What’s the use of lectures?

Robot lecturerThe title of this month’s blog is not mine but taken from what many would consider a classic book about what can realistically be achieved by someone stood at the front of a classroom or lecture theatre, simply talking. Written some 25 years ago but updated recently Donald A. Bligh’s book takes 346 pages to answer the question, what’s the use of lectures?

What makes this book interesting is the amount of research it brings to bear on a topic some consider an art form and so not easily measured or assessed.

With many in Higher education questioning what they get for their £9,250 per annum, and contact time being one way of measuring value, it’s as important a question as ever.

For clarity, we should define what we mean by lecturing, as ever Wikipedia can help –  A lecture (from the French meaning ‘reading’) is an oral presentation intended to deliver information or teach people about a particular subject.

What should happen in a lecture?

If you’re a student attending a lecture you would hope to learn something, however as many of my past blogs have discussed, learning is a complicated process and so we may need to break this question down a little further by asking, what should a lecture actually achieve?

A lecture should….

  • Transmit information
  • Promote thought,
  • Maybe change opinion or attitude
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Help you be able to do something i.e. develop a behavioural skill

Well here is the bad news, according to Mr Bligh, a lecture is only really good for one of the above, to transmit information. And it’s not even better than many other methods e.g. reading, it’s simply as effective, but no more.

Promoting thought, changing opinions

Lectures are relatively passive whereas a discussion requires that people listen, translate what is said into their own words, check if it makes sense with what is already understood, construct a sentence in response etc. In effect, a discussion is far more effective than a lecture in developing thought.

In addition, putting the student in a situation where they have to think is important, for example by giving them a problem or asking a question as is the case when you have to answer a past exam question for example. A discussion can also help change opinions, especially where you can hear other people’s views, often different to your own. It has a longer-term impact when the group comes to a consensus.

Inspiration and motivation

Bligh also argues that on the whole lectures are not an effective means of inspiring or motivating. He suggests that it should certainly be the objective of the lecturer to try, it’s just they rarely succeed. I find myself slightly disagreeing, lecturers can be inspirational, and yet maybe this is just my personal bias from having watched Sir Ken deliver his “do schools kill creativity“  or the last lecture delivered by Randy Paush.

But perhaps, these are just the exceptions that prove the rule.

Developing skills

And finally, if you want to help people become good at a particular behaviour, you don’t tell them how to do it, you get them to practice, over and over again, with good feedback.

The end of the lecture?

I don’t think this is the end of the lecture, these criticisms have been around for many years. But I can’t help thinking that with new technologies and online learning, lectures are going to have to get a whole lot better in the future.

And what will Universities point to as value for money then?




Confused about University, I am – Training V Education

Birmingham Uni

Birmingham University

Last month students across the UK would have received those all important exam results informing them if they have been awarded the grades necessary to get into the university of their choice. It’s easy to get caught up in this process seeing it as the end goal rather than part of a journey, I speak with some degree of experience. But how will the lucky ones judge if the next three years will be worth it. What does a university education give you……surely it’s more than a ticket to the next stage in the game i.e. Go to university-get a good job.

Training or education

We may find some of the answers by taking a closer look at the distinction between education and training. I thought finding a definition of education would be easy, yet many referred to it as being something obtained from going to School, College or University and I was looking for a more insightful observation. The business dictionary of all places seemed to offer a little more along these lines – The wealth of knowledge acquired by an individual after studying particular subject matters or experiencing life lessons that provide an understanding of something.

Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave”
Lord Henry Brougham

Training proved a little easier to pin down. Here a couple of definitions – The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour (Oxford dictionary) and The process of bringing a person to an agreed standard of proficiency by practice and instruction. (Collins)

Still not clear, this might help – “If your sixteen year old daughter told you that she was going to take a sex education course at college, you might be pleased. But if she said she was going to take part in some sex training you might have something to say?”

Training and employability

BCU formerly Birmingham Polytechnic

Training is relatively narrow and largely relates to developing skills and ending up with the ability to do something. This is most closely linked to employability. Employers don’t want students who know things, they want students who can do things. But is this what a university education should be about , is it the place that simply prepares students for work?

This was much easier to answer when Polytechnics existed. These were “educational” institutions that focused on STEM subjects and had close ties with industry. They however lacked degree awarding powers and invested little in research so were seen a poor relatives of the then university. But there was little doubt as to what their objectives were.


This is not a plea to bring back Polytechnics, although it doesn’t seem such a bad idea does it? No its more about the confusion that exits’ as to what employers want, what students expect and who universities think they are. Are they educational establishments or training grounds for the next generation of employees?

Maybe they can be both but if identities are not made clear soon, those students who have worked so hard to get into the university of their choice may find themselves disappointed with what they end up with.

More quotes about education 

For the pragmatist – A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole rail road.Theodore Roosevelt

Its about learning how to think – The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And you cant go wrong with MT – Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty. Mark Twain