In Defense of Lecture in the Classroom

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There is perhaps no method of instruction more vilified than the lecture.  On twitter, I see the following detracting comments:

  1. Lecture is antiquated and ineffective with the modern learner.
  2. Lecture is passive learning.
  3. Lecture doesn’t prepare our students for the 65% of jobs that haven’t been invented yet.
  4. Have a look at the learning pyramid…students can only remember, on average, 5% of material presented during a lecture.
  5. Lecture doesn’t meet all of the needs of student’s needs when addressing different learning styles.

These are just the comments that pop into my head right now.  But, what is a lecture? Like most ideas/concepts in education, we (myself included) generalize a lot about methods and terms.  For a term as universal as ‘lecture’, that leaves a lot of leeway for interpretation. Usually, interpretation leads to differing definitions, which leads to differing understandings, which leads to the fun that is edutwitter debate.  To be a bit more specific, if you are a proponent of <insert any eduterm>, you are probably a bit more forgiving with its definition and application in education. Likewise, if you are an opponent of <insert any eduterm>, you may choose a more cynical view.  Then, the crazy train that is the curse of knowledge takes over and we’re all in for a great debate.

So, again, what is a lecture?  In a discussion I participated in on twitter recently, it was posed that a lecture is “one-way instruction that is at least 5 minutes in time.”  That is certainly one definition…but there are countless other definitions. My question is, so what should we call one-way instruction lasting 4 minutes, 59 seconds?  Like most aspects of education, it is quite difficult to reach consensus on a term as universal as ‘lecture’. Maybe my interpretation of the lecture is too liberal, but it is difficult for me to comprehend the disdain for this method of instruction.  I simply don’t understand how it is passive or simply creates an environment of rote-learning and memorization (By the way, what is so wrong with memorization and knowledge?). Again, this could simply come down to a misunderstanding of the basic definition.  

What does it look like in my classroom?  

Well, let me begin by saying that I teach high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors AP Psychology.  The material every day is new to most and there is little to no prior knowledge of the information. As this is the case, and since I subscribe to a lot of the tenets of cognitive load theory to drive my instruction of new material, I want to create as distraction-free an environment as possible for my students.  This includes having all of my students facing the front and sitting in rows…I have tables, so it’s not exactly ‘desks in rows’, but it basically is.  Also, I present a lot of the material to them verbally with images that relate to the information displayed via an LCD projector. The students synthesis this information and take notes.  It’s simple, clean, and decluttered of as much extraneous stimuli as possible.

I know…not very innovative…that’s passive learning…not a lot of engagement…the digital learner doesn’t learn this way.  Well, please allow me a few paragraphs to hopefully convince you otherwise.

Passive Learning?

‘Passive learning’ is another term that is tough to define.  I believe it does, to an extent, describe lecture. Students do sit and receive information…but it is so much more.  During lecture there is feedback, interaction, and discussion. I ask for and love when students provide clarifications for other students on confusing terms/concepts and relates a particular idea back to their life with a story.  Often, other students can then relate and, before I know it, we’re having a chat about psychology/life and creating retrieval cues for all. Students are also encouraged to ask their questions or concerns about the class material. I can then either answer their questions or another student can offer their interpretation and application.  

No Engagement?

Well, hopefully, the above discussion on…discussions…dispels this a bit.  Also, during lecture, students focus on proper note taking…synthesizing information and working to write down what they deem to be important.  During and after taking notes, students also attempt to use a learning strategy known as dual coding to further improve retention of material.  Along the way, to assess understanding of material, questions can be posed to the class verbally, via kahoot, via the use of exit tickets, etc.  Lecture isn’t devoid of engagement. It’s there.

I know what you’re saying — “This isn’t lecture, it’s collaboration.”  Maybe so…maybe not. It all comes down to your definition of ‘lecture’.  I guess I could argue there is lecture in your collaborate lesson, if I really wanted to.  I don’t.

How can lecture prepare my students for the innovative jobs of the future (65% haven’t been invented yet)?

