Lectures are an hour long (some astoundingly 2/3 hours) because the Sumerians had a base-60 number system. It is for the convenience of timetabling, not the psychology of attention and retention.
One of the saddest learning stories I’ve ever heard was from the actress Tilda Swinton. She was the only student who turned up to a lecture at Oxford by Raymond Williams where he read out his lecture, from notes, from behind the lectern, and neither of them even acknowledged each other. Studies show quick drop-out from lectures across all subjects. Even at Harvard, where you may be laying out a large five figure sum per year, where GoPro cameras recorded attendance across ten courses, lecture attendance dropped off to only 60% (average) of students attended any given lecture and attendance declined over the semester from 79% to 43%. Imagine running a restaurant, where people pay for the food up front and 40% fail to turn up. You’d surely question the quality of the food.
The bog standard lecture is still the lazy, primary teaching technique in Higher Education. I say lazy because it is based on convention and habit. It is embedded practice as opposed to tased on evidence-based research. Higher Education values research over teaching, yet studiously ignores the research around teaching. Research on attendance is worrying. Research on retention is clear. Research on why researchers don’t make great teachers is also clear. Astin’s longitudinal data on 24,847 students at 309 different institutions found a strongly negative correlation between orientation towards research and teaching.
It’s an inconvenient truth but researchers are systematic, obsessed by detail and often lack the social skills to be good teachers. Witness the 20 stab-point PowerPoint slides, the often dull delivery, the lack of engagement. Teaching skills demand social skills, communication skills, the ability to hold an audience, keep to the right level, avoid cognitive overload, good pedagogic skills and the ability to deliver constructive feedback.
If you do lecture then recording is an important stopgap. Suppose that journalists read out pieces once a day in the local square, a novelist reads his book only once and didn’t publish it in book form. That’s unrecorded lectures for you. To deny students second and subsequent bites of the cherry is an act of conceit. Little is learnt on first exposure, most is learnt from subsequent effort. Original lectures are often delivered too fast, especially if it is the learner’s second language. Students can stop, drill down on a point through research, then resume rewind, repeat, watch at any time at any place, take notes second time round, watch after illness, and move through the course at their own pace.
But the real solution is to largely stop lecturing. In practice, students increasingly learn via Google, YouTube and other online educational tools. At Stanford University this year, I sat with academics and medical students in the same room. Many lecturers were surprised at the range of online tools and apps used intensely by students, fine-tuned to active learning, retrieval, reinforcement, spaced practice, retention and recall. The lecture is increasingly under attack from superior tools, sensitive proven research and how we really learn. We see the rise of smart, AI-driven technology that focuses on the well-researched area of retrieval practice and adaptive learning designed to educate everyone uniquely. Designed to raise attainment and stop drop-out, these tools increase efficacy in learning, yet few academic are even aware of their existence.
Note that I’m not wholly against lectures. Students want to see academics in the flesh. To see a practicising philosopher or physicist, be inspired by that person and subject. This type of inspiring, spot lecture is important. Slabbing lectures out over a term, by researchers who struggle to present, never mind teach, is not just lazy, it is dishonest. Teach me, don’t lecture me.
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