Education: The Art of the Lecture

Education isn’t just about conveying information as efficiently as possible. A lecture, done right, gets to the heart of why a lesson is worth learning.

Lecture-HallThe nation’s 80,000 medical, 20,000 dental, and 180,000 nursing school students might think that lectures are dead, or at least dying. Health professions curricula increasingly feature small-group, interactive teaching, and successive waves of enthusiasm have arisen for laptops, PDAs, and tablet computers as the new paradigms of learning. Commentators frequently single out the lecture as the prototypically old school, obsolete learning technology, in comparison to which newer educational techniques offer interactive, customized, and self-paced learning alternatives.

This is no arcane academic matter. The LCME, the organization that accredits US medical schools, strictly limits the number of hours per week students may spend in lectures. So seriously does the organization take this mandate that, in October of 2011, it placed one of Texas’s medical schools on probation, in part because its curriculum relied too heavily on “passive” approaches to learning — foremost among them, lectures. In medical education circles, “lecture” is fast becoming a term of derision.

And yet, recalling the words of Mark Twain, widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated. I believe that we should revisit this venerable educational method before we sign its death certificate. To be sure, some lectures seem to exert a narcotic effect on the attention and enthusiasm of learners, and there are more than a few lecturers in health professions schools whose impact can best be described as deadening. But there are boring small group sessions, too, and even some new, highly touted technologies have turned out not to enliven education.

In other words, there are good lectures and bad lectures, just as there are good lecturers and bad lecturers. Rather than disposing entirely of the lecture as a means of learning, we should attempt to understand better the features that distinguish effective, engaging lectures from those that leave learners limp. Good lecturing is an art, and like other arts such as painting, musicianship, and writing, it takes real dedication and many hours of practice to excel at. Some may be more gifted at lecturing than others, but through study and practice, nearly everyone can improve, some of us substantially.

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Source: Richard Gunderman | The Atlantic | January 29, 2013