Why would a student go to a lecture at all if everything was in the book already? The lectures make sense if and only if the lecturer tells more than in the book(s) and in more detail (or at least, in a better/more clear way). [not my comment]

Especially in light of the Internet in general, what is the added value of a lecture over a (hypertext)book?

Reasons I can think of:

  1. spoken word might stick better, because our language is not primarily based on text,

  2. the possibility to ask for clarification,

  3. some material might not translate well to media

I dislike those arguments, because a huge class can neither run at a comfortable speed for all at once nor answer everyone's questions. The expectation seems to be that the students should be homogeneous and everyone nonconforming should be filtered out.

  1. personal contact affects us on a deeper level, role models are important

Depending on the class size, even that is doubtful.

  1. to form communities,

which would substitute or supplement the professors, but obviously at a different rate.

This is a trick question, because it depends on the style of the lecture. In my experience the lecturer is acting as a medium and I'm watching them half the time writing on the board, or someone is asking obvious or distracting questions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Mar 14, 2017 at 13:21

16 Answers 16


I think something mentioned in a comment is far more important than usually acknowledged: the lecture, standing at a definite time and place, plays the role of a ritual: at that time and place, the students (should) only focus on learning. This gives a rhythm, a time frame to help pace one's study.

In my experience, having very lenient rules such as long delays to turn in homework leads most student to postpone until the very end, and thus to work less than expected (to be honest scholars often do the same with e.g. grant applications). Similarly, leaving students to work with books would probably not end up well unless there are periodic incentives to have finished some chapter by some time. In fact, it seems even MOOCs tend to have a schedule, with material released periodically and only available for a given period, to force students to work it in a given time frame.

Another point is that a lecturer in fact makes small adjustments to the lecture in response to low-level signals from the students. Very concretely, it happens even in large amphitheaters that I feel that students all got a bit lost, which leads me to repeat a point or slow down. A comparison made by Krantz in his book on mathematical lecturing struck me: when one drives a car on a mostly straight road, one still steers the wheel, even if very softly. This almost imperceptible steering makes the difference between getting to the end of the road and getting off-road pretty quickly. Letting student only study on books would be like launching a car without a driver (nor a computer driver).

Last, any given course has a precise context (background of students, future study, other parallel courses, goal of the lecture, etc.) which is always even slightly at odds with any given book. The lecturer adapts the lecture to her or his precise goals and to the context. In particular, indications of the most important points to remind of every lecture can be very useful.

All that said, lectures in front of a large number of students are not a very adequate way of teaching - it is often the best we decide to afford.

  • +1. If you can find the motivation to regularly sit down with a book and really learn what’s written there you don’t need a lecture.
    – Michael
    Mar 10, 2017 at 15:24
  • +1 for "small adjustments to lecture." OP is very wrong that for lecture, all students must learn at the same rate and nonconforming students are filtered. A skilled lecturer is constantly adjusting the lecture based on (mostly) nonverbal cues about how the students are receiving the information.
    – Bill Nace
    Mar 11, 2017 at 1:55
  • "[The lecture] gives a rhythm, a time frame to help pace one's study" If interest in the topic is so low, a lecture might help, but idealistically speaking, that's not my concern. It's rather another gripe I have with classes, they are fixed and rigid and can hinder progress. Mar 12, 2017 at 7:48
  • "small adjustments to the lecture in response to low-level signals from the students". That's not fundamentally different from my point 2; valid though debatable as it ties in with the associated question for comprehensive curricula. To answer my own question, standard curricula would probably impede diversity, despite obvious advantages. Mar 12, 2017 at 7:57

Reading a book and listening to a lecture are very similar ways to learn. Neither of them are particularly effective. However, listening to lectures can be beneficial because being exposed to information twice is more effective than being exposed to it once. I would say the benefit of listening to a lecture after reading a book on the same subject is similar to reading a second, different book on the subject. Listening to a lecture may also be a lot faster than reading.