Lecture imparts knowledge.  Knowledge is a requirement for innovation and creativity.  Simply put, you cannot be creative with knowledge you do not have.  This is why, when initially presenting information to students, I try to do so in as simple a method as possible.  Creating an environment with as few distractions as possible decreases the extraneous load on our limited working memory and allows for the possible processing of more material.  

As for the 65% of jobs…well I don’t really believe that statistic at all.  Here’s an article from Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat on this made up statistic:  

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made up statistic about the future of work

What about the learning pyramid and meeting all of my student’s different learning styles?

Evidence tells me the idea of having a particular learning style and the statistics associated with the learning pyramid are myths.  Please, please, please check the following links and consider the evidence when designing lessons based around these myths. You could definitely be unintentionally harming your classroom environment.

The Learning Pyramid Myth

The Learning Styles Myth

Lecture is all you need?

That’s not what I’m saying at all.  It isn’t everything, but it should certainly have its place in the classroom…especially with initial presentation of new material or as a method of reviewing information.  Collaboration, creativity, and innovation are all great…after you’ve acquired the knowledge. No, lecture isn’t shiny and new. No, it isn’t considered a 21st century method.  Although, it actually is…if you’ve ever watched a TED Talk, you’ve just enjoyed a lecture.

So, please don’t write off this effective and efficient method.  It mustn’t be boring or passive. Provided students are afforded the opportunities to synthesize, discuss, and apply material presented, lecture is a wonderful foundation for learning in most classrooms.

Do you agree?  Does lecture still have its place in the modern classroom?

If so, how do you utilize lecture in the classroom?

If not, how do you introduce new material in the classroom?

28 thoughts on “In Defense of Lecture in the Classroom

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  1. I teach US Histroy, psych, and soc. I half block periods and half my class is lecture and the other reinforcing what they just learned about. My lectures are more of a discussion and I do them because they have no background knowledge.

    1. Sounds great. I don’t know how I’d even begin to get through my curriculum if I didn’t use lecture…and lecture-as-discussion is definitely my style, too.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

    2. If you think about it, what are Ted Talks? Essentially, visual aid-enhanced lectures. HIGHLY effective snippets that teach quite well.

  2. I think another good reason to do lectures at the high school level is to prepare students for college, particularly for STEM courses in college, which require listening to TONS of lectures. I think a lot of people who study education or work in education think STEM college courses are full of maker-spaces and labs and group projects – while this is the “flashy” part of STEM college courses, a huge percentage of STEM college content is taught through lecture. It’s our job as high school teachers to prepare students to learn from lectures.

  3. I’m a big fan of lecture. It has definitely been demonized. Lecture promotes listening skills(which I believe to be an endangered skill) in a most engaging way. Intellectual engagement is not always observable. Thinking is a private matter that may never manifest in observable form. I’ve been in stimulating lectures before where I have created an entire symphony of thought and images in my mind as I was listening to the lecture. It left no visible trace of its existence, yet provided immense opportunity to think deeply on a topic. Students are not racing about in observable formats with monster size pads of paper. There are no cute cut outs or games, but what there is is real effort to consider what is being said, think about it, take notes about it, and attempt to understand. Lecture also teaches socially advantageous skills in that it teaches students to ingest what is being said before blurting out whatever pops in their head at the moment. This type of courtesy is an effective engagement tool. It’s a ridiculous theory to believe that only observable engagement is valuable and the effects of this thinking is damaging to the intellectual development of students. “Give me [a well planned lecture] or give me death!”

  4. Lectures are essential for basic definitions and placing events in context. Interactive learning can follow and applied learning projects by either individuals or group projects may follow. The lecture can include visual reinforcement with PowerPoint, relevant examples, and current events related to the topic. Just because students prefer summaries or surfing the internet does not mean that is what they need to be doing. Propagandizing the students with social justice biases or bypassing the tedium of detailed factual investigation of science, math or historical documents can only lead to distorted ideological thinking. We need to return to basic learning devoid of identity politics, gender obsession, and the distortion of our cultural heritage and values.

  5. In my opinion, two of the most often misused and most misunderstood terms in education are “passive” and “interactive.”

