Debating the “Utility and Futility of the Lecture”

Yossi Rathner, Australian HAPSter, trying to work while his children watch YouTube clips around him.
Yossi Rathner, Australian HAPSter, trying to work while his children watch YouTube clips around him.

“The lecturers are so lazy; they don’t teach us and then blame us when we don’t learn anything.”  This is an actual quote from a student in a first-year physiology course designed for nursing and allied health students.

In his essay, provocatively titled “The Utility and Futility of the Lecture,” Murray Jensen suggests that the traditional lecture format is out-dated and less effective than other forms of delivery.   In fact, he describes typical live-lectures as “monologues” that do not engage students or promote active learning.  Murray does find some value in lecturing; however, he advocates that lectures be available in an online format that will free-up lecture time for other more engaging classroom activities.  It seems his comments on lecturing as a mode of delivery seem to be more of a criticism of the lecturer’s delivery style rather than the andragological value of the lecture itself.  Let’s face it…..some lecturers just have more personality and maintain student attention better than others.  Rather than completely eliminating the lecture as a mode of in-class delivery, however, perhaps simply changing presentation style would make the traditional lecture more effective and subsequently more valuable.

Over the last four years, I have seen many critics of the traditional lecture refer to an image of Laurentius de Voltolina’s parchment painting which depicts a typical 14th century lecture at the University of Bologna.  In their attempts to discredit the effectiveness of lecture, these critics consistently focus on the seemingly distracted or bored students such as the two students conversing in the back corner of the room or the student asleep in the third row (which reminds me of myself in every afternoon lecture I attended).   I wonder what the students in the back are discussing.  Are they distracted or might they actually be discussing some controversial issue the lecturer has brought up – suggesting that they truly are engaged in higher levels of thinking?  Interestingly, critics neglect to mention the fact that over two-thirds of the students in the room are paying rapt attention to the lecturer.  Instead, they assert that a teacher who lectures is simply a “sage on a stage” who stands at the podium and reads from a text while students listen, take copious notes, memorize, and then regurgitate information upon request.

I’d like to make three assertions in response to Murray’s essay:   (1) Lectures are not all bad; indeed, many aspects of the lecture cannot be replaced or improved by using online delivery; (2) From an androgogical perspective, bad online content can actually be worse than a bad lecture; and (3) Information on the internet is often incorrect, misleading, and unclear, so expecting students to learn content in this manner might mean that they learn wrong information.

A former Pro-vice Chancellor of Teaching and Learning at my institution observed that we, as tertiary educators, need to make learning inevitable.  To encourage student attendance, we must engage them in lecture activities that cannot be adequately reproduced online.  For example, in a recent lecture on cranial nerves, I demonstrated the function of the hypoglossal nerve by sticking my tongue out at the students after saying that the hypoglossal nerves allows me “to do this.”  Not only did this demonstration get quite a few laughs, but it also encouraged peer-to-peer interactions as those students who missed what I’d done asked their peers about what they’d missed.  As their peers mimicked my demonstration, I could immediately provide feedback by saying, “That’s right, that’s exactly what the hypoglossal nerve does.”  Because students were entertained, engaged, and given immediate feedback, they will most certainly be able to correctly answer any test questions related to that particular content!

Here’s another example of a lecture activity that cannot adequately be replicated in the online environment.  When I teach the concept of a refractory period and the orthodromic propagation of action potentials, I have students participate in a Wave – think of a baseball stadium Wave that moves through successive groups of spectators as audience members stand, yell, and raise their arms before returning to the sitting position.  For my demonstration, I ask students to perform a wave in the hall.  These students must stand, raise their arms, and then sit until the wave passes them.  I emphasize that they may only stand up if the person next to them has already stood up, and they cannot stand up again until after they have sat down.  This simple activity explains both concepts and is the launch-pad for how the inactivation gate on the voltage sodium channel determines the absolute refractory period of the axon.  Both the cranial nerve and wave activities provide teaching moments in the classroom that cannot be replicated in the online environment because the online environment prevents this sort of spontaneous interaction between the teacher and the class.

Lectures have additional advantages over online educational resources (OER).  Attending a lecture in a classroom environment is much more conducive to learning than watching an online lecture at home where husbands, wives, children, pets, household chores, or leisure- time activities all vie for (and often win) our attention.  As an example, I’m writing this essay in my home office, a space I share with my entire family.  My kids are currently giggling as they watch Nigahiga clips on YouTube.  Though there is absolutely nothing wrong with their behaviour, the noise alone would be a significant distraction that would interfere with my ability to even hear an online lecture – much less understand it.  Furthermore, watching clips (OERs) online is much more like watching forms of entertainment – we might watch a program for 5-10 minutes, but then we quickly forget about it afterwards.  It seems unrealistic to expect that students will be able to truly learn, engage in, and think deeply about material presented in 10-minute vignettes that can be watched whenever a students has a few minutes to spare.  Does this really promote higher levels of learning?  Rather, the emphasis on short and convenient online activities actually diminishes the authenticity of the learning activity and discourages engagement. Interestingly, I received an e-mail from a student whose thoughts about the first year physiology subject design echoed this idea.  In her message, she made the astute observation that learning is not an entertainment activity.

