The primary method of instruction at most colleges is lecturing, where the professor delivers and explains a set of well-established knowledge to the students.

However, there are drawbacks to this: people have different goals, intellectual orientations, and levels of prior knowledge. What's more, the information delivered in these lectures is well established, well documented, and easily available online -- and for far less money than the average college tuition.

Can lectures be more effective than, say, reading a book oneself? I am unconvinced. Instead, I see people learning by imitation, reading, discussion, and practice. If education is a way to prepare for life outside of academia, shouldn't the method of instruction also reflect the ways people learn outside of that environment?

What advantages (if any) does lecturing have, that make it worthwhile in an age where there are so many other options? Is there any systematic, empirical evidence that supports the widespread use of lecturing?

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    This question is very subject specific. You can assume as such in say, humanities (my field ) but I doubt that your assumptions would work for a class on differential equations or mechanical engineering. Lecturing is based on the assumption that you're providing students a foundation and gradually scaffolding it to higher order ideas, so that they can understand. The premise of taking a class is to know and learn more about a particular topic, I'm not sure that is how we learn out in the real world--- I'm not sure not sure why you'd equate both learning environments when they are not equal.
    – Emme
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 22:57
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    @AndyPutman The only reason why I wrote this question is because I'm genuinely baffled by the discrepancy between my reasoning and my observation of how teaching is down in reality. The hope was that by outlining my argument someone may be able to confirm my idea or point out my mistakes. I apologize if the question came across as rude or arrogant.
    – Drecate
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 0:35
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    One point apparently overlooked here is the issue of "added value", that a lecturer may or may not bring. For myself, I try to think in exactly that sense, that I should add something that would be hard to obtain from "available sources". Sometimes it's just the pep-talk to the specific people, in lower-level (math) classes. In advanced graduate-level (math) courses, I do try to not only pep-talk but give two more things: methodological pointers, and examples that cannot be found "on the internet" or in "standard sources". (I choose to ignore the fact that most people don't read sources...) Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 22:31
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    It seems the MOOC is coming. — I'd love for that to be true, but the same thing was said about earlier computer instruction (PLATO), and television, and radio, and even printed books, and yet lectures are still popular. It has been cheaper for students to learn on their own from textbooks for centuries; MOOCs are just a different medium of textbook.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:39
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    ... so I would definitely "argue that lectures are more effective means of instruction than, say, reading a book by oneself." Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 20:29

7 Answers 7


Inertia/tradition accounts for many things. "Doing things they way they've always been done" [sic] is usually considered defensible, too. Also, people have already-existing mental models for what a lecture should be like, often including specifics about the subject matter.

The fact that information is available on-line is not wildly different from the fact that information was available in universities' libraries. Yes, a sufficiently motivated person can simply go to the internet/library and find lots of information. A potential problem is that there is too much information, that it is fundamentally chaotic (despite our attempts to impose order or develop "search engines"), and fundamentally hard for a non-expert to evaluate. Even worse, a non-expert may fail to realize that they are failing to correctly evaluate information. :)

Still, yes, very many classes/lectures are boring, and attendance is often easily replaced by reading the designated textbook or other sources. However, in several decades of observation, many students (at all levels) either prefer or have become accustomed to a kind of passivity, so that they'd rather show up somewhere at a regularly scheduled time, see their fellow students, and have the pace and content dictated to them by even a fairly boring lecturer.

In my own student days, I did not like going to classes, for the obvious sorts of reasons: for one thing, if one had read the book, a slo-mo flawed, re-recital of it seems pointless in comparison to just re-reading at one's own speed. Second, if one found the material interesting, why stop? Why not read ahead? Why not look at other sources, too, for complementary viewpoints? Why not look at related stuff? (This was as feasible in libraries as it is on the internet, with perhaps two added advantages: there really was not much junk in libraries, since it was filtered, and, second, the chances of serendipitous discoveries in libraries was larger than on the internet.) Such a process inevitably makes the "canned" lectures seem crazily irrelevant.

(Also, years ago, libraries were some of the few reliably air-conditioned places!)

But let's ignore the problem of student passivity, and ask why/how a lecture _could_be_ better than just reading a book or searching on the internet. Arguably, a lecture is not better if it just amounts to reading from the book, copying from it onto a blackboard, etc. I would claim that trying to make lectures simply present text-book material is a big mis-use of the medium! That is, systematic presentation of all the details belongs in a book or on-line, but not in a lecture. Oppositely, what could be in a lecture that could not be in a book or notes? "Affect", meaning intonation, gestures, facial expressions, theatrical effects, and so on, are hard to put into writing, but (by "lecturers" capable of it) can be put into a lecture. This includes reaction to facial expressions and body language of the audience/students, and conversational interaction if the group isn't too large. For example, lectures can include "pep talks" that would be hard to fit into writing. "Reassurance" can be done live better than in writing, I think.

