The lecture -When does learning happen?

“Lectures were once useful; but now the internet and online content are freely available, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you can with online content. “

The above quote makes the point very forcefully that lectures may not be that effective, and certainly not as good as online. But let me ask a broader question, what is the purpose of a lecture in the first place, does it help you learn and if so when does the learning begin?

The lecture – step by step

In its most simple form the lecture involves little more than a lecturer standing at the front of the class reading from a set or prepared notes or reciting from memory, the student then listens and copies down what the lecturer is saying, presumably to read and absorb later.

So let us break down this process and consider how a lecture helps with learning. Firstly the student has made the effort to attend, this in itself means there is some motivation involved. Secondly they are in an environment designed for learning and with other like minded individuals. All of this helps to put the student in the right frame of mind.

The lecturer will however play a very important part. How well they explain the subject, their level of knowledge, passion and genuine interest can all make a dull topic seem fascinating. And if it is fascinating the student will find it easier to learn. But how much of this can you get from a book, and can this all be achieved online?

And when is the real learning taking place? True the lecturer may ignite a flame and create a sense of curiosity in the student, but the real learning takes place in private, by the student as they revisit the book, video or notes, rewrite, talk out loud and practice questions.  As I have heard student’s say many times, “I need to go over this latter and get it into MY head.”

I am reminded of an Ali quote.

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.


A lecture is a poor method of transferring information, a book or video can explain a topic as easily as a lecturer if well written/filmed. The book and video are both good at providing technically accurate information, but can they transfer the passion, maybe…… but I would argue not as well as the lecture.

You will get a far better view of a sporting event with expert commentary and the ability to watch again on TV, but you are more likely to get a life changing experience if your there watching it unfold live.

So if the only reason you are going to the lecture is to capture information then don’t bother. Stay in bed and get a good book, copy your friends notes or watch the lecture online. But if you want to be inspired/motivated, possibly get a unique view, then go to the lecture.

There is of course a message here for lecturers, your job is to be unique, to inspire and ignite the flame. If not you should also stay in bed, after recording all of you lecture of course.

And for the avoidance of doubt, I do not think this can all be achieved online, a live lecture is different, but the lecturer has to play their role, they have to entertain.

The debate is of course not new – the twist in the tale

Some of you may have recognised the above quote, it’s taken from (with a few amendments from me) James Boswell’s, life of Johnson, the quote is from Samuel Johnson, and the year…..1791!

Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book. . . . People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are take.

Examples of lectures

If only more lecturers could be like this – watch this

And not like this

And although not entirely my thing, everyone should watch the last lecture by Randy Pausche. Although you need to put aside over an hour you will not be disappointed and when you have you will join the 16 million others who have done the same.

What’s the point of exams – what do they prove?

With many students in the middle of exams right now, working long hours, making huge personal sacrifices and putting themselves under considerable pressure, perhaps we should stop, take a moment to reflect and ask ……….what’s the point of exams?

Why are you doing this, what will it prove when you do pass, what will passing give you that you don’t have now?



It’s not about knowledge

If you pass an exam, you have proved that you knew the answers to questions set by the examiner at a particular point in time. To be precise you have only really proved you knew enough answers to get a pass mark, in some instances this might be less than half! But you have not proved that you understand everything about the subject or that you could work unsupervised in practice, knowing what to do is not quite the same as doing it.

This is not to say that examinations are easy, they are not or to underestimate their importance, it is just to be a little clearer on what exam success means.

Higher level skills

By passing an exam you are demonstrating many other skills, for example;

Motivation – You have proved that when you set your mind to something you can achieve it.

Concentration – For some people, concentration comes easily for others it might involve removing all distractions by locking themselves in a room. Whatever method you used, you have learned how to cut out distractions and focus on the task in hand.

Prioritisation and Time management – Undoubtedly you have had too much to learn and too little time to learn it. But if you pass the exam you have proved that you got the balance between an endless, or at least what appeared endless set of demands and the overall objective just right.

But most of all exams give you….

A great sense of achievement – You set yourself a target and achieved it.  It is a statement to others that you worked hard and have succeeded. It will remain a tangible and permanent reminder of success that can never be taken away.

Self confidence – It will build self esteem and help you develop a type of confidence that only comes from being successful in a chosen field. Others will congratulate you and as a result, treat you differently.

Choices – it will open doors to opportunities that simply would not have been possible without the piece of paper that says “Congratulations, you have passed”. Exam success will give you choices, it will change how others look at you but perhaps more importantly it will change how you feel about yourself…

So if you have been working hard keep at it, you may not be proving you are the greatest mathematician in the world, but if all goes to plan the end result will make up for all the pain you are going through right now, honest!

But just in case…..everything doesn’t work out check out these Famous A-level flunkers