1 Introduction

“The first duty of a lecturer: to hand you after an hour's discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks, and keep on the mantelpiece forever.” – Virginia Woolf
“College is a place where a professor's lecture notes go straight to the students' lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either” – Mark Twain
“Academic chairs are many, but wise and noble teachers are few; lecture rooms are numerous and large, but the number of young people who genuinely thirst after truth and justice is small.” – Albert Einstein
“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep” – Albert Camus
“When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.” – Marcel Archard
‚Äč“Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners.” – Kingsley Amis
“The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatises, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
“My lecture was a complete success, but the audience was a failure.” – Anon

Lectures have been employed for hundreds of years as a platform for disseminating ideas and knowledge and for guiding and motivating students, and they continue to be a cornerstone of higher education practices today. Lectures can be defined as the delivery of a course through a series of presentations by academic staff members to a group of students, usually with visual prompts and aids. The term 'lecture' can encompass a range of styles, approaches and formats that will be investigated throughout this chapter. Some of these involve considerable student participation. Traditionally, however, lectures have involved the one-way transmission of course content from academics to students.

But lectures have more than a mere dissemination role. If their intention were merely to provide the students with basic information on the course, then there would be good reason simply to abandon them and provide a competent set of notes in their place. Lectures should also motivate and challenge students and give them insights. This is elegantly summarised by a student who attended Alfred Marshall’s lectures at the University of Cambridge at the turn of the century:

“He was certainly a unique teacher. He seemed to grip the mind of his hearer and force it through unaccustomed exercises, with many a violent jolt and breathless chase. He loved to puzzle and perplex you and then suddenly to dazzle you with unexpected light. ‘Ages of darkness and moments of vision’, was one description of his lectures, I remember. But the vision was worth it, and was not to be appreciated without the preliminary bewilderment…. What we brought away from Marshall’s lectures was certainly not any ordered knowledge of economics, not enough, as he had predicted, for passing an examination, but perhaps an awakened interest, a little more insight, the memory of some moment of illumination and a sense of the importance of economics.” (As quoted in Groenewegen 1995, p.314)

This quotation captures a key potential difference between a lecture and a textbook exposition. Of course not everyone is capable of holding an audience spellbound throughout a lecture, especially when it is part of the routine of learning. Nonetheless, lectures can be used as an effective means of promoting student learning even if the lecturer is not inspirational. However, they can also be tedious and of little benefit to students. In large part, the success of a lecture depends on how engaged students are and whether it is providing an active learning environment.

This handbook chapter will investigate the costs and benefits of different types of lecture, and will suggest ways in which the traditional lecture can be improved. Although the focus of the chapter is on lecturing, it is not considered in isolation from the other teaching and learning formats that are likely to accompany and complement it.

1.1 Opportunities provided by lectures

Lectures provide key opportunities for students to learn in an efficient way about the subject they have chosen to study. The lecture will typically convey and prioritise information about the subject in a relatively condensed format. It can also enthuse students and provide a suitable framework for further study. Students are exposed, most likely for the first time, to a professional scholar who may be a researcher at the forefront of that aspect of the discipline. Lectures provide a traditional link between research and teaching. They help to preserve a culture of learning in Higher Education in which undergraduate study is viewed as an induction into an academic discipline, a way of viewing the world.

There are also clear benefits to the lecturer. Assuming that an academic is lecturing on a similar topic each year, the up-front costs of preparing a set of lectures are offset by their re-usability. Also, the traditional lecture, being teacher centred, can minimise the stress for those academics that are hesitant to relinquish control of the learning process to students.

Lectures have additional benefits for the institution. They are seen as making an efficient use of the lecturer's time, since they allow teaching to take place in classes with a very high student/staff ratio. This has become an increasingly compelling incentive when pressures on institutions in terms of research output and accountability to students and other stakeholders have grown. A greater use of lectures, or of larger lectures, allows resources to be released to address these other issues – either by reducing lecturers’ timetables or by releasing time for more small-group work, personal tutorials or online tuition.

1.2 Inherent problems with the traditional lecture

Notwithstanding the apparent benefits detailed above, newer approaches to teaching and learning, such as problem-based learning, are increasingly being introduced on the grounds that, even for an equivalent investment of staff time, the learning outcomes of students are far improved. The use of techniques that aim to generate a greater amount of student involvement is of course nothing new. Tutorials, seminars and other variations on student-centred learning have long been used to complement lectures. However, the justification for abandoning or reducing the number of lectures on a course typically focuses on two criticisms: that lectures are a poor medium, first for conveying information and second for developing student understanding.

