Should we ditch traditional lectures?

With the rise in technology, flipped learning, hand held devices, wide scale wifi access, 24/7 learning. Should we ditch the traditional lectures?

The Guardian’s Donal Clark thinks we should;

“Intelligent people leave their brains behind when it comes totechnology,” says Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at the Institute of Education.

I would say that very intelligent academics and researchers leave their brains behind when defending what has become a lazy and damaging pedagogy – the face-to-face lecture.

Imagine if a movie were shown only once. Or your local newspaper was read out just once a day in the local square. Or novelists read their books out once to an invited audience. That’s face-to-face lectures for you: it’s that stupid.

What’s even worse is that, at many conferences I attend, someone reads out an entire lecture verbatim from their notes. Is there anything more pointless? It’s a throwback to a non-literate age. I can read. In fact, I can read faster than they can speak. The whole thing is an insult to the audience.

Here are 10 reasons why face-to-face lectures just don’t work:

1. Babylonian hour 
We only have hours because of the Babylonian base-60 number system, which first appeared around 3100 BC. But it has nothing to do with the psychology of learning.

2. Passive observers
Lectures without engagement with the audience turn students into passive observers. Research shows that participation increases learning, yet few lecturers do this.

3. Attention fall-off
Our ability to retain information falls off badly after 10-20 minutes. In one study, the simple insertion of three “two-minute pauses” led to a difference of two letter grades in a short- and long-term recall test.

4. Note-taking
Lectures rely on students taking notes, yet note-taking is seldom taught, which massively reduces the effectiveness of the lecture.

5. Disabilities 
Even slight disabilities in listening, language or motor skills can make lectures ineffective, as it is difficult to focus, discriminate and note-take quickly enough.

6. One bite at the cherry
If something is not understood on first exposure, there is no opportunity to pause, reflect or seek clarification. This approach contradicts all that we know about the psychology of learning.

7. Cognitive overload
Lecturers load up talks with too much detail, with the result that students cannot process all the information properly.

8. Tyranny of location
Students have to go to a specific place to hear a lecture. This wastes huge amounts of time, especially if they live far away from campus.

9. Tyranny of time 
Students have to turn up at a specific time to hear a lecture.

10. Poor presentation
Many lecturers have neither the personality nor skills to hold the audience’s attention.

Most of these faults can be addressed by one simple adjustment: recording the lecture and delivering it online – a well-established model in distance learning courses.

An effective alternative

The recorded lecture has some straightforward practical advantages. Students can rewind if their attention has lapsed, or if they don’t understand what they’ve heard, or if English is not their first language. They can pause to take better notes or if they need to look something up.

Students can also choose to watch the lecture when they’re in an attentive state, rather than when they’re feeling tired or distracted. They can watch again for revision or improved retention, or fast-forward through anything they’re already familiar with. They don’t need to waste time travelling to or from the lecture hall.

There are also deeper pedagogical benefits. Paradoxically, a student watching a lecture online may be able to forge a closer connection with the lecturer than one watching the lecture live.

One advocate of the recorded lecture is Stanford University professor of mathematics Keith Devlin, who delivers his “introduction to mathematical thinking” module as a massive online open course (Mooc). He arguesthat a recorded lecture gives students control over the lecture, making it a “self-evidently better” method of teaching.

Devlin believes that many students lack the confidence to ask academics questions face-to-face and that, for students who are more shy, the ability to ask questions via social media helps them to perform better.

He writes: “The fact is, a student taking my Mooc can make a closer connection with me than if they were in a class of more than 25 or so students, and certainly more than in a class of 250.”


It’s not just students who benefit. Recording lectures can free up lecturers’ time to spend on research and to take part in higher quality teaching experiences, such as seminars and tutorials.

It can also improve a lecturer’s performance, as the act of being recorded encourages them to raise their game.

Student feedback can be used to improve future lectures. Research shows that students are more likely to watch a recorded lecture than attend a lecture in person.

So why retain the face-to-face lecture when its value as a pedagogical tool is so limited? There seems to be no other reason than the old justification: “We’ve always done it this way.”

Donald Clark is the chief executive of PlanB Learning. You can read his blog here. Follow him on Twitter @donaldclark.