The greatest benefit of attending a lecture, however, may come from things other than listening to content. If the student applies what they are learning in some way during the lecture, then they are engaging in active learning which is much more effective than reading or listening.

  • 2
    I agree in general. Listening to a lecture may also be a lot faster than reading. Not for all students (some need text in order to understand it, including me to some extent :))
    – PsySp
    Mar 10, 2017 at 8:36
  • 8
    I think it's also worth considering the benefit conferred by writing notes. While some students may take notes from a book, I suspect far more would take notes from a lecture. "Taking notes from a book is redundant!"
    – user16167
    Mar 10, 2017 at 12:19
  • However, listening to lectures can be beneficial because being exposed to information twice is more effective than being exposed to it once. Since both expositions are usually not 1:1, I'd argue it depends on the quality of both exposition, their standard deviation and your brain's implementation of array_merge(), results ranging from great synergy to great confusion.
    – xDaizu
    Mar 10, 2017 at 13:36
  • 1
    Reading a book and listening to a lecture are very similar ways to learn You can't ask a question to a book. You can't ask your peers to read the book at exactly the same pace as you do and then ask them questions with an implicit common background. The book is not able to fine-tune its subsequent chapters after some students asks them questions that show some misunderstanding about something, or for the specific background the students have. IMO this make the lecture completely different from the book, and your blanket assertion is not very convincing...
    – user9646
    Mar 10, 2017 at 15:43
  • 1
    @PsySp: I disagree. At least for me, listening to a lecture is a lot slower than reading. I never found the conventional large lectures to be of that much benefit (except as an incentive to keep pace with the class). Smaller classes that had more opportunity for questions & answers were best.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 10, 2017 at 18:10

This is an excellent question - one that the humblest professors ask themselves infact. Please do take your time to see this excellent video from a physics Harvard Professor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwslBPj8GgI&t=3798s.

My personal experience as university student, then MOOC student, then lecturer and then MOOC student again, is that a lecture does not add value with respect to a book unless

  • the students spontaneously self-assemble in groups, where they collectively discuss the topics being taught

  • the professor engages them directly in discussions, either in person or via online resources

  • the professors develop incentives for students to work in groups both in class and outside the class

  • the professors tracks scientifically what are the most common hurdles in her/his subject, so to redesign constantly her/his course, and engage students more often/harder in those specific issues

The bottom line is that there is no fundamental difference between reading and listening. The main difference is that if you are alone with your book and you're stuck, you're stuck. While in class your professor or your peers might rescue you out simply be engaging you in discussing what you just learnt. That is a key lesson to learn once out in the real world - the ability to reach out to others and challenge your own assumptions in order to further your development.

  • Why does the formation of groups need to be spontaneous? In Eric Mazur's classes it's not spontaneous. Mar 10, 2017 at 23:16
  • While I did +1 this, there are fundamental differences between reading and listening. Our brains work differently when going through those two processes, and working with brains is central to education. Mar 11, 2017 at 0:36
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I started my list with the most important bullet in my opininon, perhaps given my own experience as a student: if the teacher does not engage you, ultimately it's your own responsibility to make the most out of your class. And even if the teacher helps in that, you should still try to make the most out of it. Nothing beats attitude.
    – famargar
    Mar 13, 2017 at 6:55
  • @ToddWilcox I tried to give a different viewpoint in my answer. I agree there are differences between the two models. However, I am arguing that the single most important predictor for success is engagement, either induced by the learning environment, or student's own will.
    – famargar
    Mar 13, 2017 at 6:58

It depends, because not everyone learns the same way.

A live lecturer has the chance to demonstrate with examples directly relevant to their class. A good lecturer will also be able to give alternate examples from a different perspective if their students fail to completely grasp what the book outlines.

Conversely for a terribly bad lecturer the book may be a better choice.


I like to visit lectures from different areas. If I am somewhat interested in X but not interested enough to read a 500 pages book, listening to an expert for 2 hours per week can be a good opportunity to get an overview of X.

