The problem with lectures

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the only way lectures make sense is if the material can’t be found in journals, books or videos yet, or if the speaker is so compelling that s/he inspires and challenges the audience in a way that can’t be done by a written piece, or perhaps if one simply wanted to see and hear a great author in person.

But for most subjects, I think students would learn best if they simply read the source materials – going through each page according to their own pace and level, rereading the portions that are not yet clear, jumping to other portions to clarify certain words or ideas, and reworking the concepts in their mind until these concepts become familiar and their very own.

In contrast, you can’t rewind lecturers. Well, maybe you can ask them – once or twice – to repeat a sentence or go over a concept once more, or answer a particularly nagging question in your mind. But if there are 30 (60?) of you in the class, each one asking for clarification about different portions of the lecture, it obviously won’t work.

It would even be better if the lecturer simply kept quiet and asked the students to read the chapter or specific pages covered by the lecture, and simply made him/herself available for clarificatory questions.

In fact, given the current level of video technology, it would now make sense to simply record each lecture beforehand and give students a CD copy each to view, absorb and study at their own pace and leisure. Over time, these recorded lectures can be edited, improved, supplemented with graphics and visual aids, and updated, so that they keep getting better with time. Then, too, the best lectures can be made available to thousands, not just one class.

There is one problem with reading (or viewing lectures, even if you could rewind them). If you’re stuck with an unanswered question in your mind, particularly if the answer is essential to understanding the rest of the material, then you reach a dead-end. If you can’t find the answer yourself through further reading, you are unable to move forward.

The best way out is then to ask someone else. This, I think, is the teacher’s role – to respond to students’ questions and to guide them through difficult portions of the subject. By interacting with students, studying their questions, and analyzing their mistakes in written exercises, the teacher can focus on the obstacles that prevent or delay the students’ understanding, clear these obstacles away, and set students off on their own to a successful learning experience. Along the way, students will pick up learning skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

The teacher’s other role – unfortunately, few teachers fulfill this role – is to inspire and motivate their students, to nurture and enhance further the student’s innate love for learning.

I have been talking about lectures. Obviously, laboratory, shop or field work is necessary to complement the students’ book learning. More on that later.



  1. Posted October 8, 2008 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m certainly curious how this all works out in the long term. At present I don’t know whether to admire you for your bravery -or admonish you for your foolishness. My own experiences (both as student and teacher) within the European (visual) art education system certainly does not encourage me to join you.

    Regarding lectures: I can only agree. Tutorial sessions, involving students and teachers in the exploration and discussion of the material on a personal level are indeed extremely valuable -but what is the use of listening to somebody merely repeating material that can be read quicker (and easier) from a book?

    Once upon a time, the main function of a university was to stretch the minds of an elite group of students by showing them how to deal with knowlege which would often be of little practical use in their professional career. In this model, their subsequent career would involve the intelligent and creative application of the principles learned during their study. Now the focus is more on practical education for a mass audience who are apparently supposed to behave like well trained commercial lapdogs. As part of this, it seems that globally traditional study/discussion methods have often had to be replaced by a mechanical learning approach more suited to lower levels of training -simply to keep up with the numbers involved. A class of 300 students simply cannot be treated in the same way as a clss of 30 students (or less). No wonder the global system is now entering a period of crisis with so few well educated creative thinkers left functioning in society.

    With so much information now available on the internet (or in books, available via public libraries) -and with so few teachere apparently actually able to inspire and discuss new ways of thinking regarding their subject -then one is forced to ask what is the practical advantage of a university study? Under these conditions, it is difficult not to conclude that the “piece of paper” is the only reason. However, as educational standards appear to decline through both the massive scaling up of the student population and the focus on practical, commercially usefull knowledge, one can only wonder if the universities are actually the guardians of standards or the systematic destroyers of standards.

    Perhaps the subject studied is also of great importance in this respect. Certainly the complexity of specialised technical knowledge has exploded in recent years -but one wonders if university courses provide students with the ability to understand and relate this complexity in any useful way. The arts on the other hand seem to have degenerated into an autistic subjectivism while also gaining power in the shaping of the arts practice through the distribution of funds which has lead to a level of social discourse that is (in my experience) trully frightening. Long ago, I believed the integration of art college education into the university system was a good idea -however, in practice I believe it has been a disaster.

    The way “information technology” had been introduced into the equation is responsible (in my view) for a great deal of damage -socially, culturaly, economically and intellectually. Unfortunately, too many vested interests have supported the current system -so one wonders if change is possible without a total collapse of the current socio-economic system. Or perhaps the system is already showing signs of being unsustainable on an intellectual level as well as a financial one.

    Anyhow, it must be a great experience being a student in an economics faculty -allowing you to witness the current meltdown of the financial system from the inside as it were: So how do your lecturers view this (and their role and responsibility within the global economic system)?

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted October 21, 2008 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    To Trevor:

    In a recent TV program that featured former chiefs of government economic planning and the Dean of the School of Economics, I was told (I didn’t see the program myself) that most of them admitted they didn’t know where things were going, or when it will all end. So you must look for an explanation elsewhere, it seems.

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