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Death of the Lecture

Andrew C. Thomas

I suppose I wouldn’t be the only one on campus to say that I’m getting pretty sick of lectures. Having someone -- albeit, an expert in their field -- regularly stand at the front of a room and tell a crowd of people that they don’t know as much about sinusoids or Shakespeare as possible can get just a bit repetitive. It must be said, though, that the “tried and true” lecture method has become rusted and antiquated.

It would be nearly impossible to say when lectures themselves became a popular teaching tool since it would seem that they have always been present, especially when writing had not been invented or when it was only learned by an elite group of scholars and nobles. Passing information orally has always been one of the most effective means of transmission available, simply due to its cost-effectiveness over anything else.

However, with the advent of writing came a new method of transmitting information, one with a higher fidelity. Now records could be kept and information passed along without the faults of memory. From this idea libraries were able to be constructed, carrying within them a great deal of accumulated knowledge. However, writing was still a skill possessed by the elite, and books themselves were difficult to copy in their entirety, so the natural way to disseminate this information would be to read to a large group of people. Those who could write themselves would note down the contents of the lecture, and hence the modern-day lecture was formed.

Many technological advances have been made since those times. Reading and writing are universal skills in our society (so universal, in fact, that they are taken for granted) and books are no longer difficult to duplicate. The lecture method had many great advantages in previous times, but in this academic context it has now lost much of its way. Several reasons come to mind as to why this is, both in general and here at MIT.

Lectures are passive. Typically, students will sit and watch a far more experienced person speak on a subject for an hour or longer, not necessarily giving students chances to fully question and understand the material. In the MIT model this is handled in recitation sections, but this is typically at least a day after the material is fresh in the mind. The recitation system is designed so that the student can do independent reading on the material and prepare questions in advance. I suggest that questions should be asked immediately, though, since they would hopefully clear up any immediate confusion that might propagate into full-fledged doubt. There is no room in the traditional structure for this immediate gratification; tight timing in lectures does not usually permit extensive question periods.

Lecturers are not always professional orators, scribes or entertainers. Now, I know it’s too much of me to ask that every lecturer be a stand-up comic, but no matter how boring or interesting course material is, it’s all in the delivery. Poor speaking skills or board technique can quickly lose the attention and interest of students, and even the most well-motivated can become distracted. Worse than this is when lectures are poorly planned, and no amount of professorial hand-waving (or, in my observation, name-dropping) can salvage the educational expectation. Selecting more interesting lecturers is a different can of worms entirely, but asking that professors speak and write clearly and methodically should be par for the course.

Computerized lectures -- either live projections in a lecture hall, slide shows available online, or in many cases both -- are definitely gaining in popularity. They free up significant time within the lecture itself, and allow more multimedia elements to be incorporated like movies, complicated graphics and simulations. They also save paper since they can be condensed and printed at a greater density than handwritten notes. And most importantly, they can compensate for poor board technique. However, this is not a cure-all solution. Electronic lectures are still passive by nature, and often take far more time outside of lecture to prepare than a casual set of notes. And they still leave the problem of lecturers who cannot speak well.

These are just some of the symptoms of a problem for which I have no cure. Economically, lectures are the most efficient way of instructing a large group of students, albeit the most impersonal. New technologies and theories are constantly presenting themselves for evaluation, and MIT is taking steps to investigate their feasibility. Group-based learning and instruction is certainly gaining in popularity but its fundamental limit, available manpower, has yet to be overcome to make it an effective and widespread teaching tool. If anyone out there knows any of the answers to this or any of the other problems addressed, I’d love to hear them, as no doubt a great portion of the teaching staff here would.