  • If you're not interested enough to read a 500 pages book, why don't you read the first 50 pages of it, and then consider whether you want to read the rest? That would take much less time than 2 hours per week. Mar 10, 2017 at 11:26
  • 4
    @DmitryGrigoryev Sure, that is also an option, lectures just work better for me. If a book is on my desk I don't have to read, there is a good chance I never open it since I can always do so later. If I know the lecture starts in 20 minutes, I go there... Mar 10, 2017 at 12:24
  • If I don't read the book, chances are I'm not going either. Mar 12, 2017 at 8:35

I like Benoîts answer most so far, but would like to add more than fits in a comment:

When you enter a lecture as a student, aside from it being a "ritual", you get these benefits:

  • It is a definite time and place. If you learn on your own, you also would need to manage time slots for your different courses. If you are only accountable to yourself, it will be easy to miss a slot (do something else instead). This is a common problem in businesses - people get interrupted doing their planned work, and at the end of the day they have done a lot, but finished nothing. Whole methodologies have been invnted around this problem, google "getting things done" for an example.
  • While not every lecturer might be doing a grand job, they do, by necessity, structure their content in some way or another, which is hopefully made so that it fits a sensible time scale over a semester. I.e., they give the students a frame in which to do their own home studies (deepening what they learned).
  • It gives a common language. While content will likely be similar, the actual words/phrases used might be slightly different from prof to prof, from university to university, and from book to book. Having a central spoken "disemination" of the content gives at least the students at that place a common way to talk.
  • It builds community. The students get to meet (are forced to), and it makes it easier for them to form circles. I still believe, even in these days, that some direct contact can only help them. There are more facets to working together than just knowing facts about your field.
  • It gives the students a way to judge whether they are keeping up. If you sit in the lecture and don't have a single clue all the time, it is a clear signal. If studying alone, this may not be so obvious.
  • In smaller, more intense courses my experience in the past (way, way past :) ) was that the lecture is not anymore 100% one-directional, but often students will interrupt if necessary (i.e., to clarify a point, to ask about perceived errors and such). This is incredibly powerful, to me; not necessarily because they can fix small errors, but because it fosters an athmosphere where the mind actually has to be engaged during the lecture. For me personally, while reading a (any) book, it is certainly a danger to get into "automatic reading mode" where you think that you got everything, but in fact are just nodding along.
  • In my opinion, the lecture should be like the backbone of the actual studies (which take place at home, from the book, as necessary). If the lecture contains enough information to be done with it, then so much the better, but I would not assume that about every lecture.

To paraphrase an excellent professor of mine; "The traditional lecture, where the lecturer simply gives facts to the students, is like a medieval photocopier; the information goes from the lecturers notes, to the black board, to the students notes without passing through anyone’s brain on the way. Perhaps a few errors are added." SO it was probably quite useful, before we invented photocopiers.

This might not be true for everyone, but it seems to be the case for many people. I personally do not attend many of my lectures because I find the notes superior. However, sometimes a lecturer does something that makes the lecture more than just a stream of facts.

I am a physics student and really good lecture techniques I have seen include;

  • Doing calculations while simultaneously discussing interpretations.
  • Presenting a more abstract overview than the material in the notes, so that when the student comes to read the knows they already know the structure of the arguments in them.
  • Asking a question, getting the class to vote anonymously on the answer (via an app). If more than 1/3 of the class gets it wrong, get them to discuss with their neighbour and then vote again. (This was particularly brilliant.)

It probably varies by subject, and perhaps by student, but I would say that the traditional lecture is not as effective as working through notes/a text book. There are, however, many lecture-like teaching methods that are very useful.

  • Yes but photocopying your own notes is particularily effective. So it would be better if the student would prepare the lecture ;)
    – joojaa
    Mar 10, 2017 at 18:24

You are basing you arguments on an erroneous premise: not every person has equal listening and reading capabilities.

Just to give an example: while one is reading one can skim the text, for instance, which cannot be done while listening. To me, and to other people, this is vital in improving comprehension speed. During speech, one also uses body language to convey the meaning of what is being said. There is a good read about this here.

