For & Against: Lectures

Monday, 1 September, 2014

Are lectures an outdated mode of education?

Words by Harvey Duckett

If, like me, you had the privilege of viewing Legally Blonde—cinema’s perennial exemplar of university life—before passing below the swooping arches of John Medley for the very first time, you probably held some pretty specific ideas about how lectures at Melbourne would play out. They would be small and engaging—intimate enough that you could be called out by your teacher and peers, but also be a space in which everybody could learn something from each other.

How wrong you were.

As I write this, I’m wedged between two students who appear to be anaesthetised. We’re seated in a cavernous theatre whose current number of occupants roughly equals the amount of “likes” amassed on your average private school girl’s formal photo, or perhaps the population of a small Baltic state. When our lecturer arrives, he or she will invariably proceed to bestow upon us their infinite wisdom courtesy of Microsoft PowerPoint. Indomitable slabs of text, whose grammar and syntax even Virginia Woolf would find questionable, will be recited to us verbatim, because apparently we can’t read. At lecture’s end, we’ll all clamber to our feet, no more markedly learned than when we came in, and wonder why we didn’t stay at home and listen to the diatribe online at double speed.

Admittedly, I’m generalising; some of the lectures I’ve attended have been fantastic, with enthusiastic professors who relish and encourage student engagement. Some lectures play out like erudite versions of Jerry Springer. But the inconvenient truth is that nowadays, lectures are more about expediency than quality education. Ever-rising student enrolments and restricted government funding has meant that the majority of lectures have become overcrowded, with lecturers largely disengaged because they’re juggling so many other commitments just to maintain tenure. Such a style of learning creates a culture where anonymity is normalised; it’s anathema to personal development because it makes it all too easy to become lost amid the masses. Academics who actually care about your educational growth as an actual person are few and far between.

The solution? Pare lectures down, and substitute them with more tutes, or better yet, one-on-one teaching. If you’ve ever had an intellectual yarn with a tutor over a coffee, you’ll know how valuable such an experience can be, how much it can compel you to learn. The best universities in the world recognise this; it’s how Oxbridge and the Ivies attract the crème de la crème of students. If Melbourne wants to rub shoulders with these educational heavyweights—or indeed, in a world where online courses are becoming increasingly popular, stay relevant—it needs to offer a personalised educational experience. On these terms, lectures simply don’t make the grade.

Words by Stewart Webb

I recently read an article published by The Conversation entitled “Are lectures a good way to learn?”. The article spoke of a US review into the effectiveness of learning techniques in which lectures didn’t exactly receive a standing ovation. The review lauded itself as “the equivalent of the 1964 Surgeon-General’s report that led to legislated warnings about smoking in the United States”, as though attending lectures is hazardous to your health (though I guess getting up for those 8am lectures after a night out can be pretty lethal). It claimed that “traditional lecture-based courses are correlated with significantly poorer performance in terms of failure rates and marks”. In contrast, the review championed “active learning” techniques, such as peer instruction and problem-based learning, and suggested that they result in far better achievement rates and lower failure rates. My response to this was, “Well… duh.” I don’t know about you, but if I walked out of a lecture and was presented with a test on the content that the lecturer had just covered, I don’t think I’d go particularly well. Lectures on their own aren’t the best way of learning. However, the article overlooks the context in which lectures usually reside: in conjunction with active learning classes. I think it’s careless to consider the merits of them individually. No, I may not be able to perform life-saving heart surgery after walking out of a biology lecture. Nor could I tell you how the Battle of Berlin went down after attending a WWII history lecture (mind you, being a computer science student, I probably still wouldn’t be able to tell you that after a whole semester of classes). But when I walk into the biology or history tute afterwards, I’m in a much better position to tackle the content—and whatever questions it brings up—than I would have been had I not gone to the lecture. Lectures provide you with a good first impression of the content you’re trying to learn so that when you go on to solidify your knowledge by applying it in a tutorial (in an “active” context), you’ve got a good head start.

Lectures might not be the best individual way of learning, but they’re not totally useless. Combined with other learning techniques, I believe that lectures have an important role in the structure of our learning at university, and that they should continue into the future.