In Defense of Lecture

Instructional designers tend to be allergic to lecture. This is for good reasons, of course. People learn by doing and practicing. Human minds are so easily distracted that it is hard for lecturers to keep our focus. Most lectures are dry and abstract.

That said, I love a good lecture. I love the feeling of my brain tingling with new models and possibilities as I sit and listen and think.

Lecture is academic storytelling. People are wired to focus on storytellers; storytelling is one basis of how we form relationships, so lectures should be inherently effective even though that’s clearly not the case.

Lectures are generally ineffective because lecturers often don’t see what they are doing as storytelling; they see it as organized information sharing. Storytelling involves establishing tension. It demands intriguing novelty and delightful surprises. Compelling stories build to a climax. Most of all, stories reflect the passion of the storyteller. The more engaged the storyteller, the more engaging the story.

I’d assert that a really great lecture is better than a discussion-based class (At least for conceptual learning–I don’t want anyone’s drivers ed class to be completely lecture-based. Building proficiency requires guided problem solving.).  A great lecture is efficient, for one thing. How many times in grad school did I find myself thinking that we were wasting time hearing the opinions of classmates when there was an expert on the topic right there at the front of the classroom. A great lecture is personal. As the listener, my mind and pen go where I need them to go, not where the instructional designer is trying to lead me. A great lecture is inspirational, leaving me thinking, “I’ve got to tell someone about this.”

But great lectures are hard to create, harder to create than good active learning, so are unlikely to become a featured tool in the instructional design toolkit anytime soon. Until then, they will be used only grudgingly, which keeps us from realizing their full potential.


2 thoughts on “In Defense of Lecture

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