Teaching and learning are made of communication, and different people tend to understand concepts more efficiently with communication modes that suit their personality and background.


Two different textbooks can give two different viewpoints, which is very helpful. But a (good) lecturer doesn't just add a second viewpoint: they refine the first viewpoint in light of how their students digest the book's approach. The lecturer interacts with both the students and the book, in a way that a second book cannot.


I was a physics undergrad at Imperial, London from 1985 to 1988, and (at least at that time) it was a point of pride that everything that was examinable was taught by a lecturer, during a lecture, on a blackboard, with chalk. So I only bought one book during my entire undergraduate career, but I took a lot of notes. I still have about 10 lever-arch files full of notes, probably some five thousand handwritten pages, representing what is now a very expensive education.

I mention this because I'm sort of the designated physicist in the family, and now I have nieces, nephews, and Godchildren getting to exam age, I'm being asked to do physics tuition. That means I'm having to go back to my notes and remind myself about a bunch of stuff I haven't used for some decades, and I'm discovering that my notes are almost uniquely readable to me because they represent my understanding of the material right when that understanding was forged. I saw what was going on in front of me, understood it, and wrote down my understanding all in the moment. In some cases, being human, I failed to understand, and I could tell when that was because I couldn't write it down meaningfully - then I knew I had to chase up the lecturer afterwards and get my comprehension fixed, so that I could write it down.

So the handwritten notes functioned as a real-time comprehension check - and in addition, a priceless corpus of physics-as-it-makes-most-sense-to-my-particular-brain, the most efficient way possible of reloading/refreshing that knowledge later (which was necessary at the time, because nearly the entire degree result came from the end-of-year exams). I'm unsure about the value of just sitting in a lecture hall, watching it all go by; but for me at least, sitting in a lecture hall and attempting to codify in real time what I was seeing was a very effective educational technique.


Generally speaking, people go to college to improve their career opportunities.

Networking isn't being considered here. College is a shared experience and some of the value of it certainly comes out of access to both talented faculty and other students.

A book can't give you a letter of recommendation or look you up to recruit you for a position it needs to fill years later. It can't help you form a startup or find investors. Consider the cost of high end colleges. Are the professors really that much better there that they justify the higher tuition or are students paying for the opportunity to share the college experience with other students that can afford to attend these colleges?

A strictly online experience limits options for group based course work. Interacting with the professor and other students exposes you to different ways of thinking about problems.

You get out of it what you put into it. If you don't interact with the other students or the professor and the professor doesn't provide their own insight into the book and related problems then by all means stop paying tuition, buy the book, and read it at home. I have had a professor who in a graduate level course spent large amounts of time reading directly from the book in lecture. However in that case the students found they had to hold their own sessions in the evenings to discuss the material and that did prove to be productive and an excellent networking opportunity.


What Nick said:
not everyone learns the same way.

Observed over the years about 18-year-old students in basic mathematics courses. Perhaps who will not major in math or physics or engineering, but are taking math anyway. In some cases,

the student is not able to read the book by himself

I am not adducing a reason for that here. But it is not uncommon.


Here are a few examples taken from my experience:

  • Psychology 101 as an undergraduate with a huge workload in my major, which was completely unrelated to Psych: I didn't have time to read the book AND go to class. I chose to go to class. It was a good choice, because the instructor brought the material alive with a lot of visuals, and a lot of experimental results. The text was dryer, in comparison.

  • An advanced graduate level math class: looking at the sketches and equations on the blackboard, and listening to the instructor walking us through proofs and examples, it was easier for me to see the forest, as opposed to getting bogged down with the trees, as sometimes happened to me when studying on my own. Also, attending class included opportunities to interact with other students. And what a shot in the arm it was to ask a question that got an "I hadn't thought of it that way" response from the instructor.

  • A history class: the instructor read selected quotes from source documents. Yes, the quotes were taken from the reading assignments. But in class we got the gems, strung together with comments from the instructor. This helped me form a big-picture view that would have been harder to get from just reading at home.

