Should the History Lecture be History?

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand Confucius

There is no doubt that the traditional lecture is under fire, and many would argue that it is with good cause.  Outmoded and didactic, the lecture is something of an educational dinosaur, appearing as a format that is contrary to contemporary thought on optimum ways of learning and seemingly undermining many universities’ aspirations when it comes to research-led teaching. But for all the criticism that exists surrounding the lecture format, it persists – why is this the case, and how far do we need to change the traditional lecture to meet the needs of our students in the twenty-first century?

In 1981, Graham Gibbs wrote a paper entitled ‘Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing’ in which he challenged many of the arguments that academics put forward as being the pedagogical benefits of the traditional lecture format.[1] Although his talk of the dominance of the lecture and the lack of technology at his disposal in the early 1980s do date some of the conclusions he reaches, in this paper it is striking that many of the arguments in favour of the lecture that he takes issue with are ones that are still in circulation in HE institutions today.  The notions that lectures are the requisite length, that they are the most effective way of delivering information and that they are popular with students are all challenged by Gibbs and some of his criticisms are reflected in more recent thinking on pedagogical practice.

Gibbs’ first criticism of the traditional lecture is its standard fifty-five minute length.  Drawing on studies carried out in the seventies, Gibbs demonstrates that student concentration and lecturer performance both drop after half an hour, with one study arguing that students stop assimilating information almost entirely after this point.[2]  The fact that attention spans start to wane around the half-hour mark is now an accepted wisdom, which does raise the question of why we persist with the one hour format and what strategies we may deploy as a means of minimising this natural drop-off in concentration.

Perhaps Gibbs’ most convincing argument against the efficacy of lectures relates to the again widely-acknowledged idea that not only do different people learn in different ways, but these people also bring into the lecture theatre different world views and experiences that ultimately shape their thinking and reaction to any given subject.[3]  As Gibbs argues;

‘Students make their own meaning. The construction of personal knowledge is a personal activity. What students manage to construct out of a lecture will depend on what they already know and can bring to bear in constructing new knowledge, and with what they are trying to do with lectures. Lecturing is just about the least flexible resource students have if they bring to bear what they know to construct knowledge.’[4]

 Although there is much that tutors can do in a seminar setting to check the learning of students, within the confines of a traditional lecture, the delivery of information is entirely unidirectional with no process for ensuring that students leave the lecture theatre with the ‘correct’ knowledge, or indeed for engaging in the debates that may arise from the different constructions of knowledge on any given subject. Even if we leave aside the idea that knowledge is something that cannot be imparted wholesale from one person to another, recent thinking on modes of communication also challenges the efficacy of the traditional lecture.[5]  Whether physical, social or environmental, it is crucial that we as lecturers realise that, for a variety of reasons, the information that we offer from the lectern may not reach its intended recipient or be processed in the way we envisaged.

Thinking about the objections that Gibbs and others both before and after him have raised in terms of concentration, learning, the socially constructed nature of knowledge and the barriers which can inhibit information being received or processed, we have to ask, why on earth do we persist with this form of teaching? With the advent of online resources and digital technologies, when students can access information at great speed and tailor it to their own requirements, the lecture in its traditional form seems stodgy and monolithic, a relic from a time before the internet, or even before access to library resources.  However, in his 2007 book The Lecturer’s Toolkit, Phil Race is eager to point out some of the more positive aspects of the lecture, which include:

  • ‘To give students a shared learning experience and provide a focus, where      everyone gets together regularly
  • To whet students’ appetites, so that they go away and really want to get down to studying
  • To give students the chance to make sense of things they already know
  • To add the power of tone of voice, emphasis, facial expression, and body language to printed words, helping students to see what’s important, and what is not
  • To provide material for later discussion, exploration and elaboration
  • To challenge students preconceptions, assumptions  and beliefs
  • To change or develop students’ attitudes and perspectives.’[6]

These are all fine objectives but none of Race’s points can be seen to belong to the realm of the lecture alone and many of these ideals, such as challenging preconceptions or clarifying and consolidating knowledge should also be the bedrock of any good seminar.  In addition, as more and more top-flight universities stress the importance of research-led teaching and learning, the lecture, in its traditional passive form, appears to fly in the face of the aspiration of getting students involved in research-based activities as the core part of their learning.

