Are lectures worth attending?

Contemporary studies have shown that lectures just don’t compare to other learning methods. Is this really the case? Read on to find out.
James Davis
James Davis
Team PostgradAustralia

Tutorials and seminars are easy to understand the importance of. They help you learn by actively engaging with course content. Lectures, on the other hand, are a passive experience that studies show could be hurting your GPA.

A University of California study published in the PNAS mid 2014 found that learning methods designed to make students active participants rather than passive ones could improve academic performance by 1.5x and reduce failure rates. They came to this conclusion by analysing 225 prior studies that reported on student pass/fail rate changes between traditional lectures and active methods. “This is a really important article,” said Harvard physicist Eric Mazur to Science Magazine. “The impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.”

So what are the differences between active and passive participation? An active participant asks questions, gets involved in discussion and solves problems, whereas a passive one merely listens and takes notes.

“...It’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.”

By these definitions you’d think the easy solution is to simply ask questions in lectures, but even this is becoming insufficient due to the fact many students either watch them online or don’t attend at all. A study from University College Dublin analysed attendance rates across institutions worldwide, finding science and mathematics classes to have a 48% attendance rate in the morning and 50% in the afternoon. ANU corroborated these findings in a 2015 study originally intended to give lecturers adequate classrooms, which soon became an investigation of just how low lecture attendance rates were getting.

Even if you are part of the 50% attending your lectures and trying to be active, it’s still suboptimal because you’re not having a discussion; you’re primarily listening to a stream of information that you have no input in. A twenty year old paper from the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education assessed students on topics taught using active versus passive methods, rating them based on exam results and personal satisfaction. In all cases, students preferred topics taught by active means while simultaneously improving their exam results. Fast forward to today and the MIT is still finding similar preferences among their student body, calling out for changes to be made.

There’s a reason why lectures are so widely used, however. Correlations have been found between lecture attendance and improved academic performance, but this is far from proof of causation. “It would be an exaggeration to claim that these results ‘prove’ that attending lectures increases student learning and how they thus perform in assessed work,” a professor from the University of Leeds said of their own study on the matter. “There remains the concern that attendance is still a proxy for the most important missing determinants of student performance, namely effort and motivation.” This is what MIT found of their students; ‘cheap’ methods of gaining attendance such as making lectures mandatory were no substitute for providing students with the motivation to go of their own volition. Right now, that means getting them involved.

Whether or not lectures are comparable to tutorials or seminars depends entirely upon the extent to which they exercise active learning. If lectures were to involve viewer input through questions and discussion, then they could be just as fruitful.