    People use the term “passive” when they really mean “students were not moving or talking.” Again, this is just my opinion, but the term “passive learning” is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. If students are learning, then they are NOT passive, and learning does not always include moving or talking – especially the learning of complex abstract topics. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that learning complex abstract topics MUST include a time of contemplation that, to an observer, will appear “passive.”

    I think that addresses the idea of “interactive,” also. Without a doubt, discussing , or in some way manipulating, newly acquired knowledge is an essential step in learning, First, however, that knowledge must be acquired, and a lecture is often, if not usually, the most efficient way to begin the process of acquiring and mastering complex abstract knowledge.

  6. I teach in an inner city school where many of the students simply do not have the language skills or focus to initiate new material this way. Lecture definitely has a role to play within a classroom and I do not disagree that a dynamic lecture as a main source of new material can be affective if you have a relatively homogeneous group of strong students. A more diverse group including English Language learners, students with cognitive difficulties, and student with ADHD are going to be left behind during these lectures. I was taught during special ed workshops that sped teaching is simply good teaching that all students can benefit from.

    During the last few years I have been shifting from presenting new information via lecture to having students start with some activity that gives them some experience with subject matter and a chance to start forming their own thoughts around these ideas before “being told what to think.” There is a lot of data backing up this approach and it is the basic underpinning of the 5E instructional model. I find I retain the attention of a greater percentage of my students which leads to more students gaining an understanding of the lessons.

    I teach science at a high school and there is a lot more research within this field that supports the 5E. But, that is mostly because the sciences, in general, have much lower pass rates in students and has needed alternative means of delivering the learning.

    Do our students need to know knowledge and can lectures deliver this? Sure, but I argue that there is a better way. Even those students who are capable of learning via lectures might develop a deeper understanding of the material and ability to really apply this info is they have more understanding about why they are learning and are more engaged. I see a place for lecture in the classroom and do not think it is wrong, but I do think there are better ways of engaging and introducing new concepts.

    1. 5e is basically rebranded constructivist pedagogy, no? While you certainly are in the mainstream in supporting it, it’s not exactly true that there are scads of evidence to support it. One of THE seminal education papers published in the past 20 years is Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s “Why Minimal
      Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work.”

      Know what actually has ton of evidence to support it? Direct instruction.

      Not saying your class is bad. I’m sure your kids do great. But there’s little evidence that constructivist pedagogy, whether it’s called 5e or discovery learning, or anything else.

  7. Lectures are often necessary to impart information to a group of students more or less simultaneously. But the point of the lecture should not be the presentation of “information” or “facts,” but to provide students with the tools to critically evaluate information, to obtain new information, and to present that new information to an audience orally and in writing.

  8. I agree that lectures can indeed be good for the student – a problem I have seen is the lecturer droning on and students ignoring what the lecturer is lecturing about (!) – worse, giving the same lecture again and again and ignoring student questions. I have always believed that if you have students in your classroom and they are bored or otherwise not engaged with what you are trying to do, you have failed … lecture, but observe what the students do (or not do) and adjust – use technology (but sparingly and intelligently – I would ban all powerpoint though) – I do believe that there are indeed different learning styles and we can use technology to help each student, learning in their own way – the one bored during lecture may come and chat with you later for example – or communicate by electronic means – … good post, a reminder that lectures can be helpful, but we need to be aware of what gets lectured and how (!)

  9. Lectures are good, but should be accompanied by note-taking. Most are not good at taking notes, but writing things down helps to commit it to memory. Ideally, one would take quick notes as the lecture goes along, then rewrite the notes after the lecture, getting the benefit of both. I think we have not resolved the question of computers. I’m not sure that taking notes on a laptop contributes anything to learning. There seems to be something in the process of forming letters with pencil on paper that does it. At home, I save pieces from a website, but it’s when I write it down and state the copy in my own words that learning and committing it to memory really works.

  10. Many students, perhaps the greatest majority, the enter the lecture expecting to be spoon-fed; nothing should be further from the truth.Every student should have explored the day’s material in the assigned textbooks; a lecture should only provide additional explanatory material.

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