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Recognising the limitations of the lecture in its time-honoured format, what contemporary educationalists are espousing is essentially a move away from the idea of standing and delivering to embedding some of the practices that are well-established in tutorial or seminar teaching into the lecture and there are a plethora of ideas available to try and move from the didactic to the active, from small group discussions, to using audio-visual material, to quizzes, and so on. However, as pedagogically sound as it may be to introduce some element of interactivity into lectures, to stimulate deep learning, to test understanding of threshold concepts etc. is this really what the students want and just how widespread is the practice of interactivity amongst lecturers?

To explore these issues I recently circulated a questionnaire amongst colleagues in History, with the aim of establishing a profile of the lecturing habits across a broad demographic of staff who had been involved in lecture delivery at all undergraduate levels. What the results of the survey showed was the diversity of activity within our department but what was also apparent was that, for the most part, members of staff were offering a fairly traditional form of lecture delivery, albeit one that was supplemented by extensive supporting material and the utilisation of technologies such as podcasts for post-delivery use. Just five out of the fourteen staff surveyed incorporated some interactive element into their lectures on a regular basis and these seemed to be either used as an icebreaker or in the form of a question and answer session at the end of the lecture as a means of concluding the session, perhaps suggesting that there is a resistance to including some more substantive element of interactivity into the lecture format.

However, it would appear that this resistance stems from the conclusion that, in the words of one respondent, ‘students generally prefer to get information in lectures and save discussions for seminars’. This apparent desire amongst both students and staff to retain a traditional lecture format however is somewhat challenged by the fact that, amongst the respondents, 62% stated that some aspect of their lecturing had been singled out for particular criticism in the student feedback. Pacing and the amount of information conveyed were by far the most common complaints by students.

Perhaps the most interesting results stem from the opinions on the efficacy of lecturing, with the format being seen as an effective teaching tool by 85% of the respondents. Repeatedly, staff referred to the usefulness of lectures as a means of introducing students to new topics, theories or debates, stating that this is a more effective method of giving students what they need to know in terms of threshold concepts than simply providing them with a reading list and asking them to figure it out for themselves. It was also suggested that lectures provide an essential stepping stone from secondary to higher educational forms of learning and that lectures were the best way to demonstrate one’s own enthusiasm for a given subject, to provide students with an access point into material that they may not come across in their own study, and crucially, as a means of recruiting students to other modules that a tutor may offer at other levels.

Two respondents however did not share this overwhelmingly positive view of lectures, with one offering the following critique:

‘On the whole I don’t think lectures are particularly effective. While in theory they are a good way of providing students with background, context and raw information, students don’t seem to like or appreciate the medium – they lose concentration (or don’t turn up), and find it difficult (even with learning aids such as handouts) to absorb and digest the information given. I think interactive lectures that combine seminars and talks would be preferable, but students can be resistant to interactivity in the current lecture format so they would need a new “label”.’

What the responses to this survey overall demonstrated was deeply contradictory: staff for the most part like the format, staff also comment on how the format is liked by students, and yet lecture components are singled out for particular criticism by these same students who complain that lectures are not delivered at what they consider an appropriate pace or that they contain too much information, while information delivery is seen by staff as the key appeal of the format in the first place. This made me wonder –  if students are having difficulty following the lectures or making comprehensive notes from them, and staff find them a labour intensive exercise, is there a fault in the format itself, or should we be examining how we as tutors use this format? Or is it actually that the students have unrealistic or ambiguous ideas about what the lecture format is meant to achieve?

From my own experience this problem of student expectation is significant and feedback I’ve received on my lectures has included demands by some students that all lectures should be available electronically at the start of the course and that I should make my own notes available to them in addition to providing a handout. Although such comments represent only a fraction of the feedback given, what can be inferred from responses such as these is that some students have not adequately grasped the purpose behind a lecture programme, that some come into the lecture theatre expecting to be given answers, that lectures are the basis of – rather than the springboard for – their own preparation.

