A Few Thoughts on the Utility and Futility of Lecture

A message from HAPS Central Regional Director, Murray Jensen.
A message from HAPS Central Regional Director, Murray Jensen.

Professors of anatomy and physiology have vast stores of knowledge that they spew, via monologues, to well-conditioned students who sit obediently in uncomfortable chairs while feigning attention and sometimes amusement.

I am indeed a critic of lecture.  Historically, lecture has played a central role in all higher education, and especially in the biomedical sciences.  But with advances in classroom technology, such as the scale-up classrooms (http://scaleup.ncsu.edu/), and research on effectiveness of instructional strategies on how people learn science, there is less and less reason to lecture.  Research now clearly shows that students in active learning environments outperform students in the traditional lecture setting (Freeman, et. al., 2014).

But there is still a place for lecture.  YouTube!

Over the past few years I’ve been writing POGIL curriculum for entry level A & P students, and during that time I’ve had the need to review topics such as inflammation, thermoregulation, blood pressure regulation, and many .. many more.   Historically, I would use books for such endeavors, and I do indeed still use books … a bit – but not nearly as much as I used to.  I now do what most all students do – go to the Internet.

It started several months back when I was once again trying to figure out the events that lead up to ovulation; the physiology of the LH surge and, more specifically, the conditions required for the switch from negative to positive feedback.  I first looked at a few familiar textbooks, then a few old notebooks, and finally – well – I just Googled it.

The search, of course, came up with thousands of web pages and hundreds of YouTube videos.  After trying a few different sites and listening to a few different professors, I found someone I liked – Professor Steven Fink from West Los Angeles College.  What caught my attention with Professor Fink is that he “popped” his cheek every time he mentioned the term “ovulation” – just like one of my own biology professors did.  Amazing – that one little bit caused me to pay attention and watch more intently.

Murray learns from Dr. Fink at double time speed during breakfast while reading the newspaper and enjoying his morning coffee!
Murray learns from Dr. Fink at double time speed during breakfast while reading the newspaper and enjoying his morning coffee!

Since that first video on the female reproductive system, I’ve watched several of Dr. Fink’s YouTube lectures (http://www.professorfink.com/), and they’re all good.  The production value may be limited, but Dr. Fink is an excellent communicator with a dry sense of humor and that much desired ability to put the audience at ease – even when the audience is watching on YouTube.

But I must admit I listen to most of his lectures at 2x speed while eating breakfast and reading the newspaper.  That 2x speed function on YouTube is especially handy; 60 minute lectures go by in 30 minutes – sweet!  (It’s like getting out of class early.)  And after teaching A & P for many years I really don’t need to listen to everything – I know most everything Dr. Fink is talking about.  But there are a few topics that catch my attention.  And when they do, I put down the newspaper and coffee, and review the important points once, twice, three times – as many times as it takes for me to figure things out. And I’ve found that the kitchen table, or maybe a comfy-chair, is more suited for learning than the traditional lecture hall.

So thank you, Dr. Fink, for advancing my understanding of human anatomy and physiology.

But wait.  Is this the end of our jobs?  Should every entry-level anatomy and physiology student listen to Dr. Fink?  Should on-line Dr. Fink replace in-person Dr. Jensen?  Is Dr. Fink thinking of world lecture domination? Possession of the golden laser-pointer?

No. We’re still needed.

Every HAPS member is regularly in charge of 20, 40, 100, 200, and sometimes more, students who are trying to learn a complex topic – human anatomy and physiology.  Learning concepts such as the physiology of ovulation is not easy, and simply saying, “go look at this web site” is terrible pedagogy – especially if it’s the only thing you’re doing.  I’m an advocate of short (10 minute or less) on-line videos that students can access 24/7 – videos that students can watch over and over again, videos featuring the same person that students see in the classroom.  Familiarity here is key.  Your students know you well.  They recognize your voice, your personality, your humor in both the classroom and on videos.  And this familiarity makes learning easier for them – they learn to learn from you.  (This is one reason substitute instructors often fail to promote learning – it takes time for students to learn who they are!  Substitutes cannot just step in and get the job done.)   Of course, it’s always useful to have supplemental materials such as books, journal articles, and web sites like Dr. Fink’s vast collection of lectures.

But don’t go overboard.  On-line learning, for most students, works best when it complements face-to-face educational experiences.  Classrooms and labs are still where the real (conceptual) learning takes place.  This is especially true when classrooms are active learning environments where educators interact with students to pose and solve problems that require inquiry.  But lectures, especially on-line lectures do indeed have a place in student learning.


Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America 111, 8410–8415.

Abstract available at www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.abstract

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