I remember my undergrad History courses very vividly. The instructor was seen by many as the typical Ferris Bueller-instructor, droning on and on from the front. We all dreaded signing up for his class. I put it off as long as I could. But finally, I had to take his course – and I loved it. The guy was cracking jokes every few minutes that were hilarious. Problem was, only me and one other guy in a class of 100 caught the jokes because they were sooo dry. To 98% of the class, this guy was not a good lecturer. I could have listened to him all day.
That’s the thing about people: we all have different preferences. And all lecturers have different delivery styles. I have sat through lectures that we described as “electrifying” by many, but I had a hard time staying awake. Well, of course, I did look engaged because we all learn early on to fake engagement or get called on.
Different learners find different lecturers engaging or boring on different days depending on a whole range of factors from interest to prior knowledge to how much they ate. Sure, good lecturers can recognize when people are not paying attention, when to change course, when to slow down, when to repeat, etc. But those tactics don’t work for every person in the room, just a slight majority needed to keep momentum going. For some people in the course, those tactics don’t work and they just fake engagement to get out of being called on.
Add to this that different people like hands-on learning or connected learning over lecturing for different topics on different days depending on a whole range of factors. And vice versa. For that “electrifying” lecture, my problem was that I already knew the topic and just wanted to get my hands dirty with applying what I already knew rather than hear an hour of knowledge transfer yet again. And then there are times when I have already applied the knowledge and want to connect with other advanced learners to dig deeper together as a group.
This is the main problem with lectures: we force all people in a course regardless of interest, prior knowledge, interest level and so on to listen to one person presenting in one style for an entire session or even semester. The “popular narrative” about lectures is actually more about this main problem. We actually do have a clear understanding of what a lecture accomplishes – lectures are probably the second most researched pedagogical tool behind standardized tests in instructional design literature. Lectures transfer knowledge. And when the right lecturer connects with the right learners that are interested in having that knowledge transferred to them in a way that they prefer, its a great learning scenario. I have been in many of those.
But for the most part, most of the lectures I have been in do not attain to that magical level. Why? Some studies find that up to 70-90% of all college courses use rely on lectures. no educational theory or research supports that level. The problem is not the lecture; it is how we are drowning our learners’ interest to death in them. We don’t need to attack or defend lectures, but figure out how to connect the right lecture at the right time with the right learners and then stop using them at all other times in the learning process just because they are the comfortable norm.