The Lecture is dead: long live the lecture


If all the students who slept through lectures were laid end to end , they’d all be a lot more comfortable’

anonymous student

An interesting post in The Telegraph this morning on the subject of lecturing. When I posted some tweets on it I was flabbergasted not only at the number of re-tweets that I got , but by the fact that my youngest son felt moved to talk to me publicly on Twitter- thus proving (at least as far as I am concerned) , that folk either love or hate this method of teaching.


I’ve been a teacher for some twenty five years now, and I have to say that this form of teaching – if you can call it that- is not one of my favourites. Standing in a lecture theatre, your finger paused over the trusty mouse ready to click on your first PowerPoint, invokes feelings of horror, boredom and inertia in that order.


I have, over the years taken public speaking courses, been coached in voice development, and attended sessions on body language and even – how to look a bit thinner on camera. Yet still the lecture holds little joy for me.

I teach, once a month on a course that I developed for teaching clinicians; it’s an interesting course giving NHS doctors a little bit of learning theory alongside the opportunity to practice their teaching skills in a safe place. It isn’t very long but for most of them, it’s the only formal teacher training they’ll get. A little scary given that they are responsible for a great deal of on the job teaching and training. The thing that seems to hold the most fear for them is lecturing- standing up on a podium and speaking to a large audience for half an hour or more.


Why is it that this form of teaching holds so much fear for many of us? If you can break bad news, coax reluctant and fearful students into passing their exams, cope with lazy students, hung over students and those treasures that always know better than teacher, then why is it that we feel so much fear about standing up – after a considerable amount of prep- and socking it to them? Even classroom teachers – seasoned vets used to speaking for 30 hours a week to large groups admit to feeling terror at speaking to larger groups of students or adults ?


According to the insights I’ve gleaned over the course of working with many professionals in the public and private sectors; one of the main reasons is because they are frightened of boring people – having been bored by so many lecturers in the past. Ironically these are the folk that are least likely to be boring- it tends to be those that love the sound of their own voice that have us nodding off after a few minutes- lulled by the tenor of their voice and the tedious nature of the subject matter.


But neither of these should be a barrier to delivering a good lecture – even dry theory can sound interesting if delivered with some sort of passion in the voice and with a reasonable level of energy in delivery. But in order to inject this, many people need some guidance and training in the art of public speaking: guidance and training that is rarely offered in the context of daily practice.


It pains me to hear people who know so much about their subject, deliver a lecture that is less interesting than watching paint dry- a lecture that is so filled with unexplained jargon; accompanied by overcrowded and numerous slides. One of the worst sessions I have ever attended was one on ironically titled : How to manage large amounts of information: the lecturer then proceeded to talk to no less than 70 slides cram packed with text all written in 12 point Arial !


If we consider the cognitive, situative and affective elements of lecturing – thinking, linking, where the lecture is given and how we feel during lectures –the lecture theatre presentation fails on all counts. Unlike a podcast, you can’t pause it , rewind it or listen again in order to make the link between this new info and what you already know; you have to sit and listen; asking questions is either too nerve racking (due to large numbers) or by the time you are allowed to ask , you’ve forgotten the question. Unlike a tutorial, you can’t explore others perceptions into what is going on – if you don’t understand it, you sit and switch off, or text, or Facebook or tweet to your mates……..


If I must listen to a lecture I would rather do it while working off a few pounds in the gym or on a nice walk. If I must give a lecture , I would rather record it and spend more time in tutorials discussing content with students (either online or face to face) so that I can really get some indication of whether students have understood or not, and if not, then address it there and then. I would rather feel the passion for my subject and inject it into my podcast without the fear of talking about it to hundreds of people. As one anonymous student once said:

‘Lecturers should remember that the capacity of the mind to absorb is limited to what the seat can endure……’



Lecturers should remember that the capacity of the mind to absorb is limited to what the seat can endure……

Author: Professor Dr Jacqueline Baxter

I am Professor of Public Policy and Management at The Open University Business School - Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise and Chair on the MBA programme. My interests lie in the areas of education leadership, management and accountablity and the digital teaching of business and law.

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