In-class lectures, on the other hand, provide structure to student learning and minimize distractions.  They place the students in an environment tailored to learning and allow students to plan their day-to-day activities around the face-to-face meeting time.  Though well-organized students naturally do this without any help, less- organized, less-prepared students are typically unable to effectively do this on their own.

Online resources can certainly be useful.  Murray mentions that he uses Internet sites such as Google as resources for investigating topics students find difficult.  I have to admit that when I am rushed, I also Google certain words or topics.  As a matter of fact, this year alone I developed a whole new lecture on the pharmacology of obesity treatments based on images I found on Google.  However, there is a distinct difference between how I or Murray or any other instructor uses online sources and how our students use online sources.  Because I already have foundational knowledge, I’m only trying to clarify minutiae when I look up content or teaching-specific information on the web.  My advanced knowledge allows me to quickly filter chaff and erroneous information from valid material.  Murray indicates that he engages in a similar process while listening to Dr Fink’s lectures online.  He listens to the lectures while distracted, and in double time, and only pauses and pays attention to content on which he feels he needs a refresher.  Imagine the learning (or lack of learning) that would occur if our students followed this approach……

Because physiology focuses on dynamic processes, I like to use dynamic animations rather than static images to teach physiological concepts.  However, I advise using animations and videos with caution.  Why?  Because a lot of these sources are packed with wrong information.  For example, I recently searched for animations that explain the cardiac cycle and found on YouTube what appeared to be a professional-looking, well-produced animation that described the events of this cycle.  A large number of students praised this clip in the comments section and many wondered why their lecturers couldn’t simplify the cardiac cycle as well as this video did.  The problem, however, was that in a 4-minute clip, I counted 11 errors (starting with the AV valve being closed during cardiac diastole).  Sure, students found the explanation easy-to-understand, but their lack of foundational knowledge prevented them from filtering out erroneous information.

Here’s another example of how information on the internet can detrimentally affect student understanding.  In a recent inquiry activity, we asked students whether a 100mOsM or a 1200mOsM solution contained more dissolved particles.  Remarkably, more than 75% of the students said that the 100mOsM solution had a higher solute concentration than the 1200mOsM solution.  Because such a large percentage incorrectly answered this question, we investigated and found that the students defined osmolarity as a measure of water concentration rather than solute concentration.  What caused this confusion?  The internet, where students erroneously learned that osmolarity referred to water concentration.  I realize that many instructors teach osmolarity relative to water concentration (explaining that water moves along its concentration gradient from an area of higher water concentration to an area of lower water concentration), but I emphasize that osmolarity relates to solute concentration and impress upon my students that water always travels towards the higher osmolarity.

Murray began his essay comparing the lecture to a monologue; whereas, I see a live-lecture as an opportunity for the instructor to dynamically and spontaneously interact and respond in real-time with students. To me, the recorded presentation is the epitome of a monologue because it lacks interaction and engagement.  We make several assumptions when we talk about online teaching.  First, we assume that students are eager and engaged learners able to organize and motivate themselves to study in an unstructured learning environment.  Motivated learners will learn despite what teachers do.  The question that needs to be answered is how does the reluctant learner cope with digital learning?  In effect, removing lectures can break down the scaffolding that these students need to organize themselves.  In fact, my experience is that these students won’t even watch content available online.

A second assumption is that because students today entertain themselves with brief YouTube clips they will also learn better this way.  I remain unconvinced that this is true, and I think we make a mistake confusing accessibility with learning.
Laurentius De Voltolina. Wikimedia Commons. (2014)

Reflecting back at the de Voltolina painting……the students who will be most detrimentally affected by discarding lectures as a teaching strategy are the very students who actually show up and engage in the material during lectures.  Students who show up but are distracted and busy updating their social media sites might even glean a small amount of information from simply being present in class.  This scenario is no worse than if they watched an online lecture while reading a morning newspaper at double speed.  The fact remains – engaged students are benefiting from the lecture, and they are voting with their feet.  We can’t possibly engage students who never show up, so getting rid of the lecture will only diminish the university experience for those students with whom instructors might actually connect.

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