Another feature is the "live/real-time" aspect: a lecturer (in mathematics, my field, for example) can literally do things in the lecture room, live, in real time, with voice-over narrative, in effect. That is, the audience can witness the genuine activity as exercised by an expert practitioner, with accompanying critical and methodological comments. Yes, up to a point, textbooks and monographs could be written in such a fashion, but it seems that stylistic pressures move them in the opposite direction, aiming for a sort of artificial perfection that can only be achieved by much editing! Too often it seems that writing aims to create impressive edifices rather than be accessible, helpful ... and a live lecturer can easily do better, if they try.

So, for my own lecturing, I definitely do think in terms of "adding value" beyond what students could derive from written sources, and in terms of using the medium in ways that distinguish it from static written sources (and not having a lecture be a bad re-copying of those written sources).

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    very many classes/lectures are boring — For the record, so are many textbooks, library filtering notwithstanding. And so are many MOOCs.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:37
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    @JeffE, indeed. At least with books one can skip boring parts (reserving the privilege to revisit them if it proves necessary). Hard for an audience to fast-forward a boring lecture. More design possibilities with MOOCs, but/and it's very unclear to me what scope they'll have, and to what extent they maybe "cheap knock-offs" of something else. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:50
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    @paulgarrett, first, as someone who studied algebra using your notes, I'm glad to see you here. Second, it is important for me to stress that many students simply cannot follow lectures, because of many reasons, mainly because of cognitive inability in understanding oral material. I would guess that around 20 or more percent of population cannot follow lectures. That's why lectures are simply not something that is helpful for many people. Online courses are different, because the students can simply pause and go back if they choose to, which enables them to actively circumvent their inability.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 0:31
  • sometimes people are not getting fully prepared when we do not make lecture in class and tried some other activities (like flip classroom etc - and again, people will blame the lecturer for not preparing the students to prepare for the flip) - then lecturers ended up need to lecture them the topic again..
    – kate
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 4:30

I think the first critical false premise in your question is the notion that lectures are not frequently used outside of academia. Speaking as somebody who sees quite a bit of both academia and industry, as well as some of the government and amateur communities, I would say that the lecture is used nearly universally in every domain where one person is trying to convey information to a large group of people at the same time.

This is not to say that a lecture is always the right choice. There are, as you point out, a lot of different ways of conveying information and many of them are useful in the university setting as well. Flipping the classroom, for example, is something that many schools are experimenting with at all levels. That very overabundance of information that you point out as a value, however, is also a problem that a well-done lecture can solve.

Here is what a lecture does that is unique: within the sea of related information, a good lecture shows which exactly are the conceptual elements that a particular expert believes are most important about a topic, and then shows a well-developed way of understanding how they relate to one another. The format may be anything from chalk to powerpoint to documentary movie, and many good lectures incorporate elements of audience participation and embedded example problems to help further stimulate learning. In every case, however, the distinguishing feature of a lecture is that the class turns over its collective attention to direction by a single expert, and the way in which that attention is directed is a significant part of the value.

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    In a world oversaturated with complicated and even conflicting information, it is sometimes difficult to discern what is true and what is important. In such cases, it's helpful to have an expert to help filter and condense the overabundance of information into a cohesive, perhaps sequential structure.
    – Paul
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:11

While jakebeal's answer is excellent, I will add just two more points.

Some university educators simply do not understand pedagogy very well. That is, they spend their time improving their knowledge of their specific domain and do not focus on improving their knowledge about how to best facilitate student learning. Some educators also make the mistake thinking that their students have the same ability to "drink from a firehose" and if they just deliver the most important content then the students will be able to sort it out in their out-of-class studying. In that regard, a 1-2 hour lecture might save a student 10 hours of research time, especially if the student is unfamiliar with research (like a first or second year undergraduate). As pointed out in the answer I already referenced, these lecturing sessions could be recorded and moved out of the classroom (flipping), providing more time for discussion in class.

Lastly, and this partially repeats the sentiments of jakebeal, lecturing is great at some things. For example, I have some classes where we meet in two sessions per week. The first session is a lecturing session where I introduce them to some of the most important ideas they should be aware of. They are expected to then take those ideas, and do some research, applying the concepts to the real world. Then, the next session, is more of a seminar with much higher levels of interaction without any lecturing.

So, lecturing can be done for the wrong reasons but it also has its place.

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    +1 I'm curious what the "seminar with much higher levels of interaction without any lecturing" entails. Is this different than flipping the classroom, and if so, do you have any pointers you can link to, or any simple examples you can list?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 22:02
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    @MadJack In one of my subjects the 'seminar' session is filled with student presentations. That is, the students are introduced to several ideas within one topic (during the lecture session) then they pick a company (I teach business) and they research one or more of the ideas and present on how it applies to their chosen company. The presentations might be 5-10 minutes per student (or student group) and have Q&A after each presentation. This way, I make sure they can apply the concepts which is really what's important when they graduate.
    – earthling
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 0:33

Some may argue that lectures are more effective means of instruction than, say, reading a book by oneself. I am unconvinced, since I have not encountered lectures outside the educational system.

