Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture?

As schools incentivize innovative research, quality in-class experiences can fall by the wayside.

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

As a doctoral candidate interviewing at a liberal-arts college some years ago, I rambled, waded through pages of notes, and completely lost my train of thought at one point during my job presentation. Even though I was eventually offered the position, I was keenly aware that, despite interviewing for a job in which I’d have to stand in front of students day after day, I’d never been trained in giving a lecture—and it showed.

But that lack of training is not unusual; it’s the norm. Despite the increased emphasis in recent years on improving professors’ teaching skills, such training often focuses on incorporating technology or flipping the classroom, rather than on how to give a traditional college lecture. It’s also in part why the lecture—a mainstay of any introductory undergraduate course—is endangered.

For some years now, students in MIT’s introductory physics classes, for example, have had no lectures, and physics departments at institutions around the country have been following suit. But while the movement to eliminate the college lecture first gained traction among physics professors, including the Stanford Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and Harvard’s Eric Mazur (a proponent of “peer instruction” who has compared watching a lecturer to learn physics to watching a marathon on TV to learn how to run), it has expanded beyond the sciences. Getting rid of the college lecture entirely is the mission of a broad group of educators.

Educators and administrators alike argue that active learning yields superior results to the lecture. Wieman recently issued a fresh plea to educators to stop lecturing. For Wieman, who sees himself more as a kind of cognitive coach than the traditional “sage on the stage,” the college lecture is like bloodletting—an outdated practice that has long been in need of radical reform.

But is it the college lecture itself that’s the problem—or the lecturer?

Concerns about the lecture derive from anecdotal impressions as well as research data, including one meta analysis of 225 studies looking at the effectiveness of traditional lectures versus active learning in undergraduate STEM courses. That analysis indicated that lecturing increased failure rates by 55 percent; active learning—meaning teaching methods that are more interactive than traditional lectures—resulted in better grades and a 36 percent drop in class failure rates. High grades and low failure rates were most pronounced in small classes that relied on active teaching, supporting the theory that more students might receive STEM degrees if active learning took the place of traditional lecturing.

Still, although proponents of the movement to move away from the lecture cite data on its ineffectiveness, the debate has failed to take into account the fact that academics are rarely, if ever, formally trained in public speaking.

Many people think riveting lecturers are naturally gifted, but public-speaking skills can be, and are, taught. The art of rhetoric was practiced and taught for millennia, beginning in ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago; oratory skills were a social asset in antiquity, a way to persuade, influence, and participate in civic life. “For most of the Western tradition, oratory was not regarded as a separate subject, but as a part of rhetoric, which was about the artful design and presentation of something through language,” says James Engell, a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard who taught a popular course on rhetoric for over a decade.

Early European universities taught rhetoric as one of the core liberal arts—the trivium—alongside grammar and logic, as did their American counterparts. John Quincy Adams was Harvard’s first Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory; for him, the persuasive individual was essential to democracy. By the 19th century, elocution lessons had become as standard as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

During the first half of the 20th century, the field of rhetoric and its like all but disappeared. The decline began at Harvard, as successive holders of the Boylston chair began to emphasize English literature over classical rhetoric, and other universities rapidly followed suit. Why the dramatic shift away from teaching people how to speak well? Engell explains that two phenomena contributed to its eventual decline: the invention of the telegraph and rise of the newspaper in the mid-19th century and the professionalization of disciplines at universities beginning around the 1880s. Newspapers became the chief medium through which information was transmitted, and increased specialization at universities meant people now concentrated specifically on rhetoric, poetics, or composition, whereas the earlier general assumption was that “this all fell under the purview of a large umbrella approach,” Engell says. “Specialization tended in some respects to reduce the importance of these divisions relative to a larger context, and when things are divided they tend to be easier to marginalize.”

Oratorial skills were regarded as unfashionably practical, while rhetoric was increasingly viewed as dishonest and irrelevant, drawing as it often did upon human emotions to inspire the listener, unlike a more cool-headed scientific approach. Eventually, even Harvard’s professorship of rhetoric and oratory shifted toward creative writing; since 1949, every person holding this prestigious position has been a poet.

Oratory, like writing, emphasizes the ability to formulate coherent thoughts into compelling and well-crafted arguments. The decline of both in academic settings comes from their diminished stature and training opportunities. According to Engell, this trend began at elite institutions, where the teaching of public-speaking skills was often dismissed as being utilitarian rather than aesthetic. Now, at those and some other institutions, if it is taught at all, it is often taught by untenured instructors who are not high on the salary scale. This area of study is simply not considered prestigious, though some institutions, particularly land-grant universities whose charters and mission emphasize the cultivation of public and civic responsibility, have tended to retain courses on public speaking. Today, public speaking is predominantly associated with schools of communication, sometimes with schools of government or business.

Molly Bishop Shadel, the coauthor of Tongue Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion, explains that very few colleges offer public-speaking classes because many faculty members haven’t been trained in how to teach it. In addition, the classes are labor-intensive and expensive to teach. "Well-designed public-speaking classes are small, to enable students to speak as much as possible, and offer individual critiquing and videotaping for students,” she tells me. “That kind of instruction requires a substantial time commitment from the professor, on top of an already busy workload.”

