As part of the how-to-teach-online class I’m taking online this semester, I listened to the American Radio podcast about the inadequacy of lecturing as a teaching method. (Articles that repeat most of the same information are here and here.)
I’ve heard this claim — that lecturing is a bad teaching method, and we should dispense with it — for several years and I’ve always been skeptical. I’m sure that lecturing is not the only teaching method, and often not the best teaching method. I’m also aware that lectures do not suit all learners. But it seems extreme to say that lecture is never a good method. (From the podcast: “Research shows that traditional lecture, where students sit and passively absorb information, is not an effective way for students to learn any subject.”) The reason I doubt that is because I learn really well from lectures. I love lectures. I definitely learn better from them than from hands-on approaches, for instance. So there must be something they do right.
The percentage of information retained from lectures
One of the reasons for the claim is expressed in this quote from the podcast: “Research shows it’s impossible for students to take in and remember all the information presented during a typical lecture.” I seem to recall that this is usually coupled with specific statistics to the effect that we only remember 10% (or something like that) of what we hear, 50% (or whatever) of what we see, but 90% (still making up the numbers!) of what we do. Therefore, lecture is the worst way to learn information.
When I hear this statistic, it makes me think of the flying lessons I took a couple of decades ago. The pilot who trained me said to me as we got into the plane, “Here’s how I will teach you. We’ll start flying, and as we go, I’ll just start talking. I’ll give a running commentary about everything that I’m doing as we go. Don’t worry about remembering it all; I’ll repeat most of it anyway. Eventually a lot of it will sink in.”
The funny thing is, it worked! For me, a strongly auditory learner, that was the perfect way to learn. Even though I only remember a small percentage of everything he said.
While that example may be extreme, the point still stands: a whole lot more information can be presented in a lecture than can be in, say, a hands-on activity. If I tell my students 100 things in a lecture and they remember only (say) 10%, and you show them 10 things in a hands-on activity, and they remember (say) 90% of that, they still learned more from my lecture than from your hands-on activity.
Furthermore, when I tell them 100 things in my lecture, the 100 things aren’t all of equal value. Perhaps I am making 5 main points, with 95 additional facts and illustrations to back it all up. All I really care about is whether you got those 5 main points. It doesn’t worry me at all if you forgot the other 95 things, once they’ve done the job of supporting your understanding of the main ideas.
When you use an alternative method — a hands-on activity, or collaborative approaches, or whatever — your goal is to get the same 5 main points across. That’s why it can certainly be a good idea to consider something beside lecture — the other 95 things to say are expendable, and anything that gets the chief concepts across can be considered a success.
But what it also means is, when you judge the effectiveness of a lecture, who cares how much the students have forgotten? The question is what do they remember? The point of a lecture isn’t to pour tons of information into a student’s head, it’s to make a few points very clearly, and it should be judged on that basis.
Do I think that lectures are always better? Of course not. I just think that they have their place in the world of teaching methods.
I’m not even saying lectures are effective all that often. I’m a pessimist about teaching. I think most of the time our attempts to teach fail. Teaching well is hard, and most of us (including me, for sure) fail at it a lot, no matter what methodology we use. Lecturing is one way I can often succeed, though, so I just wanted to defend it a little bit.
Part 2 is here.