But the philosophy behind a lecture programme is not something that we as tutors can expect students to automatically grasp upon entering university and clearly the articulation of intentions for this mode of teaching needs to be made explicit to students from the outset. We are very good at offering outlines and intended learning outcomes (ILOs) for our seminar teaching but perhaps this is a framework that we need to bring more definitively into lecturing as well. Whether we do this formally by introducing lecture-related ILOs into our module templates or whether we do it on a session by session basis on a handout or PowerPoint slide, there is probably scope for some of the good habits we’ve got into in the seminar room to be brought into the lecture theatre.

This said, both the respondents to the staff questionnaire and module evaluation comments seem to suggest that there is an increased pressure on tutors to offer not only compelling lectures, but also handouts and copies of presentations. As one colleague pointed out in their response ‘I am slightly concerned that by providing so much online support in the first year, students are not learning essential skills of note taking and concentration through a 50 minute lecture and that this might affect their second year performance’. The question of whether we are actually helping students in the long run by providing them with so much support, particularly online, is a thorny one and, from discussions with other tutors, seems to be one that splits departments. Regardless, there is unquestionably a demand for this type of support from students and while ever student evaluations play such a key role in shaping teaching provision, these are resources that tutors are going to have to supply. This debate about online support is one that we will be returning to at a later date, so watch this space.

Final Thoughts:

Lecturing is a bit of a high-wire act as we try to balance so many opposing demands or pressures in these 50 minute slots:  the right balance between accessibility and information delivery, between support and coddling, between  overview and detail, and so on. But while we are aware that we are trying to walk this tightrope,  we cannot take it for granted that our students will automatically grasp what we are trying to do in our lectures.  By not making the contract of expectation clear between tutor and student in this context, the way is open for the vacuum to be filled with unrealistic demands or a general failure to see the relevance to the bigger picture of the module, which puts undue pressure on us as tutors and can seriously hinder the learning experience of the students.

However, while there may be demand for supplementary materials that go beyond a simple handout – such as podcasts or video streaming – based on my own experiences, there does not currently appear to be a demand for greater interactivity on the part of the student. Nor do staff seem overly eager to bring more interactivity in to their sessions, preferring to keep the boundary between seminar and lecture fairly concrete. Despite its flaws then, as the traditional lecture format is one that is seen by staff and students alike as having pedagogical worth, it looks like it will be around for a good while to come.

How do you lecture? How far have you introduced interactive elements into your lecture programme and how have they enhanced the student experience? Please share your thoughts.


[1] Graham Gibbs, Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing, SCED Occasional Paper No. 8, Birmingham. 1981 [reproduced at http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html] Last Accessed 28.10.13

[2] Gibbs, Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing

[3] Gibbs, Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing; see also E. Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Cambridge, 1998)

[4] Gibbs, Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing

[5] See for example J. Biggs, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Berkshire, 2003)

[6] Phil Race,  A Lecturer’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Learning, Teaching & Assessment  (Abingdon, 2007), pp. 97-98

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4 thoughts on “Should the History Lecture be History?

  1. I think lectures are – or can be – useful although they certainly have their limitations. It seems to me that complaints about pacing and excess information are easy to fix … My view of a lecturer’s role is that it should be like Deep Throat during Watergate. He didn’t tell Woodward and Bernstein much that they would not have been able to find out elsewhere, but he put their information into context for them – that is to say he gave them a framework to help them understand what they were learning from their own researches. However, it should not normally be necessary to hold lectures in an underground parking lot.

  2. I did an experiment back in 1994 in which I got the students to do the lectures for the whole course and I sat in the audience. They were given a topic by me and left to get on with it to produce a 40 minute lecture in groups of 4 students. The remaining 20 minutes were taken up with questions from the floor.

    Did it work? It still stands as the best course I (n)ever taught and the feedback was awesome.

  3. From a student perspective, I have been fortunate in my first two years to have had excellent lecturers who deliver the content at a reasonable pace.

    In regards to students tuning out of lectures, I think that this is partly because the student simply does not find the material interesting, but, maybe the handouts are counterproductive. I understand there are pressures to provide such aids, but, if the material on the handout is a word for word text of the lecture, then it can be rather repetitive and thus students lose interest. Again, I reiterate that I sympathise with the pressure applied to you by students who find handouts beneficial. I am just giving you feedback from what I have heard from my fellow students.

    I see the lecture as a sketching out of a particular topic in the module, and some guidance on what to read. Nothing more, nothing less.

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