Debating the lecture: Only if students are inspired – An astute academic’s perspective from the 1960s

Henry A Bent was well-known as a chemistry lecturer at the Department of Chemistry, North Caroline State University in the 1960-70s. So famous in these quarters, that he is known for Bent’s Rule

In 1969 he published a paper, which is available online,  entitled Why Lecture?

The paper begins with the statement:

For students who can read and for teachers who can write, a formal lecture is often an inconvenient, financially costly and unreliable device for transferring information from a lecturer to student.

Bent undertook a study on the purpose and benefit of the lecture, considering the perspective of the students and the teachers. In the era before the digital age he makes some insightful comments, that reinforce the benefits of the printed word  as place for deep learning, and draws the conclusion that it is both the inspiration for further learning and the gathering together that make the lecture relevant.

The printed word “is superior to the spoken word” in a number of ways:

Availability to students

Convenience as to time and location

Value, as a permanent reference

Technical accuracy

Ease of scanning

Bent argues that despite the reasons listed above, teachers continue to lecture. So he asked students Why lecture? They replied:

There is the ease of learning and enjoyment of lectures. Some find it more interesting to listen than to read.

Lectures can arouse curiosity. When presented with a new topic or information for the first time the lecture can spark interest in the subject.

Break from monotony of solid reading. Students expressed that it provided an alternative means to just reading and note-taking. It also enabled the teacher to cover material at a slower pace and allow for questions.

He asked the teachers, master teachers at colleges and universities, Why lecture?

Inspiration: “It provides a means for personal stimulation and excitement which is not present on the printed page”. To be effective the lecture needs to be characterised by:

Being inspirational,

Bringing some personality and life to the delivery,

Conveying excitement about the discipline,

Being informative

…and being, yes, that’s right,


Relationship: “I can find no suggestion that there is any substitute for the personal interaction between the student and teacher in learning really challenging material” The students get to know and respect the ‘person’ of lecturer, then effective learning occurs.

Connection: “Polyani speaks of ‘the primitive sentiment of fellowship’ and ‘the emotional comfort of the flock’” The effectiveness of the lecture as a learning environment is directly related to the relationship with the lecturer, but also the connections that build amongst the group members “Many are the instances in which the improvement of conviviality is deliberately advanced for the sake of such advantageous results.

Professional role-modelling: “I think at best a lecture can be a demonstration of how a professional thinks about a problem, can be an interesting and enjoyable experience, it can be inspirational to students to go and do likewise.”

Beyond the topic at-hand: “there is more to learning than the content of a series of course.” The lecture is an opportunity to provide information and insight that cannot be accessed from printed material. Speaking one-to-many is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

The conclusions are interesting, as the lecturers and Bent state:

“Basically, listening to a lecture is a passive experience; whereas real learning requires an aggressive, affirmative posture and attitude”

“Ideally, lectures are a prelude to, not a substitute for, the hard work of independent study.”

“Lectures have a vital but limited role to play.”

“Broadly speaking, it would appear that the chief function of a lecturer…is to inspire students”

There is one last point the Bent makes.

“Could we not take fuller advantage of the fact that students have a greater educational impact on students than do their teachers?” He argues that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Henry A Bent would fit right into the 21stC classroom.

So if you engage in teacher-talk here are the rules:

20 minutes maximum

Make it interesting, inspiring and engaging and even entertaining

Help students get to know you as a real person

Encourage a sense of connection and community

Debating the lecture: If so, how long should teachers talk?

The Lecture: The process by which the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either*

The term ‘lecture’, generally relates to university, where high level concepts are poured into empty vessels on a regular basis. However, for this discussion it also applies to any learning context where information/knowledge is transferred by the voice of one person to the ears of many.

How long should lecture be? The rise of the TED talk is interesting to think about.

There is definitely a place for expert knowledge and ideas to be shared in a one-to-many context and the TED-people are very smart at packaging thought-provoking and challenging ideas in an entertaining way (that’s what the ‘E’ in TED stands for). As a result, millions of people find out about a topic, from a knowledgeable expert in a 20 minute presentation.

TED talks cover a vast array of social, scientific, educational, spiritual and news-worthy topics. Friends and colleagues are regularly referring to and recommending TED talks on a whole range of subjects. These talks shape thinking and shake mindsets, all in 20 minutes.

Think about Ken Robinson’s talk. His first one from 2006 ‘…schools kill creativity’ is the most watched, to date, with well-over 8 million viewings on the TED site. It has shaped and inspired educators around the world, I repeat, all in 20 minutes. The increased impact of these lectures, is that they are not just in one place at one time, but are online and available for viewing at any time.

In researching this subject I stumbled across an interesting post by a writer and ‘lecturer’ on calculus from the University of Illinois, J. J Uhl, entitled: Why (and how) I teach without long lectures, He writes:

Simply put, today’s students do not get much out of long lectures, no matter how well they are constructed. The material comes too fast and does not sink in well. The students of the past responded by becoming quiet scribes. Today’s students demand more action and accountability.

So if a good lecture is 20 minutes long and you have an hour, what should you do?

  1. Realise that the transference of knowledge in the lecture has limited capacity, so plan the time carefully
  2. Get the people talking, engaging with each other and grappling with the ideas presented, this is when the deep learning really occurs
  3. Understand that the role of the teacher is changing

On this last point, there is a much deeper matter to think about, the place of the subject-specialist teacher in today’s education. Many teachers feel deeply that their value is in their own content expertise, yet there are so many places where students can now access knowledge. Where does this leave the subject-specialist teacher. The important thing to acknowledge is that even though the role of the teacher is changing, their input into the lives of young people is even more important, but it’s a little different in the 21stC.

The more I think about the place of the lecture in today’s education, the more I am convinced that access to good lectures that are short and delivered by engaging presenters have important value for learning, but by ‘access’ I mean not necessarily in the same room and they are definitely only one part of the learning process.