Lectures: not dead, just resting

A recent article, “Why lectures are dead (or soon will be),” makes a reasonable argument despite its alarming title.

Tony Bates starts with the roots of the lecture in classical oral traditions and the medieval universities. And today, “[t]he essence of a lecture remains the transmission of information, all of which is now readily and, in most cases, freely available in other media and in more learner-friendly formats.” Objections to the lecture-as-medium are at least as old as Samuel Johnson’s (as Bates shows): “Lectures were once useful, but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary.”

We should be skeptical of any categorical claims about lectures, but according to Bates, studies have shown that lectures longer than 20–30 minutes are not effective ways to make learning stick. To do that, we need to break up our delivery of knowledge with opportunities to apply and examine that knowledge. And we need to ask, “If most students have mobile phones or laptops, why are they still having physically to come to a lecture hall? Why can’t they get a podcast of the lecture?”

Bates draws two research-based conclusions:

  1. “Even for the sole purpose for which lectures may be effective – the transmission of information – the 50 minute lecture needs to be well organized, with frequent opportunities for student questions and discussion.”
  2. “For all other important learning activities, such as developing critical thinking, deep understanding, and application of knowledge – the kind of skills needed in a digital age – lectures are ineffective. Other forms of teaching and learning – such as opportunities for discussion and student activities – are necessary.”

In the future, Bates predicts, “the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert.”

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