Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Has the mass lecture still got a place in university teaching?

Eamon Murphy
School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages
Curtin University of Technology
The mass lecture has come under severe criticism in recent years. Among the many criticisms is that the lecture is either an ego trip or a highly stressful experience for the lecturer and a boring waste of time for the student. Lectures, it is argued, encourages passivity and leads to shallow learning.

This paper argues that the lecture still has a very important role to play in university teaching, both today and in the foreseeable future. The research for the paper is based on interviews with exemplary teachers and their students. Both lecturers and students find lectures useful and valuable teaching and learning experiences. They also point out, however, that many lecturers are not able to lecture effectively. Good lecturing is a highly complex process demanding a sophisticated range of organisation and presentation skills. The problem it seems lies not with the lecture as such but rather how the lecture is used, organised and delivered.


The mass lecture, the most dominant form of teaching since the foundations of universities, has come under increasing criticism in recent years. (See Gibbs 1982.) It is argued that lectures encourages passive learning. Too often a lecture is a one way process of the lecturer talking and students either making aimlessly notes, chatting or dozing. According to one critic "most lecturers not only encourage but demand passivity among students" (Jacques 1997: 41). Many students become dependent upon their lectures who in turn become dependent upon their students' dependency (Jacques 1997). In other words, lecturing is too often a huge ego trip for the lecturers and a boring waste of time for students.

Other criticisms of the mass lecture include the fact that students lose concentration after a very short time, students read much faster than they listen and university administrators see lectures as an easy fix to limited resources. Having to give lectures in front of a large audience is also the most stressful activity that academics face (Radloff and Murphy 1992).

Despite the criticisms, the lecture still survives in universities. Even the most vehement critics of lectures admit "how indestructible the one-hour lecture as an institution appears to be, despite loads of evidence about its limitations" (Jacques 1997:41). It also appears that many lecturers and their students still regard lectures as a valuable way of teaching and of learning.

The research

During 1997 I interviewed ten exemplary lecturers drawn from a range of disciplines. The object of the research was to produce a practical manual for lecturers. (See Murphy, forthcoming.) The lecturers were drawn from a range of discipline areas: physics, arts and social sciences, education, law and health sciences. Those interviewed ranged from lecture B to vice-chancellor. Those that they lectured to ranged from first year students fresh to university to orthopaedic surgeons undergoing further professional development.

The interviews were semi-structured. Each lecturer was asked to answer a series of questions grouped under three main headings: the purpose of lectures, organising and structuring lectures, and the delivery. In addition, the lecturers were asked to comment on good models that they had experienced as students and to narrate any unusual or humorous incidents that they had experienced either as students or as lecturers.

In addition, 100 first year students were given an questionnaire that asked them to comment on lecturers and what they considered was a good lecture. A focus group of 20 second, third year and honours students discussed their views on good lecturing. This paper draws also draws upon some of the extensive literature on effective lecturing and presentations skills.

The findings of the research

In spite of the criticism of lectures, both the lecturers and the students who were interviewed strongly agreed that lectures were both useful and, in many cases, were exciting, enjoyable and very worthwhile teaching and learning experiences It seems that it is premature to dismiss the lecture as a potentially important teaching strategy. Much of the criticism of the lecture has come from education researchers and writers who do not normally teach in the classroom. It is important to consider their criticism in the light of what the practitioners and students think.

Both lecturers and students, however, issue words of caution. Giving a good lecture demands a wide range of complicated planning and delivery skills. It seem, at least from the students' comments, that many lecturers simply have not got adequate lecturing skills One of the major criticism of lectures, for example, was there was no clear structure. It was disturbing to note that students felt that many of their lecturers were disorganised, boring and uncomfortable talking to large groups. Their criticisms are backed up by education researchers. As one prominent educator puts it: "Perhaps the most compelling argument against lecturing is that few lecturers do it well, many just do it passably, and quite a lot do it badly indeed" (Ramsden 1992: 155).