Conveying information to students

Are lectures an efficient means of conveying information to students? According to Miller (1956), the average number of items that can be held in short-term memory is 7 (±2). Therefore, if students do not have significant time to process new information one of two things happens, either previous information is displaced or the new information is lost. Lectures which proceed quickly simply do not give students sufficient time to process information. Similarly, the ability to concentrate for an hour or so while taking adequate notes is not something that can be taken for granted. Indeed, listening and note taking can be mutually exclusive activities, especially for more inexperienced students. It cannot be assumed that an hour-long lecture will result in an equivalent sum of learning taking place within a student’s head.

This problem can be compounded by the problems of a crowded curriculum. As new theories, research findings and policy initiatives emerge, space has to be found within the syllabus to accommodate them, and not always at the expense of existing content. If more and more content is crammed into a series of lectures it may encourage the lecturer to do little else but talk from the front from start to finish. The logical consequence of such practice is that the pace of lectures is forever quickening to ensure that the expanding syllabus is covered. A lecture could hardly be considered successful if it 'covered' the appropriate part of the syllabus and yet students retained little of what was said or were not guided in their private study.

Students are also more likely to remember information when it is structured in a logical fashion and if it is demonstrably meaningful to them. This again highlights the important of context to learning. Students need to comprehend why they are being taught what they are and how they will subsequently be assessed on it.

Developing student understanding

To judge the 'success' of a lecture, it is important to identify its intended learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are often specified in module or course descriptors or handbooks. However, caution should be exercised in judging the success of a lecture against them, since these parts of the documents have often been prepared to meet university or QAA requirements, and compliance in this process by lecturing staff does not necessarily mean that the specified learning outcomes are the most appropriate or are even the ones that the lecturer would choose to identify.

In addition, whilst a lecture's success should be judged in terms of what students gain from it, it does not follow that lectures which students consider successful are necessarily good lectures. Students may prefer lectures that allow them to take notes which can be used directly in preparing for examinations or other forms of assessment. If their objective is to maximise marks subject to a time constraint, or to minimise time commitment subject to achieving a target mark, then this will almost certainly be the case. Similarly, a lecture might be very entertaining, and for that reason popular with students, and yet be a poor learning medium for students. Students are also likely to show a preference for the teaching format they are familiar with, as is equally the case with lecturers.

Assessment is clearly an indicator of student learning and hence of the success of lectures. But even if it were possible to separate the contribution of lectures from other learning media to assessment performance, the assessment itself may not capture the extent to which students have acquired and developed an understanding of the subject matter. To gauge this it is necessary to consider a theory of learning first developed by Marton and Säljö (1976a, 1976b) and since elaborated by Ramsden (1992), Biggs (1987, 1993) and Entwistle (1981). In these studies an important distinction is made between surface, strategic and deep learners. Surface learners are characterised as focusing on memorising words, formulae and theories rather than building relationships and connections. Surface learning is encouraged by:

  • A heavy workload;
  • An excessive amount of course material;
  • A lack of independence;
  • Assessment methods that emphasise recall and create anxiety;
  • Poor or little feedback on progress;
  • A lack of interest in the subject.

Deep learners seek to relate theory to practice in a range of different contexts. They are able to organise their impressions into a coherent whole rather a set of disassociated facts or formulae. Deep learning is encouraged by:

  • Teaching methods that build on students' existing knowledge and experience
  • Active involvement by students in their learning
  • Students having choice over content and study methods;
  • Long-term engagement with the subject

Strategic learners will adopt whichever approach they believe will maximise their grades. If they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the form of the examination rewards memorisation of disparate facts, they will adopt a surface approach. If they believe that the examination will reward a holistic understanding of key ideas and how these apply in different circumstances they are more likely to adopt a deep approach.

Most students cannot be so readily pigeon holed, displaying characteristics from two or more categories at any one time and may change their preferences over time. Nonetheless, this theory exemplifies the potential shortcomings of a wholly didactic model where it is assumed that what is not said is not learnt. The purpose of this chapter is not to debate at length the merit of this model (further reading references are provided at the end), but to establish that the intention of any economics course should be more than simply to allow students to adopt surface-learning strategies that promote the accumulation of transient non-contextualised knowledge.

Finally there is the issue of the diversity of ability and prior experience of students. This is especially a problem at level 1, where lecture groups tend to be larger, where some students are new to the subject and others have A' level Economics and/or Maths or equivalent, and where exit routes can vary from Single Honours Economics degrees to degrees where no further economics will be studied beyond level 1. How can a traditional lecture cope with diversity? To which students should the lecture be pitched? What back-up support will be necessary for the weaker students and what additional learning activities will stretch the stronger students?