Lectures and Lecturing: the basics

What is the purpose of a lecture?

Graham Gibbs came up with a long list in 1981 when he first published “Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing”. Have a look at his booklet and see if it rings any bells with you.

Asking this question among colleagues at MMU who haven’t read the booklet gets responses such as these:

  • To disseminate information
  • To communicate enthusiasm for the subject
  • To create a group identity
  • To provide key points
  • To give structure to the unit
  • Opportunity to perform
  • Cost-effectiveness

Many of the points which follow are also covered in Lecturing: A Practical Guide (2002).


Is it….dissemination of information ?

Dissemination of information on its own is surely something we all prefer to be done by other means than mass meetings – important reminders or announcements are better sent by text messages or email, and providing an online source is a far more reliable approach to definitive information such as programme handbooks or assignment changes than an announcement at a lectures which may have to be missed for legitimate reasons.

Even for subject-based information, we’ve known for a long time that a lecture isn’t the best approach. Donald Bligh published the first edition of “What's the Use of Lectures?” in 1971, when he reviewed the evidence of 91 studies which compared lectures with other methods of imparting knowledge, and concluded that “ The lecture is as effective as other methods to transmit information” – but not more effective. He also reviewed evidence showing that the lecture is less effective than other methods for a variety of other purposes, such as encouraging students to think. (The 5th edition of the book, published in 2002, is available in the library and is well worth a read).


Is it….to create a group identity?

This is a great aspiration, particularly in days of Combined Honours, modularity and Bologna agreements. You want the 300 students to feel that they belong to the group of people which is studying Widget Design from the 1840s onwards. What will be the point of unity of this group? It might end up being a shared complaint about the tedium of the lectures!

You might need to create the identity explicitly – you could do this by providing a strong shared experience and/or by encouraging interaction between students – see the ‘try something’ section for some ideas.


Is it….to provide key points?

The argument for a lecture here is so that students know what you believe to be the important parts of the syllabus. This might be a reasonable purpose if you are careful to link everything you talk about to the learning outcomes and to the assessment for the unit. However, consider whether key points are not actually better provided in print or online format where they can be readily reviewed at all times, rather than in a lecture where they may be more ephemeral (or missed completely).


Is it….to give structure to the unit?

This reason for lecturing is just a reason for having timetabled sessions, full stop. It doesn’t mean that it has to be a lecture. You’d have to combine this reason with the next one, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.


Is it….an opportunity to perform?

If you enjoy being in front of a large group, and feel that you always give ‘a good performance’ then you will want to continue to keep lectures as an important part of your unit organisation.

In a similar vein, sometimes lecturers say that it’s their only contact with the group, and that they value lectures for that reason.


Is it….to communicate enthusiasm for the subject ?

Enthusiastic lecturers and engaging lectures are things which students say they value in when they complete evaluations such as the National Student Survey and its in-house equivalent. According to Entwistle et al (2000) the factors most favoured by students as important for good teaching are “enthusiasm, empathy and explanation” (quoted inHuxham, Mark (2005). "Learning in lectures: Do 'interactive windows' help?" Active Learning in Higher Education6(1): 17-31)

Again, there might be other ways of communicating enthusiasm – your printed material should also be able to do that - but if you are going to lecture, then being enthusiastic and engaging is something to aim for on every occasion that you find yourself in front of a large group.

Even when you are lecturing on a topic which is very basic and possibly seemingly dry, you should be able to make the connection between it and the more exciting areas which will soon be within reach, if only this topic is mastered.


Is it….because it’s cost-effective?

This is quite probably the one argument for lectures which will ensure that they continue to appear in our timetables. From the point of view of the teacher, or from his or her employer, telling 300 people something once is more efficient than telling 30 people something 10 times. This isn’t just an economic argument: it’s also important that the teacher doesn’t get bored with repetition, and that all students taking a unit receive a consistent experience, which makes it sensible for one person to be responsible for key areas.

« Lectures home