It is evident that lecturing is, to some extent, very much an individual process. One of the things that I learnt when interviewing lecturers was that each had their own lecturing styles. Some, for example, liked to carefully plan the closing of their lectures. Others were happy simply to finish and to walk out. Some lecturers confessed to still getting very nervous even after years of successful lecturing. Others state that nerves are no longer a problem. Some stressed the value of learning objectives. Others plunged straight into the lecture.

While there was no consensus about the best single way to lecture, there did emerge very clearly some common keys to good lecturing . Almost all the lecturers that I interviewed, for example, stressed the importance of careful planning as one of the keys to success All without exception stressed the importance of showing enthusiasm as the key factor in successfully getting the audience on side. All thought that humour was extremely important in breaking down the barriers between lecturer and students. And all strongly emphasized the emotional context of lecturing which is often ignored in books on lecturing.

There were also some minor differences between the disciplines. For example, lecturers in the physical sciences were more likely to use diagrams on the whiteboard to show relationships than social science lecturers. Historians were more inclined to provide summaries at the end of the lectures than physicists. These differences have been noted in other studies. (See, for example, Brown and Bakhtar 1983.) The differences, however, between the disciplines were minor. What I found somewhat surprising arising from the interviews was that the lecturers from very diverse disciplines said very much the same sorts of things. It was quite strange, for example, hearing a physic and a history lecturer saying the same thing using the very same language. Too often at university we emphasize the differences between colleagues from other disciplines rather than what we have in common.

Again, it was uncanny to hear first years students saying the very same sorts of things as highly experienced lecturers. (See student comments below.) It was very clear from the responses to questionnaires that students are very perceptive: they know what is good lecturing. And they very appreciate the lecturers who are prepared to put in the time and effort to present good lectures As one of the student interviewees put it: "You don't have to be brilliant. Students are very grateful if you are competent."

Why give lectures?

One of the major criticisms of lectures is that they are a very ineffective way of providing information. A good textbook can do the job much better. It is important, therefore, that lecturers think very carefully about why they are going to lecture. I find, for example, that a lecture period can be used to provide extensive feedback on essay writing.

The lecturers that I interviewed identified the following good reasons for giving lectures:

What the students said

The following are a sample of the comments that a group of first year students made about lecturing. It was interesting to note that most of them focused on the same basic issues that the experienced lectures did.

What advice would you give to lecturers?

List ways that lecturers could help you learn better in lecturers.

What do you consider are the characteristics of a good lecturer?

If you were asked to advise a lecturer on what not to do in lectures, what would you say?

Conclusion and recommendations

The research findings strongly indicate that, despite the criticisms, the mass lecture still has a valuable role to play in university teaching. The research also suggests that many lecturers need to improve their basic skills for lectures to be effective. It seems, therefore, that much of the criticism of lectures arises from the fact that lecturers have not been adequately trained to lecture effectively, do not have a clear purpose in mind for giving lectures and lack basic presentation skills.

Some suggestions for improvement:

Good lecturing will continue to have an important role to play in university teaching but the overall general standard of lecturing urgently needs to be improved.


Bligh, D. A. (1971). What's the Use of Lectures? Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Cannon, R. A. (1988). Lecturing. Kensington: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.

Brown, G. & Bakhtar, M. (eds) (1983). Styles of Lecturing Research and Faculty Perspectives. Loughborough: Loughborough University of Technology.

Gibbs, G. (1982). Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing. SCEDSIP Occasional Paper 8.

Jacques, D. (1997). Myths that must go. The Australian, Higher Education, 22 October: 41-42.

Race, P. Lecturing, http://www.lgu.ac.uk/deliberations/lecturing/

Radloff, A. & Murphy, E. (1992). Teaching At University. Bentley: Curtin University.

Malouf, D. (1988). How to create and deliver dynamic presentations. Brookvale, NSW: Simon and Schuster.

Murphy, E. (forthcoming). Lecturing at University.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Please cite as: Murphy, E. (1998). Has the mass lecture still got a place in university teaching? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 228-232. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/murphy-a.html

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