It is probably not a coincidence that as teaching public speaking fell out of favor, so too did the quality of the average college lecture itself. Many college lectures today are deemed dull—and with good reason. In 2014, in a highly controversial move that infuriated faculty, researchers for Harvard’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) secretly photographed lectures to assess attendance and concluded that attendance declined over the course of the semester by nearly half. While the reasons are unclear, it’s hard to deny that professors are contending with a tenure system that overwhelmingly rewards scholarly research over good and exciting teaching—even if they want to cultivate their lecturing skills. Hence the commonly accepted wisdom that lectures are ineffective and should be jettisoned in favor of newer innovations that have been developed to take their place.

But this is an accepted wisdom that many academics challenge. “The lecture was a highlight of my own education,” Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina history professor who wrote a New York Times op-ed last year defending the lecture, tells me. “Some of my most powerful experiences in the classroom as an undergraduate and graduate student were in lecture halls. To draw this bright line between the traditional lecture and active learning totally misunderstands the lecture. Done properly it should be an active experience, one that fosters critical skills but also conveys information and models the art of argument.”

According to Worthen, many faculty are under pressure to experiment with active learning—“shorthand for things other than the lecture.” But, she says, “many of these active-learning modules assume students can be asked to do more outside of class, such as watch videos online.” There’s a limit, though, to what one can expect students to reliably do outside the classroom. “There’s just no getting around the efficiency of a great lecture as a mode of conveying what students should know.”

Tim Hacsi, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, agrees. At his school, students hail from diverse backgrounds: In 2016, graduates came from 112 countries on top of the United States. International students accounted for a fifth of the institution’s population; more than half of its graduates were first-generation college students. Instructors contend with a hugely varying degrees of skill sets and English-language abilities in their students; they cannot assume, for instance, that their students have learned how to assiduously take notes on what they’re learning. While a robust body of evidence argues that the traditional college lecture may be unfair for students from underprivileged backgrounds because they often lack the background knowledge that their wealthier peers have that allows them to make sense of and retain the content they hear, lectures can also be a particularly important teaching tool precisely for this population of students.

“There is a lot to the concept of a ‘flipped classroom,’ but it is also very much an elite-institution idea,” says Hacsi, referring to a model in which students view lectures outside of class and focus on homework elements inside of it. “You are assuming the students are full-time students who can spend a lot of time outside of class working on what they are working on. We have students who could do well pretty much anywhere if they didn’t have a 25-hour-a-week job. You don’t know going into a class who will have time outside of class to work on the material.”

Today, the shape of the lecture is evolving, due in part due to decades of research showing that students tune out after around 15 minutes. (No longer than 45 minutes, and often shorter, is generally a good span of time to aim for, says Engell, though “attention spans are like muscles and you can exercise them.”) Many instructors report doing a hybrid sort of lecture: mini-lectures interspersed with discussion (or “change-ups”) and the liberal use of multimedia and online resources.

These new technologies are also, ironically, highlighting the importance of oral persuasion. Electronic media—online speeches, televised political debates, blogs with embedded video, TED talks, and so forth—has sparked new interest in cultivating oratory skills. This recent surge of interest, according to Eugene Tobin of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, also reflects new initiatives promoting undergraduate research (and oral presentation of that research) for all students, not just honors students. It is increasingly clear that superb communication skills are essential across a wide range of careers.

Active learning has its place, too. Danielle Allen, a professor of classics and government at Harvard, cautions the need for perspective. “Often, when people talk about flipped classrooms they think they’re inventing something new. But it’s important to recognize that both the lecture format and the seminar-discussion format date back to antiquity. It is true that the lecture is undergoing more rapid evolution. But both are ancient practices, totally durable, and both will evolve as social conditions change.”

Not only that, Allen continues, “Both of these are absolutely critical parts of the democratic process. We need that small group discussion because it’s the essence of deliberation, but people also need to know how to speak, how to listen, how to evaluate whether a lecture is supported by a good argument or not. Lectures in a campus classroom can help people acquire the standards for judging that kind of public performance.”

In his book The Art of Humane Education, the philosophy professor Donald Philip Verene asked, “How would wisdom speak, if not eloquently?” It was out of the tradition of oratory that great speeches that changed the course of history were born: Imagine the world without Winston Churchill’s impassioned call in 1940 for Britain’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat." America would be a very different country without the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The combination of hard-earned knowledge, eloquence, and passion endows the lecture with a singular power: the power to move and change its audience.

Every lecturer has off days, but the good moments are sublime. Christopher Martin, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology who has been teaching for nearly 30 years, would never give up the lecture format. “A lecturer can take students on an intellectual journey at the speed of thought. It is a performance and the ideal is to excite and inspire, create something out of nothing in front of the students’ eyes, a form of magic.” He continues: “Remember, the staggering advances in science, engineering, and technology in the last two centuries were made by former students who attended, and sometimes slept through, the old-fashioned lecture. If progress is our measure of success, then the need for change is overstated.”