Also: some math and computer science classes contained problems to work out during class. This is analogous to sight-reading in a rehearsal. You're forced to keep going (but without the pressure of an exam) and this can be helpful, to balance against slow, careful work at home.

In general, I benefited from interaction with fellow students, and the opportunity to form study groups.

Math classes taught me how to read mathematical symbols and aggregates of symbols out loud.

I found it helpful to watch the instructor work through problems, explaining the thought process all the while.


Sometimes lectures explain in more detail and are easier to understand than a book. For example, I tried to learn Chemistry all by my self by just reading a book which got confusing because it totally skipped some details. But, when I learned it at school it was way easier since there was more detail. Plus, if you read a book you will be going at a way faster pace which makes it harder to learn the material, since you will read more faster than the lecture will cover it.


Here are some reasons:

  • Not everything is in the book. To make the book a reasonable size, sometimes the major issues are covered while details are deliberately overlooked. Very often, I will read a book and think I understand it all, but when I try to do the examples, I'll realize I'm missing a lot of the finer points.

  • Some things can't be accomplished just by reading. Music education and phys ed are just two examples.

  • You can't ask a book questions. (You can, these days, substitute asking on internet groups for classroom interactions.)

  • Some things may be omitted from the book because the author thinks they are "obvious" or have been learned already from (allegedly) prerequisite courses. (That's what I like about the "For Dummies" series: they assume no previous knowledge.)

  • Not everyone has the discipline to learn from the book. In a class, the teacher/lecturer/professor sets clear expectations for what must be accomplished by when. If you can get the job done and done well in a reasonable time without that, fine.

  • The teacher/lecturer/professor may add a topic or two to what the book discusses, and considers the added topics to be part of the course that ze is teaching.

Having said all that, I am all in favor of skipping lectures to learn on your own. You can often get more done and faster that way. Of course, you're not going to agree with that if you believe that courseroom time, not what you learn, is important.


I don't know would it be of any use of you but I believe my country has an unique experience with educational systems based on both models-e.g. mandatory lectures and non-mandatory ones. About 30 years ago my country was part of the communist East European states and the lectures in the universities were mandatory. There was a special clause in the university codes requiring students to attend their lectures otherwise they could get expelled very quickly. You should know that then university education was a kind of dream for most of the people and students went to dormitories away from friends and families to study. Also, their expenses (for the most part) were covered by the state, so university student was "social position", not mere education and getting expelled could have ramifications beyond the university. Then even missing one lecture could be big deal if the professor decided to punish the student. This is why students went to lectures without caring what exactly the lecturer was saying and even what this class is all about. Our experience is that mandatory lectures always (I tell you this is for our country in particular, so I can't say it's universally true) led to lower interest in the subject, lower grades and even bribes. Yes, it was a common practice for someone to use his or hers "connections" (as we call them) to try to get some rare foreign goods for the university professor, give him/her money or even just some spirit drinks ( I have heard of such cases too, not joking) to manage to pass the exam regardless of what the student knows. Take into account the fact this was when lectures were mandatory and everyone was attending them. Can you imagine how low was the interest then to have people resorting to bribes instead of just listening to what the professor says?

