Direct Instruction: Lecture

Lecture is “more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants the audience to learn something” (Bligh, 2000. p. 4); most likely a culmination of the lecturer’s own interpretation and insights on years of study, research, and experience (Sutherland, 1976). Historically, before the wide availability of written information, lecture was the primary means of transmitting knowledge from expert to student. The popularity and persistence of lecture may be due to the value of lecture that is not easily replicated using another method (Webster, 2015).

Lectures are an effective way to quickly present a large amount of information that can be tailored to the needs of the student, even a large audience, while maintaining control of the learning experience and conveying information that may not otherwise be available to the student. Lecturers can promote interest in a topic through their enthusiasm during the lecture, which allows the lecturer to model how professionals in their discipline think and solve problems. Finally, lectures may also appeal to students that learn by listening and keeps the environment low-risk for the student by not requiring their participation (Cashin, 1985).

Is Lecture a Passive or Active Process?

Despite the prevalence of lectures, educators have long been in search of a superior method of instruction due to the perceived weaknesses of this method. One of the most common criticisms of lecture has been that students are passive recipients of information, empty vessels, waiting for the lecturer to give them the information that they need to know (Vivekananthamoorthy et al., 2010); however, Webster (2015) suggests that lecture is not a passive experience, students are not empty vessels, and the lecturer’s voice is not the only voice present during a lecture. The student’s previous experiences and perspectives also contribute to the processing of the information presented in the lecture.

From the constructivist perspective, every student enters a lecture with their own experiences and knowledge; context, previous experience, and knowledge will inform students’ expectations, interpretations, and acceptance of any lecture (Wandersee, Mintzes, & Novak, 1994). Vygotsky (1986) claims that learners are constantly referring to their own framework for understanding the world as they face new experiences and information. These students are not passively soaking up information, but are engaging in internal activity where students are making meaning from words, fitting new information into their current schema, making evaluations regarding the value of the information, and determining whether to accept the information presented (Webster, 2015). Dewey (2015) and Vygotsky (1986) both argued that ideas or concepts cannot actually be transmitted from one person to the next, and lecturers can only indirectly educate students by transmitting facts or information; students must construct concepts by thinking about and grappling with the information. These are not passive processes but require significant internal activity.

The Purpose of Lecture

What the lecturer anticipates the student to actually learn during a lecture can vary. In general, there are four possible learning objectives: acquiring information, promoting thought, changing attitudes or beliefs, and performing behavioral skills. While lecture is often used to meet these objectives, lecture has not been found to be the most effective method in all cases. Bligh (2000) provided a review of the research comparing lecture to several other methods, including programmed learning, discussion, reading and independent study, inquiry, and audio/TV/computer-assisted learning, in meeting these objectives. No method emerged as clearly superior.

Acquiring Information

Dubin and Taveggia’s (1968) review of over ninety comparison studies established that lecture may be as effective as any other method in helping learners acquire information, but it is not more effective. However, programmed learning did show some promise of being more effective. This method involves arranging learning into small steps with self-paced activity and student proctors providing early feedback on performance via discussion. The method also incorporates individual support for the learner with personal contact, and progress to the next learning unit only occurs after demonstrated mastery of the previous one (Bligh, 2000).

Promoting Thought

Lecture has been found to be less effective than other methods of promoting thought. Instead, discussion tends to be superior for this objective (Dubin & Taveggia, 1968). While lecture may be suitable for transmitting knowledge of the principles necessary for thought, this method alone is not teaching students how to practically solve problems or apply principles (Corman, 1957). Lectures have also been ineffective in promoting flexibility and creativity (Cabral-Pini, 1995), open-mindedness (Tillman, 1993), diversity of ideas (Gist, 1989), and promoting depth in questioning (Lam, 1984-1985). Bligh (2000) suggests that lecture may be less effective for promoting thought because the listener’s role is passive. During a lecture, the listener is putting effort into selecting important information from the lecture, perhaps finding meaning from the material and writing notes for later review. This does not leave much time for more complex cognitive tasks during the lecture. Siegel, Siegel, Capretta, Jones, and Bekowitz, (1963) found statistically significant differences in the amount of time spent on active versus passive thought between lecture and discussion students. During discussion, students spent 8.3% of their time solving problems and synthesizing information, while lecture students only did this 1% of the time. Lecture students spent much more time in passive thought (36.8%) and on irrelevant thoughts (31%) versus students participating in discussion (20.3% and 14.5% respectively). Bligh (2000) claims that if students are going to learn to think we must create experiences in which they can practice thinking, such as asking questions, providing students problems to solve, practice critical thinking, and analyze situations. Traditional lecture might convey the information needed for thought but it does not require students to think deeply or apply what is being transmitted.

Changing Attitudes of Beliefs

Lecture also has not been shown to be effective in influencing learners’ attitudes; this outcome has been demonstrated by the discussion method and has been well established for a long time (i.e. Lewin, 1943). This method is especially effective when the discussion leads to some consensus among the group members (Pennington, Haravey, & Bass, 1958; Mitnick & McGinnies, 1958). Bligh (2000) suggests the power of conformity within group discussions as an influencing factor (e.g. Asch, 1951). Group identity or opportunity for discussion is often lacking in a lecture setting (Abercromie, 1978). Further, simulations (Dresner, 1989-1990) and role-plays (Culbertson, 1957) have also been found to be more effective than lecture at influencing attitudes. Each of these methods involves studens’ active participation, as opposed to passive listening.

Teaching Behavioral Skills

Finally, lecture is ineffective for teaching behavioral skills (Bligh, 2000). While there is often an informational component to teaching behavioral skills, eventually the students will need to practice the skills to become proficient. Traditional lecture, even observations and demonstrations, may provide important knowledge pertinent to performing the skill, but these methods do not provide an opportunity to practice the skills being taught; a fundamental aspect of successful skill-building. In many cases, a combination of lecture and practice was the most effective method for teaching behavioral skills (Bligh, 2000).

While lecture may be effective for transmitting information, it has not been found to be effective for teaching students to think, changing attitudes, or teaching behavioral skills. The transmission of information is important but knowledge alone is not useful if students cannot use and apply it. The transmission of information rarely is or should be the sole objective of a course. As lecture has not emerged as a superior method of instruction for meeting all course objectives, is there another method that could prove to be superior?


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