Lectures don’t work, let’s leave them in the past

Illustration by Alan Gardner
Illustration by Alan Gardner

Lectures have been used as a form of teaching longer than the white board, the pencil and the legend of King Arthur have existed. It has become one of the most prominent ways of teaching at nearly every university, including VCU. There’s even a painting from 1350 by Laurentius de Voltolin depicting students chattering amongst themselves and falling asleep during a lecture.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since the beginning. Lectures are still notorious for being dreary, dull and ultimately ineffective. Students pay thousands of  dollars to attend a university — this outdated style of learning should be a last resort, not the norm.

Criticism for lectures comes from students and experts alike. A 2014 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found undergraduate students were 1.5 times as likely to fail traditional lecture-style classes versus classes that employed other methods of teaching. The researchers also estimated alternative learning styles could boost students’ exam scores by around 6 percent – the equivalent of more than half a letter grade.

Perhaps the most common obstacle students encounter during lectures is the temptation to lose focus on the professor and instead hone in on distractions. Disengaging for a few minutes might seem harmless, but zoning out can quickly turn detrimental in a classroom where the only source of information is the passionless professor at the front of the room.

Aside from being downright boring, lectures fail to provide opportunities for students to enhance learning through collaboration with others. Chances to ask questions are scarce, if offered at all, and chatting with classmates is often prohibited. This comes as a stark contrast to the discussion-based learning VCU utilizes in departments like Focused Inquiry, and the contradiction can be especially confusing for freshmen who weren’t exposed to lecture-based or discussion-based teaching in high school.

Another major issue with lectures is their effectiveness and entertainment value both heavily rely on the disposition of the professor. While this is arguably the case in any classroom, it causes the biggest problems in lectures, where professors generally serve as the only connection between students and the information being taught to them. If a professor speaks in monotone, skims past difficult concepts or seems disinterested in the subject themselves, their students are going to be directly affected.

So what can be done to overcome the disadvantages associated with lectures?

Although allocating smaller class sizes may seem like the most obvious answer, it isn’t always realistic. At VCU, general education courses quickly rack up hundreds of students; dividing even one entry-level class into more manageable sections would mean hiring dozens more professors.

The size of lectures may be an inevitability, but that doesn’t mean their structure has to remain the same. Psychologists have estimated the average adult’s attention span is between 5-15 minutes – drastically shorter than any lectures offered at VCU. By applying various learning techniques throughout the lesson, professors are much more likely to keep students intrigued. This could be as simple as supplementing spoken lectures with videos or allowing students to discuss new concepts with each other during class. Promoting group collaboration also makes a student’s experience less dependent on the capabilities of their professor.

No teaching method is foolproof, but colleges like VCU should be striving to provide the most comprehensive learning environments possible for their students. The traditional lecture simply isn’t going to cut it.

Rachel Terrell,Contributing writer


  1. I agree 100%…lectures are boring and do not allow for other types of learning styles. The back and forth communication is non existent, and the data she provides backs this up. Great article!

Leave a Reply