Are Lectures Even Necessary?

University without lectures is like a gin and tonic without ice – the content is the same, but it’s served disconcertingly differently. It is what many think of as the basis of a degree (lectures, not gin).

Before we flock to university in first year, we fantasise about lectures being a mystical experience, the holy grail of learning, very different from school. We imagine ourselves in a Hogwarts-esque environment, soaking up the knowledge and the wit of the best minds in our fields, a fanciful Dalai Lama/Peter Kay hybrid, perhaps.

It becomes bitterly apparent half way through the first lecture that we were oh so wrong. Without this magical element, what exactly is the value of lectures, and are they even necessary to your degree?

Impact questioned students from a range of UK universities to find out what they thought.

“a staggering 40% of people admitted to not attending the majority of their lectures. Yet only 13% said that lectures are unnecessary”

A third year English student at UoN suggested we consider our lecturer’s feelings before failing to attend our 9ams: “think of your poor lecturer who will have been pouring over his slides and practicing his projection all week, only for it to be heard by a handful of undergrads and his colleague sat in the front row”. Father McKenzie’s sermon comes to mind, a solemn Eleanor Rigby his audience. “He might as well have sat back in his office and talked monotonously into a recording device while enjoying a cuppa”.

Indeed, he could have, but wouldn’t we all have attended the Open University if this is what we really wanted? It is not what we pay £27,000 for and would surely cause an outcry among students. Then why isn’t this reflected in lecture attendance?

Doubtless, pity for the lecturer can’t be a reason for attending; pity should not be an emotion a lecturer evokes, nor will it facilitate learning. We should be inspired by them, which many surveyed students claimed they weren’t.

In the same survey, a staggering 40% of people admitted to not attending the majority of their lectures. Yet only 13% said that lectures are unnecessary. Clearly, we like to have the option of a lecture so that we can politely decline. Thanks but no thanks, Uni.

“one Nottingham lecturer reportedly joins her students in a shot of some fancy liquor before beginning tutorial meetings”

75% of students said they were more likely to attend a lecture if they like the lecturer. The things which make us like our lecturers are also likely to be those which make their lectures more fulfilling. The programme director of Manchester Metropolitan’s Course of the year, the BPTC, said that it was essential for a good lecturer to be authentic, have charisma and an infectious enthusiasm for their subject. You should feel like there is nowhere else they would rather be other than standing in the lecture theatre with you, sharing their knowledge and experience.

One Nottingham lecturer (who shall remain unnamed) reportedly joins her students in a shot of some fancy liquor before beginning tutorial meetings…this sounds like a sure-fire way to get her students on-side and up her lecture attendance, but maybe not the most ethical of tactics.

However, in stark contrast to this was one of my lecturers who always began his sessions by announcing his great displeasure at being there, then proceeded to rattle through his slides in record speed. Although this may come as a blessing to some students who only turn up to sign the register, considering we are paying the equivalent of a West End Musical ticket to witness this (non-)spectacle, it is pretty disappointing.

The value of a lecture depends to a large extent on the ability of the lecturer to engage us; we’re not expecting academy award winners, but they are called lecture theatres for a reason! It is unrealistic to expect to learn all we need to know from lectures, so the main purpose should be to ignite a passion for the subject and enlighten us to different ways of thinking.

Sadly, this is rarely the case. One History & Business student commented that, particularly at Russell Group universities which are traditionally research institutions, some lecturers are less interested in engaging students and are more interested in their personal research. This is an interesting point, and certainly seems to be the case with many un-enthusiastic educators.

The government has recognised the importance of excellence in teaching with the introduction of the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. This will result in Universities’ ability to set their own fees being dependent on a number of metrics, including their quality of teaching.

“it is tough shit if you miss the lecture, because that is the best place to learn”

The majority of surveyed students were in favour of having lectures recorded. One Medicine student from UoN said that it means you can actually listen in the lecture and enjoy the experience of going without having to worry about taking too many notes. If the ability to record lectures is there then there is no reason not to record them as an extra resource to students; it should even encourage lecturers to give a better performance in the knowledge they will be referred back to at later dates.

However, an English student from the University of Worcester thought it discourages physical attendance and suggests it is “tough shit” if you miss the lecture, because that is the best place to learn, with the option to interact with the lecturers.

In Bruce Charton’s 2006 article on the issue, he seems to agree that physically sitting in a lecture theatre is the best way to learn; “[it] creates a here-and-now social situation which unfolds in real time. Humans are social animals, who are naturally more alert and vigilant in social situations”.

Interestingly, Charlton also asserts that “lectures should aim to be enjoyable, but should not strive to be entertaining as the major goal; because lectures should be memorable rather than diverting”.

However, in an age where many 18 year olds hurry to university without necessarily having a passion for their subject, I believe that the lecture’s main value is creating this passion, in order to do that it is essential to create a desire to attend. Lectures can and should be entertaining, as humor is often engaging and a useful tool in maintaining a hungover student’s attention.

It seems that our dream of a Dalai Lama-come-Peter Kay combo is not so far off the mark, and that lectures are necessary to our degrees. Perhaps it is the lecturers who need to up their game, don their cloaks and canes and give us the magical experience we so crave.


Floss Binks 

Featured Image ‘lecture room’ by Sean MacEntee on Flickr (licence).

Source: Charlton BG. Lectures are an effective teaching method because they exploit human evolved ‘human nature’ to improve learning – Editorial. Medical Hypotheses 2006; 67: 1261-5.


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