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The Value of Lectures

By Alan Price, adapted from chapter 9 of Human Resource Development: Strategy and Tactics

The lecture is probably the most common and yet the most heavily criticised of all learning methods (Bligh, 1998). Learners often favour this method because it is almost entirely passive and demands little from them except the appearance of being awake. Trainers (and budget holders) appreciate that information can be thrown at large numbers of people comparatively cheaply. It is also a wonderful opportunity for those with a streak of extraversion to take the stage and expound on their favourite ideas without the intellectual challenge of debate. But is it an effective method of learning? The didactic nature of the lecture has attracted criticism. For example, in a university context, Barnett (2000: 159) describes the lecture as a:

'... refuge for the faint-hearted ... it keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturer and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond ... the students remain as voyeurs; the lecture remains a comfort zone ... the student watches a performance and is not obliged to engage with it'

Nevertheless, the lecture can be a useful medium through which to convey broad ideas about a particular subject. But the lack of interaction means that misunderstanding may result and clarity on certain issues may not be sought. Success is dependent on a number of factors such as:

  • Skill of the speaker
  • Extent to which a lecture is appropriate to convey the subject material
  • Extent to which the visual support facilitates understanding of the material
  • Willingness and ability of the audience to concentrate
  • Lecture not being too lengthy

Saroyan and Styles (1997, cited in Jin, 2000) provide the following framework for evaluating lectures:

1. Strategy: appropriateness of level of instructional strategy (synergy between long-term learning plan and student acceptance level).

2. Organization:
- structure: ways lectures are organized, e.g. in hierarchical form, chaining, or other variations (Bligh, 1998);
- provision of summary of main points;
- effective use of media.

3. Clarity:
- interaction;
- active involvement of students;
- responsiveness of students;
- communication of expected learning;
- enthusiasm.

Jin (2000) identifies another element that is important in determining the popularity and effectiveness of a lecture: its entertainment value. This is particularly significant with very large groups, especially if they contain uncommitted or less able people among the audience. Describing a university situation, Jin observes that:

"Students like to enjoy lectures (so do lecturers, of course). The list of features referring to an entertainment dimension can be very long. For example, good lectures were described as 'interesting, not boring', 'humorous not stern', 'charismatic not weak'. Much less attention was paid to the education aspect. Boring lectures were always the focus of student complaint. They did not like a dull atmosphere in the classroom. They liked jokes and they wanted to be entertained. Many groups mentioned the word charismatic. Lecturers are the focal point of the classroom and students expect them to show that they can maintain the audience's attention, by means of good communication skills and the right personality."

Recent opinion has tended to be slightly more favourable to the lecture as a vehicle of learning. For example, Ward and Lee (2004) found no significant difference in test scores between groups of students randomly allocated to lecture-based and problem-based learning programmes. However, Nadkami (2003) identified more complex mental models being used by learners who had received a mixture of lecture and experiential learning methods than those who had been provided with one of those methods alone. Brookfield and Preskill (1999) argue that the lecture method can be integrated with discussion techniques:

"One of the traps that advocates of discussion methods often fall into is setting up a false dichotomy between lecturing and discussion ... If you lecture, so their argument goes, you only serve to confirm your authoritarian, demagogic tendencies. This is a disservice to well-intentioned colleagues and a gross misunderstanding of pedagogical dynamics ... We believe this pedagogical bifurcation is wrong. Lectures are not, in and of themselves, oppressive and authoritarian ... Similarly, discussions are not, in and of themselves, liberating and spontaneous ... Instead of reducing questions of pedagogical method to a simplistic dichotomy-discussion good, lecture bad-we see these two methods as complementary ... We want to argue that lectures can provide a wonderful opportunity for teachers to model the ... dispositions they wish to encourage in discussion." (pp. 45-46 cited in Sutherland, 2003).

Brookfield and Preskill also suggest a number of ways in which lectures can be used to develop discussion, including:

  • Pose questions at the beginning of each lecture. These should be questions you intend to answer.
  • End the lecture with a further set of questions about issues raised in the lecture, left unanswered or reformatted in a new, possibly more challenging way.
  • Ask students to write down their own questions about the lecture content. The authors also suggest stopping the lecture after every twenty minutes or so and asking students to reflect on the material covered, write down the most important point to them and further issues raised in their minds.
  • Introduce alternative perspectives. Present the lecture as a debate between two or more different points of view, perhaps delivering each from a different part of the room or introducing a colleague to give one of the perspectives.
  • Challenge assumptions. Ask students to identify core assumptions in the lecture with questions such as (cited in Sutherland, 2003):
    • What's the most contentious statement you've heard so far in the lecture today?
    • What's the most important point that's been made in the lecture so far?
    • What question would you most like to have answered regarding today's lecture?
    • What's the most unsupported assertion you've heard in the lecture so far?
    • Of all the ideas and points you've heard so far today, which is most obscure or ambiguous to you?

Finally, we should consider the importance of the lecturer's enthusiasm or passion for the subject. Meier (2000: 238) argues that passion is an essential ingredient in a good training programme, holding that 'subjects taught in a mechanical, perfunctory, emotionless way tend to fall flat for the learner.' He adds:

"Books about training and train-the-trainer programs tend to emphasize the trainer's use of methods, techniques, and media and tend to overlook the one thing needful - the trainer's passion for the subject. Any learning program becomes shallow and ineffective when it's all techniques and no heart."

Excerpts from Chapter 5, The Trainer's Handbook

  1. Evaluating Effectiveness
  2. Short-term Evaluation
  3. Project Sessions
  4. Case Histories and Practice Sessions
  5. Examinations
  6. Types of Exam Questions
  7. Assessment Sessions
  8. Self-evaluation
  9. On-the-Job Evaluation
  10. Long-term Evaluations
  11. Bottom-line Evaluation


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