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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


'Don't lecture me' – the case for abolishing the lecture

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 14 September 2010

This year’s ALT-C (Association for Learning Technology) conference opened with a bang – echoes of which continued to resound for the rest of the week. The source was an entertaining and provocative talk by Donald Clark about why the lecture is not fit for purpose (prefaced by an apology for delivering a lecture about why we should not deliver lectures). Clark noted that the word lecture originally meant ‘sermon’ and argued that although some teachers claim interactivity in their lectures often this is an illusion with questions tending to be rhetorical. There is a pretence that critical thinking is being taught; the lecture was never intended to promote critical thinking – it evolved from preaching where the audience was not expected to question material. Clark argues that if you’re going to lecture then make sure you do it well and think about going ‘stadium style’ to huge numbers – using technology to broadcast it if you want.

Many of Clark’s examples come from physics – a subject he is fascinated by but was unable to engage with as a student. It is difficult to understand and to teach, and so was a good basis for his talk. He recounted how he had embarked on a degree in physics but gave up after a year as he had failed to learn from the lectures he was given – typically a lecturer would walk into the auditorium and write long series’ of equations on panels of blackboards without any real attempt at explanation or engagement. Often all would be done without even facing the students. Clark told how even Isaac Newton was a dreadful teacher – no one would turn up; in contrast Richard Feynman was a superb teacher who cared deeply about teaching; Feynman even published his lectures but was critical of lecture as method. Eric Mazur noticed that lecturers revert to anecdote when talking about teaching (great quote – ‘data is not the plural of anecdote’). Academics can be disparaging about undergraduates; they are typically very far ahead of the undergraduate level – especially in physics – that they can’t easily get back to that level. When thinking about and discussing teaching they typically do not use scientific method and persist in using ineffective approaches. Mazur developed a revised approach involving pre-reading, getting students to take notes, seating weaker students at front and smarter ones at the four corners – this was demonstrated to bring up overall standards.

The Institute of Theoretical Physics in Trieste recognized the issue of introverted lecturers and adopted a policy of recording all lectures to ensure that students had a second chance to watch. The recording was initially taking photos every few minutes and recording audio throughout. This approach was judged to be a big improvement.

Clark quoted MIT’s Walter Lewin who has produced some fantastic videos for teaching ‘it’s better to see a first class lecture on video than a mediocre one in the flesh’ – for any teacher a drop off in attendance over the term should ring alarm bells. He also quoted from Donald Bligh’s book ‘ ‘What’s the use of lectures?’ which cites ten pedagogical problems with the lecture:

  1. They tend to be 1 hour.
  2. There is the tyranny of time (ie specific time and place) – why not use YouTube, OCW etc.
  3. And the tyranny of location.
  4. It can be difficult to maintain psychological attention – boredom sets in…
  5. Cognitive overload – too much info too quickly – teachers should simplify materials and pare back radically.
  6. Episodic and semantic memory – lectures shove semantic stuff at you which is unlikely to stick unless something in there is really striking or memorable; teachers need to learn how to use media.
  7. Learning by doing – doesn’t happen in a lecture.
  8. Spaced practice – Ebbingham demonstrated that we need repeated practice to learn – how does this relate to lecture-based learning?
  9. Not collaborative – people don’t want to sit next to each other – as evidenced by the typical practice of leaving an empty space between you and your neighbour – let alone talk to each other in this kind of environment.
  10. Personality problems – we should not don’t assume every teacher has go be a researcher and vice versa; some academics are simply not cut out for teaching.

Clark’s final words of advice is to aim for transformation of your approach – redesign the whole course, don’t just bolt on technology. Oh and abolish ‘lecturer’ as a job title.

Twitter – @donaldclark


The talk was entertaining, lively, thought provoking, and indeed provoked a number of the audience quite effectively – the Twitter backchannel was buzzing with protests that Clark was being condescending to academics, and that whilst some of his criticisms were valid he failed to offer any clear solutions. Some of the tweeting was pretty abrasive and a couple of people managed to put together fairly substantial blog posts outlining their criticisms within hours of the talk.  It did seem – as someone put it – that the wisdom of the crowd had turned into the baying of the twittering mob… Clark himself has posted a blog posting about being tweckled in this way – https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=21077063&postID=2355649275760409611 (and the comments, and his responses…).

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