Lectures are generally used to teach new knowledge, scaffold and consolidate learning, promote reflection and stimulate further work and learning.
Good quality lectures given in an appropriate context can be an effective means of teaching. The main benefits of lectures are that they can:
- provide information that is not easily available from other sources
- be cost-effective for transmitting factual information to a large audience
- provide background information and ideas, basic concepts and methods that can be developed by self-directed learning or in facilitated small group activities
- be used to highlight similarities and differences between key concepts
- be useful to demonstrate processes.
Primarily didactic lectures have some disadvantages, including:
- the audience is often placed in a passive role. People may be busy taking notes but usually have little time to reflect, question or analyse and synthesise ideas
- usually they are not effective for changing attitudes or encouraging higher-order thinking
- the audience is not encouraged to move beyond memorising the information presented and long-term retention may be poor
- the reproduction of a power differential in which the lecturer is guardian and gatekeeper of knowledge and the audience is the recipient of whatever the lecturer chooses to reveal
- being unsuitable for a wide diversity of ability or differentiation between learners.
Although lectures are typically given to a large body of people, they can also be used in small groups. It is useful to think of the lecture as one way in which learning can be scaffolded; it provides a framework within which a number of effective methods of teaching and learning can operate. A skilled lecturer can adapt the format to accommodate a range of different sizes of groups – yet it will still be recognisably a lecture.
Some of the reasons for choosing a lecture as the primary learning modality are when:
- there is no workable alternative due to size of group, venue, etc.
- the programme stipulates it, such as at a conference or as part of an undergraduate programme
- part of the purpose is to set guidelines for assignments, exams, etc.
- the aim is to present broad outlines of a subject and factual information
- the aim is to illustrate process and/problem-solving strategies
- you want to model academic practice you wish to encourage.
A good lecture at the right time:
- facilitates learning of the key basic principles of the subject
- fits coherently into the overall teaching programme
- is relevant, well-presented and holds learners’ attention
- is organised into a logical structure
- supports and builds on previous learning
- is stimulating and provides food for thought.
See the Small Group Teaching and e-learning modules for more ideas about choosing the most appropriate types and structures of teaching and learning activities using both online and face-to-face activities.
What makes a good lecture? Think of a lecture you have attended that was exceptionally good. What made it work so well? Think of as many positive factors as you can – the audience, the venue, etc.