A reflection on the traditional lecture

What is the current state of the traditional face-to-face lecture? Is it more accurately described as face-to-faces or perhaps fact-to-face? Is there still such a thing as the ‘traditional’ lecture? What is the future of the traditional lecture?

Indeed, tradition can be a good thing. It is characterised by habit and ritual, which we humans take great certainty from and find super comforting. It is also well-known for reproducing parochial and at times harmful practices, hierarchies and hegemonies. Tradition is rarely, if ever, enthusiastic about change or the accommodation of difference. I guess the issue of whether the traditional lecture method will remain relevant comes down to a question of whether it is the most efficient and effective means of promoting learner learning and teacher teaching.

Eric Mazur satirically wrote that the lecture method is a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either. A slight overstatement and one probably motivated by years of lecturer fatigue, but in most cases, not far from the mark. When I ask my friends and colleagues what they learnt during (or more importantly, remember about) their undergraduate degree, they have great difficulty recalling the specifics. Now this may be partly attributed to selective memory (or selective forgetting), but it’s in part explained by the traditional lecture approach. I think there’s a double negative in there somewhere…

When I began my university studies at Macquarie in 2001, ‘Straight Outta High School’, I was excited about the prospect of immersing myself in both the academic and social aspects of university life. I remember diligently attending STAT 180 and PSY 101 lectures at the Price Theatre. Back then, overhead projectors were the norm, which is easy to forget in today’s technology-enhanced learning environments. Over the course of the first semester, I began to realise that I could get away with not attending all my scheduled lectures; a revelation and one which I regularly took advantage of. It wasn’t like high school. I could walk in and walk out of lectures as I pleased and the teacher (I mean lecturer) wouldn’t make a note in my diary or rouse on me. ‘Wow, this is fantastic. It’s time for an almost well-deserved beer at the Uni bar!’

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, they had these amazing things called ‘lecture recordings’ which you could listen to at home! I became quite strategic in the lectures I would attend and chose elective subjects that would accommodate my hangovers and twenty-something apathy. The non-compulsory lectures I did make a point of attending were usually in smaller classes, with interesting subject matter, delivered by intelligent lectures. If you were lucky, you could add ‘charismatic’ to their list of attributes.

In years gone by, lecture attendance was arguably an essential (and mandatory) part of participating in Higher Education. It was part of an intellectual, invisible and binding contract students and teachers entered into which was sustained throughout the semester and degree. When this began to change, and if there ever was a Golden Age of the lecture, is hard to say.

While the lecture still represents an important learning space, there is a need for it to be refreshed or even overhauled to ensure its ongoing relevance. Resistance to, or worse yet, denial of this reality is likely to hasten its decline.

In the end though, I feel like the crucial factor in academic performance, putting aside the much discussed factors of attendance and retention for the moment, is a sense of personal and intellectual connection with one’s teachers and peers as well as the lecture content. The one-way transfer of information that defines the traditional lecture format, in my view, is no longer and perhaps never was the most effective way of promoting student learning.

Not to be overlooked are the students themselves and their focus on assessment outcomes and overall course marks, sometimes at the expense of learning. Why is this case? Because friends, family, the university and future employers are first and foremost interested in these narrow and unrefined indicators of intelligence and academic performance. In the end, the question of attendance is really a non-question if it has no obvious and consistent correlation with performance. Attendance is more of a side effect or by-product of effective, innovative and inspirational learning and teaching approaches. What constitutes these things is open to contestation of course, but students know it when they see it. So build the field (or lecture) of your dreams (minus the spirits of deceased baseball players), and students will come; or more accurately, they will want to come. They will prioritise lecture attendance, just as they prioritise part-time work and socialising with friends at the University bar.

Looking back, what I failed to see and appreciate at the time of undergraduate studies was the importance of showing up for lectures and hanging around after lectures. I learnt the hard way that showing up and participating is half the battle. By simply being there, unexpected and wonderful things can happen. And more often than not, they do.