16. Transmissive Lectures: Learning by Listening

16.5. Is There Then No Role for Lectures in a Digital Age?

Lectures though still have their uses. One example is an inaugural lecture I attended for a newly appointed research professor. In this lecture, the professor summarised all the research he and his team had done, resulting in treatments for several cancers and other diseases. This was a public lecture, so he had to satisfy not only other leading researchers in the area but also a lay public with often no science background. He did this by using excellent visuals and analogies. The lecture was followed by a small wine and cheese reception for the audience. The lecture worked for several reasons:

  • First of all, it was a celebratory occasion to bring together family, colleagues, and friends.
  • Second, it was an opportunity to pull together nearly 20 years of research into a single, coherent narrative or story.
  • Third, the lecture was well supported by the appropriate use of graphics and video.
  • Lastly, he put a great deal of work into preparing this lecture and thinking about who would be in the audience – much more preparation than would have been the case if this was just one of many lectures in a course.

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best used for:

  • Providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source
  • Summarizing the material found in a variety of sources
  • Adapting material to the interests of a particular group
  • Initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas
  • Modeling expert thinking

The last point is important. Faculty often argue that the real value of a lecture is to provide a model for students of how the faculty member, as an expert, approaches a topic or problem. Thus, the important point of the lecture is not the transmission of content (facts, principles, ideas), which the students could get from just reading, but an expert way of thinking about the topic. The trouble with this argument for lectures is three-fold:

  • Students are rarely aware that this is the purpose of the lecture, and therefore focus on memorizing the content, rather than the ‘modeling’ of expert thinking.
  • Faculty themselves are not explicit about how they are doing the modeling (or fail to offer other ways in which modeling could be used, so students can compare and contrast).
  • Students get no practice themselves in modeling this skill, even if they are aware of the modeling.

Perhaps more importantly, looking at McKeachie and Svinicki’s suggestions, would it not be better for the students, rather than the lecturer, to be doing these activities in a digital age?

So, yes, there are a few occasions when lectures work very well. But in a digital age, they should not be the default model for regular teaching. There are much better ways to teach that will result in better learning over the length of a course or program.