The evidence we have looked at so far in this chapter – our own experiences and those of current students – has been interesting, but anecdotal. There has in fact been an enormous amount of more systematic research comparing the effectiveness of a one-hour lecture with an equivalent amount of students' time spent doing something else, such as reading, tackling a project or having a discussion.

Think about the following series of statements or assumptions about what lectures are effective for. For each statement:

  • Consider whether you believe it to be true for your teaching.
  • Consider whether you think research evidence might support the statement, contradict the statement or be inconclusive.
  • Read the feedback that follows each statement to see whether your hunch is correct. How does your experience compare with the evidence?

 


Lectures are the best way to convey information.

Feedback: Inconclusive evidence. Lectures can be effective for conveying information – but not more so than a whole range of other methods, including independent study of textbooks.

Lectures are the best way to develop students' understanding and thinking.

Feedback: Contradicted by evidence. Developing understanding requires active effort by students and most lectures make students passive and so are much less effective than a range of alternatives that involve more active learning.

Lectures are the best way to develop students' attitudes and beliefs.

Feedback: Contradicted by evidence. Attitudes are changed by engaging in open debate, and one-way communications are relatively poor at changing what people believe.

Lectures are the best way to inspire interest in the subject.

Feedback: Contradicted by evidence. While a few lecturers manage to inspire their students, most do not. Lectures rarely lead to more subsequent study effort than do other methods.

Lectures are the best way to 'model the discourse' of your subject, demonstrating how arguments are formed.

Feedback: Inconclusive evidence. Perhaps this is because students cannot always spot the forms of argument that teachers are trying to model or realise that is what they should be paying attention to.

Lectures are cheaper than alternatives in the use of teachers' time.

Feedback: Inconclusive evidence. Large-class lectures are clearly cheaper than smaller discussion classes. However, they may take up a lot of teachers' time in their preparation and there may be ways of giving students access to the course content that use no teacher time at all.

Lectures pace students through a course, making it clear what they should be studying each week.

Feedback: Inconclusive evidence. Arguably this is quite important – and you might notice problems if you took the lecture away – but there is little evidence about this role.


Nearly all of the voluminous research evidence about lecturing is engagingly summarised in What's the Use of Lectures? by Donald Bligh, listed in the 'Resource bank'.

Implications of the evidence

Some lecturers, through their brilliance, are clearly able to contradict the research evidence – they can make lectures work very well to stimulate thinking. But the evidence suggests these brilliant lecturers are in a minority. You may be able to achieve better results from your lectures than has been found in most research studies – but the research indicates that the odds are against you.

So much of what follows in this course is about understanding and working with the lecture format in order to be able to make lectures work better than they do normally. This mainly involves incorporating into lectures what is often missing: active learning and discussion. (That said, in some circumstances it can be better to abandon lecturing as a method and do something more effective.) For example 'Problem Based Learning in Medicine', in which students in groups find out what they need to know for themselves in order to tackle carefully selected medical problems, uses far fewer lectures than conventional medical courses, and sometimes uses no lectures at all, but works very effectively (Dochy, et al., 2003).

Summary

It is clear that many lectures may struggle to achieve their goals well during the hour that they last. However, lectures can be used to good effect to set students up for the independent learning that should and can happen afterwards. After all, lectures are seldom the only component of a course and they can make a powerful contribution to the overall learning environment which a course creates, and within which students study and learn, even if lectures seldom do all the job on their own.