The Compleat Lecturer – 2: The special effectiveness of lecturing
Oxford Magazine, Second Week, Michaelmas term, 2017: 8-9
The Compleat Lecturer – II: The special effectiveness of lecturing
Lectures work – when done well and used appropriately; but nobody seems to know why. And the lack of an accepted rationale for the method seems to make people feel guilty about using lectures.
Typically lectures are taken for granted (which makes it unlikely that they will be improved); but the attitude is often hostile, and sporadic attempts are made to replace lectures with almost-anything-else in the name of innovative teaching. However, such experiments are usually short-lived. In modern mass higher education systems, it is impractical, and unaffordable, to replace lectures with a sufficient quantity of individual or small-group teaching. Attempts to do so, in any more than an ineffectual and token fashion, merely lead to less-teaching; not better-teaching.
Yet pragmatic realism about the lack of viable options is not a positive reason in favour of promoting lecturing as a valuable method in its own right; nor is it likely to guide or inspire good lecturing.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of lectures’ specific effectiveness comes from what people actually do, rather than what people say. I find it highly significant that lectures have been especially used in teaching the most quantitative and systematic sciences, and for intensive professional training courses such as medicine, engineering and law. In other words, lectures have been a focus of teaching in exactly the situations where transmission of knowledge is most vital, and in subjects where relevant learning is most validly measurable. This is an indirect argument in favour of their value.
(Of course, lectures will only get you so-far; and individual teaching by direct and sustained personal contact or ‘apprenticeship’ - supported by ‘drill’ or repeated practical exercises - remain absolutely essential methods for learning specialized and high level skills.)
Taking these observations of long tradition and their place in serious professional education together, there seems to be ample prima facie evidence that lectures are a good teaching method in many circumstances and for many students. However, it is not generally understood why lectures are useful - or, at least, plausible positive explanations why good lectures are effective are not generally articulated. And because their rationale is not understood, the conduct of lectures has often been changed in ways that tend to make them less effective.
I believe that the effectiveness of lecturing can best be understood by taking into consideration what is plausibly known of ‘human nature’. In brief; lectures are effective when, and insofar as, they tap-into spontaneous human social behaviours, as these are understood by the various psychological disciplines.
Therefore, the primary and specific reason for their effectiveness, is essentially that lectures are a form of spoken communication, which is delivered to an audience by an actually present, authoritative and perceptible person, through a series of repeated social interactions.
A lecture can be considered as a formally-structured social event whose pattern fits some aspects of evolved ‘human nature’; and when that basic event is well-designed and ‘exploited’ in a lecture, this situation artificially manipulates instinctive human behaviour in order to improve learning.
As well as being spoken communications, lectures are properly delivered by an actually present individual person. This living presence creates a here-and-now social situation which unfolds in real time. Because humans are social animals, we are naturally more alert and vigilant in actual social situations.
What makes the lecture a ‘social event’ is the potential (even when, as usual, not actually realised) for two-way communication. Think of the difference between attending a play in a theatre and watching a movie: a theatre audience is typically much quieter and more focused than that of a movie. Because, although in practice the actors and audience almost-never communicate individually; the reality of human presence has a powerful effect on the activity, alertness and concentration of individuals in the audience - especially in a theatre when the audience can be seen and heard from the stage.
In lectures, this factor of presence works mainly by actual sensory-contact (mainly visual and auditory) between lecturer and audience. The situation of real-time social communication makes students spontaneously more vigilant than when alone with a book or computer, because a student’s failure to pay attention can be observed.
A properly-conducted lecture also exploits the psychological disposition to attend to persons of authority in social situations. In effect, the formal lecture is a mutually beneficial ‘collusion’ between class and lecturer: the class lends authority, and the lecturer uses it, in mutually-valued pursuit of effective education. Indeed, the physical structure of a well-designed lecture theatre - the arrangements of seats and stage - enables a situation in which a group’s attention is spontaneously focused on the lecturer; and this physical structure, of itself, artificially generates authority in the lecturer.
Most evolutionary psychologists would agree that humans were naturally selected to attend-to, and thus better remember, the words of authoritative, high-status individuals. The lecture situation is that socially-effective collusion whereby a class of students implicitly, by their silent attention, temporarily creates a psychological state of authority for the lecturer with the purpose of making learning more effective. This situation ought to be mutually gratifying as well as for mutual benefit: to have authority bestowed-upon-him is gratifying to the lecturer; and the resulting enhancement of attention and memorability is gratifying and beneficial for the students. The justification is improved motivation, and therefore learning, all-round.
It is, indeed, precisely because the authority structure of a formal lecture is so powerful an instrument for focusing attention and improving learning that the lecture medium can be abused for propaganda purposes – for example by political or religious orators who orchestrate mass-meetings or rallies. Because lectures can so effectively exploit human psychology, lectures are indeed intrinsically an imposition by one upon the many. The justification for such a potentially-hazardous asymmetry of power, and a factor that tends to prevent abuse, is the requirement that the lecturing process must genuinely be motivated by a shared ethic of education.
A further important factor is that the social interaction of a lecture is repeated. The syllabus of a qualification such as a degree is organized into units typically called courses – and as a generalisation it seems to work best when each course is given by a single person. The reasons are probably psychological – but the psychology seems to constrain the educational possibilities.
Lecturing requires some stability; the lecturer and the class need to get to know each other – and in particular the class needs to get-to-know and learn-to-trust the lecturer, which takes time and repetition. Until this trust is established, the student will experience an inner resistance to learning which is hard to overcome. The first couple of lectures may be entertaining or they may be dull, but they are seldom fully ‘educational’ in any substantive sense – it is only later in the course when some solid understanding and knowledge is likely to be transmitted. Therefore one-off lectures by multiple lecturers should be avoided; and multiple (team) teaching likewise avoided.
Also, the lectures in a course should be given reasonably close-together; at least once a week, and ideally more often – to assist and accelerate this process of class members developing familiarity, and indeed getting to know each other: as well as bonding the class into a psychological unit, so they develop a cohesive group personality.
Discovering the distinctive group personality of a class, and adjusting the teaching to its needs, is one of the things which keep lecturing fresh and enjoyable. Just like people, no two classes are exactly alike in personality - and some are quite delightful!