that students will remember more easily by five or six times - giving them ten or more easily remembered concepts or ideas or memory points. If the interspersing moments incorporated reflection, review, or challenge, then you've added extra dimensions of learning strengths to the students' ability to walk away from the lecture having genuinely learned something.

    The absolutely vital place to start when planning your lecture - whatever form of delivery and visual support you plan to give it - is to ask "what do I want my students to take away from this?" and "where else can they get this? Am I giving them something in this lecture that they can't get elsewhere?" In business parlance: "does giving this lecture 'add value'?"

  • Online lectures - are they still lectures?

    Following that same thinking, online lectures can be somewhat useful but moderately lethal if they are recorded as lengthy non-stop talking heads or voice-over slides. Online lectures are much more powerful when they are broken into snippets - students will benefit infinitely more from ten six-minute vodcasts or podcast lectures than from a single 60 minute lecture covering the same material. Realistically - students will gain more and learn more from ten three-minute vodcasts or podcast lectures than from a single 60 minute lecture covering twice the amount of material. Short and sharp means more focused, more likely to be listened to, more control for the students selecting what they most need to review when, more flexible for loading onto playback devices, and timed so that students can easily listen to them in coherent soundbites on the bus, the train, the tram, riding their bike, sitting with a coffee...

    One great trick to improving the quality of your online recorded lectures is to have a partner (I'm assuming pre-recorded lectures here, which is almost always better, safer, higher-quality, eliminates ethical issues of capturing student voices and faces and illegally publishing them without their consent... and gives you infinitely more control over what goes 'out there'!). Two voices are better than one. Use a question-and-answer format. Or a morning-talk-show-hosts-dialogue set up. Dialogue in preference to monologue makes it more personal and improves the vocal dynamics enormously - each speaker's voice is more interesting in tonal quality and variation in even a staged dialogue than most of us can manage in a recorded monologue. When pre-recording, you lose the spark of energy that comes from interacting with or even just presenting to an audience. Dialogue returns some of that energy and dynamism. Try it. But if you can't find a partner to be your 'second voice', then wear a mic that allows you to move and at least walk while you're recording - the energy and dynamism in your voice will improve radically and you won't sound so dead and flat.

    Mini-Lectures (mini-lecs)

    Hah! These are becoming a very popular form of delivery, particularly when working with any of the Flipped or Inverted Classroom techniques and methods. It's easy to be scared of mini-lecs because they almost always have to be relatively unrehearsed and feel as if (they shouldn't be, but they can feel like it) they are unprepared. Certainly you have to know your topic well. Mini-lecs are given ad hoc in response to student questions or in response to your using learning analytics that inform you - by quiz, by student response system, by other quick-poll methods - what students have misunderstood or not understood well (or at all) from their pre-reading, watching the online lectures, or whatever preparation they needed to bring to class. Other times mini-lecs are required in the middle of application activities as emerging concepts require the 'next phase' of concept delivery or scaffolding to help students bridge from the start of an activity to the next phase on. Mini-lectures are timely, tight and focused, and usually have brilliantly focused attention from the student body because they are being delivered in response to the students clearly expressing a recognition that they don't know this, haven't 'got it', can't work with it yet. Knowing you need to know something and don't yet is a very strong motivator for student attention, focus and engagement in learning.

    So mini-lecs are usually spontaneous but they don't have to be (and usually shouldn't be) unprepared. You know when you go into class what the students are working on, the material you gave them to work through in preparation, the aspects of that learning they are most likely to have struggled with, misinterpreted, or only acquired superficially. You know the activities you want the students to engage with in class, and which of the preparatory knowledge issues are most likely to be confronted in engaging with those applications. In other words, you usually know what mini-lectures you are most probably going to have to deliver. You can know and rehearse in advance (to a degree - don't 'script' it or it will be stilted) and have visuals, demonstrations, etc ready to hand. Keep it short - just enough to clarify the issue, then get them back immediately into applying the content and intent of the mini-lecture into the application activity at hand.

  • So are lectures 'bad'?

    No. They can be a great method and tool for learning and teaching - when done well. And most particularly when they're interactive, interspersed with some form of application, activity and/or reflection, and there is dynamic engagement between the lecturer or 'presenter' and the students or 'audience'.

    The trick is to work on improving the quality of our lectures - whether they are pre-recorded and online, or spontaneous Just-in-Time mini-lectures, or face-to-face 'traditional' lectures in a tiered lecture theatre or in a small lab or classroom. We don't have to be great orators to be 'good teachers' from whom our students can learn well, we just need to expend a little thought and effort into improving some of the aspects of our lecturing. And -

Remember the passion!


Last updated 24 September 2013.

Pedagogical Possibilities for the Professions

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