The Classroom Lecture: Is It a Tool Whose Time Has Come?

Posted on September 17, 2013

The following was part of Professor Richard L. Underwood’s presentation to the 2012 Central States Communication Association Annual Convention.

You walk into a classroom and stand before a group of people who have given a portion of their day to be “educated”.  You notice that many of them are texting last minute messages before they are required to put them away (you hope) and give you their attention.  You think you have such an exciting presentation and they will hang on your every word.  But quickly you notice their eyes looking around to their classmates or staring down at their notebooks.  You even hear an occasional yawn or a light tapping on the desk.  You realize quickly that you have lost their interest.  But you are convinced that students need your guidance to understand a concept and the best way to do it is to lecture.

The question all instructors should ask in this world of Twitter, Facebook, iPad and other forms of social media is, ”has the traditional lecture format of education become a thing of the past?  How can my learn students learn more effectively and take ownership of their education”?

The intent of this analysis is to discuss alternatives to the traditional lecture format and how technology can aid in that process.  This analysis is not intended to disparage any form of educating students-it is only to talk about alternatives to using textbooks and the traditional lecturing format.



       Charles Bonwell and James A. Eison in their article Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom believes that active learning MUST replace the traditional classroom lecture format.  This change will come about only when faculty replace the traditional lecture format with a student involved learning dynamic.    Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis had a rather interesting quote to summarize the need for academia to change their traditional lecture format when he stated “lectures are bullshit”.  Jarvis stated, “Does it still make sense for countless teachers to rewrite the same essential lecture?  Jeff Young in The Chronicle of Higher Education stated that, “PowerPoint is boring.  Student attention spans are short.  Today many facts pop up with a simple Google search.  And plenty of free lectures by the world’s greatest professors can be found on Youtube.”  David Eubanks, Dean of Academic Support Services at Johnson C. Smith University states that,” the real problem with lectures is that they don’t engage the learning part of our brain.  How do we learn?  By trying things and making mistakes until we get it right.”  Craig Wilson in the February 29, 2012 edition of USA Today stated that many colleges and universities are looking into the idea that lectures, as a style of teaching, should either be abandoned or at least retooled.  Wilson interviewed a professor who confessed that just because teachers say something at the front of the classroom doesn’t mean students learn.

I have been a communication instructor for over 20 years.  When I went to college I was taught in a traditional lecture dominated format.  When I was trained to be an educator I was taught that lecture is best way for students to learn.  I have taught thousands of students in a traditional classroom format.  But several years ago I began to realize that maybe the method of teaching needs to change with the change in the students dynamic.  Students are more visual learners and can be easily distracted.  Textbooks are becoming a tool only for looking up terms and not for stimulating thought.

Now if it appears as if I am saying to stop lecturing altogether that is the furthest thing from the truth.  Jarvis stated that, “The lecture DOES have its place to impart knowledge and get us to a shared starting point.  But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of education.”  He goes on to state that “the problem is that we start at the end, at what we think students should learn, prescribing and preordaining the outcome: we have the list of right answers.  We tell them our answers before they have asked the questions.”


           So if lecturing is not the best form of disseminating information to students then what are some viable alternatives?    How can we blend the traditional lecture and new forms of information delivery techniques to stimulate learning for students and the instructor?  Wilson believes that students today want to be involved.  They want to be active, not passive.  The “new reality” is that students are reading less and less. The National Education Association in a November 2007 article entitled, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence” stated that, “although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years.  There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans.  Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications.”

One way to stimulate thought is through the use of open source textbooks.  Students are more visual learners than in the past.  E-books will use technology students are familiar with and will stimulate questions.  Many open source textbooks are free to download and allow students to gather information from a wide range of scholars within a particular field.  If you can stimulate your students to come to class prepared then you as an instructor are ready to stimulate thought in the classroom.

Frank L. Lambert stated that one method to stimulate thought is to provide students a guide as to what is important in a particular concept.  The student could read a day’s assignment and know what to look out for as the key points, realizing that the professor is not going to have an outline on the board or screen.  The instructor could then ask key questions to stimulate thought.  Eubank proposes that alternatives to lecturing involve the use of discussion, debate, Q &A, and problems solving.

I taught Group Communication class for several years.  One method I found very helpful for stimulating learning was having the students take an active role in their individual as well as team success.  I divided the textbook into units mainly consisting of no more than 4 chapters/concepts.  I would assign each group a concept.  They would develop a proposal, research the topic and then use movie clips, PowerPoint, and handouts.  The students would then develop a speech and present their findings to the class.  I would only lecture on the material I felt was important that was not covered by the student.  They would be graded on their knowledge of the topic and their ability to do research.  So learning did not simply come from lecture but from the students as well.  I would also have them develop possible examination questions.  I would write the test and reserve the right to edit or change or strengthen the questions.  But they quickly learned to take ownership of the material.

I have a colleague at Kirkwood Community College who utilizes a similar method in her classes.  Students meet together once a week or so for “lecture”.  Students during the rest of the week meet as a team in the campus library where they are assigned the task of researching the topic.  Students also use movie clips to demonstrate concepts.  The class critiques the presentations and a rubric is used by the instructor to grade the assignment.


     Should the traditional lecture format become a thing of the past?  I hope this analysis shows that some form of lecture is essential to the success of the student in the classroom.  But this analysis also proves that lecture alone is not the best way to teach students.  This debate is something that will not end anytime soon.  But I do feel that instructors need to choose a combination of methods that will make the classroom experience beneficial for all.  Don’t use a technique that is not comfortable for you.  Don’t alter your standards-bring your class up to your standards.

Works Cited

Bonwell, Charles C., and James A. Eison. “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.” Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <>.

Eubanks, Dave. “Alternatives to Lecturing.” Higher Education. 4 Feb. 2009. Web. 3 Mar. 2012. <>.

Jarvis, Jeff. “Hacking the Academy.” Lecturing Are Bullshit. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.

“To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.” National Endowment for the Arts. Nov. 1997. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <>.

Wilson, Craig. “Are Class Lectures Passé? Just Ask the Guy below.” USA Today 29 Feb. 2012: D-1. Print.

Young, Jeff. “Lecture Fail.” 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <>.

2 thoughts on “The Classroom Lecture: Is It a Tool Whose Time Has Come?

  1. The Atlantic has published an article similar to this post at I believe it states that a good lecture is always helpful, but how many teachers lecture well? And how do they know?

  2. The Atlantic has published an article similar to this post at I believe it states that a good lecture is always helpful, but how many teachers lecture well? And how do they know?

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