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Sometimes a glass is (almost) half full

Neil Kay, Professorial Fellow

Faculty Blog

There was an interesting article on the BBC News website last week that was brought to my attention by a colleague at EBS, Gerry Reilly . Its title says it all: ‘Shouldn't lectures be obsolete by now?’

The article starts by saying that the reason the lecture has refused to go away is not ‘because it’s particularly effective’ and provides statistics to ‘prove’ that.

But, as another member of our faculty, Professor Patrick O’Farrell, reminded us in a talk at EBS this week, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics (a quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli).

For example, the BBC article says that, ‘on average, attendance at lectures falls from 79% at the start of term to 43% at the end’.

Only 43%? That seems low. But actually a number less than 50% can be quite high depending on how you look at it and what purpose it serves. If I opened a cake shop in my town and only 43% of the population bought my cheesecake, I would be quite pleased. Donald Trump won only a bit more than 46% of the popular vote in the US presidential election in November 2016 and it did not work out too badly for him.

Another way of looking at that 43% is that it is quite high given that students have many other ways of learning the material covered in lectures, and that even lectures themselves are often available in handout, PowerPoint or video form.

The article also says, ’Research shows that students remember as little as 10% of their lectures just days afterwards.’ Call me abnormal, but I have difficulty remembering 10% of anything just days afterwards. And I know I am not abnormal, because other research shows that that 10% figure reflects a problem with long-term memory, not with lectures in particular. Students will typically have other support material to reinforce, replicate, practice and extend lecture material.  Lectures are a complement, not a substitute.

As the article says, ‘many predicted that digital technology would have killed off the lecture by now’. Well, many predicted in the 1950s that TV would have killed off cinema by now, and they were wrong.

So why am I looking at lectures as anything other than an inferior learning tool, given that the main business of EBS is distance learning? Surely I should be agreeing 100% with the thrust of the article?

There’s that problem with statistics again. I agree with, maybe, 70% of it. The reality is that some students like lectures and prefer to learn that way. Also, people learn differently (some visually, some aurally, and so on).

We still offer lectures in some modes at EBS, so it is important to know why some students prefer them. Also, even when we are offering courses via distance learning, it is important to know whether we should be trying to replicate some of the features of lectures (such as a linear narrative) or trying completely different methods – or providing a mix. That is what some research led by Barbara Jamieson  here at EBS has been looking at, and some of the results are already being reflected in our programmes.

So what is the answer to the BBC’s question ‘Shouldn’t lectures be obsolete by now?’

The answer is that it is the wrong question! The right question is ‘How do people learn?’ And there is no definitive answer to that, any more than there is to whether people prefer TV to cinema – or how they will vote.