Then, things changed and the system got progressively freer. Some universities tried to hold onto the "old ways" and punish students for not attending lectures but as the "exclusiveness" of university education got less and less privileges they started to understand there wasn't much effect of punishment. I still know of one university trying to impose fear on its students for not attending lectures, but the general trend is they don't care any more who goes and who doesn't. The reason is that when the borders opened many people fled the country and some started to bring foreign experience in to our (then outdated) education systems, some started to demand more rights and freedom and made the case no one should force anybody to attend anything and then some just made money but had no education and in order to get the social position of being educated, not the actual skills and knowledge they simply bought their diplomas. It was (and to some extent still is) big business in my country. But the results of these practices started showing in ever lower and lower quality of education and more and more "bought", rather than "deserved" degrees. I'm part of this generation and remember absolutely free classrooms where out of a nearly 150 students by names you had only 5 real people in the room! I think you can imagine what the attendance rate was. But universities kept their lectures (sometimes only because the professors would otherwise lose their jobs and the unemployment rate was very high so they pledged their colleagues in the administration to keep the lectures) and now the students themselves are returning to the classrooms. My country had some really rough times the last 20 years but now it seems like the people themselves, not the authorities, the social position or even the economy are forcing them back in the universities. Now the clessrooms are again getting filled because some people themselves chose it is the better way to learn, than by themselves. Now, I could say our country's education system is as free as it can be-nobody forces anybody to attend anything, the professors can chose their curriculum, anybody can read anything and hold whatever opinion he or she thinks is right. The value of higher education has greatly diminished over time and those who have money even don't want to buy their diplomas any more (not because they can't, but because they don't see the point in having an education when you have money) but the people still return to the universities and now it's the people themselves who demand lectures. Now, I can see people in their 30s and 40s going back to school and attending lectures not because anybody demands them to, but because they simply want to, because they feel the need to know more and going to lecture and having personal contact with the lecturer is their own way of getting to know the subject, too. I can see now how my generation is starting to wake up for the value of education and especially this coming from actually knowing what somebody thinks about this or that subject and how s/he can teach it. I can say now people actually start to think of universities more like places where they can go, meet somebody who has knowledge and use his or hers skills to educate themselves or get an answer to specific question they may have. And having a good lecture course becomes essential to manage to satisfy this need. Now the universities are becoming ever more social rather than mere educational institutions and anybody can open university if s/he has the cash to do it. But people don't go to universities for the diploma, they go there to know something they don't and require the professors there to have the knowledge they need or simply desire. This is what a good lecture course is about (at least in my mind-you're free to disagree).

But you may wonder why I'm telling you all this @Troway Jestman. The reason is because I believe you aren't very old (please, forgive me for the personal intrusion here) and probably because you have only your country as an example (which I believe is a western country). But this isn't the only possible example. See, my country has been through both periods when lectures were mandatory and those who attended them had a higher social status than those who didn't and periods where almost nobody went to lectures and people were thinking about actually abolishing them. But in my mind both these alternatives are wrong! And I'm not talking here from some subjective theoretical point of view-I'm talking from personal(and national) experience. When higher education was seen as some "special privilege" to the society's elite and at the same time lectures were mandatory for students and the common people were excluded from attending them, the quality was poor and people didn't learn much from them. So you can see that even when you give incentives to people learning from lectures and at the same time make them mandatory it turns against you and you actually lower the quality of education, rather than increase it. On the other hand when you make everything free, yes, the attendance rate drops and almost no one cares to come but those who come are there for a reason and the dialogue and in general the very quality of education is increased when you have a lecture course parallel to the books and/or internet video course about the subject. And it also makes the professor him/herself do better job at assessing his field, educating him/herself on the novelties there and in general providing better services for society, not just for education. I can go on and tell you many things terribly wrong with my country and its education system but from the perspective of someone who has seen both the effects of mandatory lectures and lectures with almost no attendance at all I can tell you it's better to keep the lecture courses in, rather then abolish them-it's better both for professors and students and for the society in general. And this isn't an answer based on general knowledge but on personal observations. I firmly believe good lecture courses are a must for any modern university, if not for its educational role, than for its social role. Lecture courses can "filter out" those students who really care about some field, provide the professor with the environment to shape his/her course better and improve his/hers communication skills and in general provide the ability to create an environment for learning not only for students, but for everyone interested in this particular field.

I believe this is the true complete answer of your question :)

  • I know this answer got way too long, but please, let it stay because I believe it gives an unique perspective on the question derived from true experience, rather than just general discussion. Mar 10, 2017 at 13:25
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    -1 TL;DR. Wall of text, political opinions mixed in, no paragraph break, and not focusing on the question asked. Mar 10, 2017 at 13:44
  • 1
    Edit it and I'll read it. Mar 11, 2017 at 0:51

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