I am a bit surprised at this statement.

I work in industry. When I present the results of an analysis or pitch our product to a potential client, either on site or via a conference call, this is a lecture, usually with slides and with questions in between or at the end, but a lecture nonetheless - I read at my audience. Same for any earnings call by a CFO or CEO. Nobody disseminates a product pitch or their earnings numbers solely by distributing reading materials.

I would definitely "argue that lectures are (often) more effective means of instruction than, say, reading a book by oneself." Note the "often" I added. I fully agree that I'd prefer to get a lot of information I currently have to digest in the form of video tutorials rather in the form of printed matter.

But sometimes, and the math lectures I attended in my dissolute youth come to mind, it simply is far easier to learn if the material is presented by an experienced teacher at the blackboard. You can agree or not, but I'd say that the argument is not as outlandish as you seem to take it to be.

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    In some of these more-professional interactions, perhaps the human-interaction (assertion of authority/competence/etc, challenge-response, ...) is nearly as important as the "objective" content, and can be "done" well or poorly. I think course lectures really have the same potential component, despite occasional (subject dependent?) pretenses that it's all "purely objective". Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 21:04
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    I disagree. Specifically in math it is far more easier for many people to learn from notes/books/lecture-notes etc. Certainly for me, as an academic (professor) it is. I do not like not very successful with lectures. And I know many like myself. Nevertheless, I do agree there are many who do prefer lectures (possibly even majority of population). But as I explained in my answer below, about 20% of population cannot really comprehend/follow detailed lectures.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 0:15

Reading a technical book (or any written source) is an art that is not as easy to master as it might seem. One should know (or, better say, feel) what their mindset ought to be. It's some kind of the right “viewing position” that one should learn to have. Simply put: reading a book is an act, not a passive process, and so one needs to learn that art just like one needs to learn doing carpentry. Lectures certainly ought to help with that.

In other words: a human is a guide to a book; before you hear from someone knowledgeable, you may well look at the contents in the book from the point of view of the wrong assumptions, inclinations, etc, and not even realise you had a choice where you in fact made that choice incorrectly. There's a lot of talking about “body language”, “intonations”, “showing what is important”, and so on, but I think the honest answer is that we don't know why it happens. Just that's how it is. Just we humans are able to influence one another's mindsets in ways that are totally unpredictable and sometimes useful. We talk differently than read a completed work.

We still don't know how brains work. So, we don't need to be too enchanted with the assumption that in learning, people just “copy” some “information” from one brain to another. Practice shows that the process is more complex…

PS: I just thought of an example where that matters: a lecturer might often mention, when exposing the material, some “dull details” about how perceive the material, that just don't fit into a completed written work (they would look wrong there, or would be understood incorrectly, or would be blended with the material itself), but are very good for forming the right “point of view” about the subject, and so in conversation (after all, a live teacher talks to live students, therefore that's a conversation, in a way) are not really dull at all. It might be some advice on learning, like for example “when reading a mathematical exposition, stop right at the first thing that you don't understand and ask a question” and many others of this kind.


A lecture to a live audience gives the lecturer the oportunity to "read" what is understood and what isn't, to field questions and adjust the material presented to the situation.

True, the lectures started out as a reader reading the text and the students writing it down as their own copy to study (before newfangled stuff like printing presses, or $DEITY forbid, Internet and web pages with class notes), and most are still handled mostly like that. As to why my students show up to class without peeking at the notes, and insist in copying my scribblings when the notes are much better organized, beats me.


As an academic (a professor) I concur with your view. Lectures are not an effective way to transmit information to many students. That said, for some students it is a good way. But certainly for about 20% (just an approximation) of students lectures are a very unproductive way, and might even hinder their academic advancement. The reason for this is that about 20% of the population has cognitive difficulty in listening (e.g., ADD), so for such people lectures are only harmful.

I would argue that lectures are used because of historical reasons, and also because it is non-trivial to come up with a different method which is also reasonably economic (private lessons are better than lectures, but are not economic).

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    It would be interesting to see where the 20% approximation comes from Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 15:05
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    Here (approx 11% only for children ADHA in the US; ADHA doesn't cure with age): "The American Psychiatric Association (APA) says that 5 percent of American children have ADHD. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the number at more than double the APA's number. The CDC says that 11 percent of American children, ages 4 to 17, have the attention disorder." (healthline.com/health/adhd/facts-statistics-infographic)
    – Dilworth
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 22:35

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