Should teachers lecture? Part 1

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.

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3 thoughts on “Should teachers lecture? Part 1

  1. I’d like to say that I really enjoy lectures. Especially if the topic is interesting, I love to just sit and listen to someone talk about it.

    In general, I think the effectiveness of lectures depends on the type of learning. Sometimes you are teaching people what to “know.” Other times you are teaching what to “do”. For example, giving an hour long lecture on wood working is probably a waste of time if it is not followed by a lab session. But there is also a reason why you don’t have philosophy labs. Ha.

  2. Fred’s comment hits the nail on the head for me. To lecture or not, or – how you choose to instruct, should be a reflection of what you want your students to know or be able to do. Is the goal really to have them ‘remember’? How can this be the goal in the age of Google, where our students must be prepared for jobs that have not been thought of yet?

    I have not taken a philosophy course, so with my little understanding of the content I ask the question, ‘Are not talking, debating, listening and responding verbally some of the essential skills of philosophy?’ I’m not sure how you would have a ‘hands on’ philosophy lesson. (though my constructivist heart tells me there is a way!) So to have a philosophy course that engages in these activities makes sense to me, but I’m not an expert.

    As an instructor how you present your material is an expression of what you value. If you lecture and expect students to take notes, you are telling students that what you as an expert value is the memorization of what you know. That to be a philosopher, or biologist, or teacher one must be able to copy great notes, memorize them, and do well on tests. On the other hand, if you ask open ended questions, promote discussion, facilitate learning the skills of your discipline, then you are showing your students that you see them as members of your community. You are showing them how to become valued members of the community. Social Learning.

    I’m going to push back a bit at your flight lessons example. Do you believe after one lesson you were capable of flying the plane? Did the instructor next let you fly the plane alone or with him giving verbal instructions? As well, you were able to not only listen, but see what he was doing with the controls and see the immediate effect it had on the planes flight. (hands on – in my opinion)

    Finally, I can say that I too enjoy a lecture. But I can’t say I enjoy all lectures and I doubt anyone else would say so either. So what are the qualities of a good lecture? For me it’s when the speaker uses story. I don’t want to listen to someone tell me how to do something, I want to hear the story of how someone else struggled with the same idea, issue, or process and persevered to come to an understanding or was able to create something. That is how I learn verbally, which I hesitate to classify as verbally, because it’s more of a sharing, socially, what others have done.

    • Three very different stands one could take are:

      a) lecture is always the most effective method, so there’s no need for any alternative approach

      b) lecture is always an ineffective method, a necessary evil that should be replaced wherever possible

      c) lecture is frequently a good method, made even better when combined with other methods

      I think that c) is a no-brainer. I interpret the podcasts and articles as saying b). People seem to think that I believe a).

      For example: absolutely, the flying lessons weren’t *just* lecture, and wouldn’t have worked if they were. Even the lecture part of them wasn’t just lecture — that is, he didn’t talk about everything in a classroom in front of a blackboard, he did it *as we were flying*. That’s a combo of hands-on, demonstration, and lecture I suppose.

      Of course the choice of methodology should also be content driven. Flying a plane has to be hands-on instruction more than anything else; philosophy not so much. But even when lecturing on philosophy in a classroom setting, I think of it as *showing* the students how to think about the issues.

      So are we all just saying c) and talking past each other?

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