Time to retire the sage on the stage?

For centuries universities in the west have based their learning methods on the lecture. The concept is simply enough: a lecturer stands in front of an often large group of students and delivers a monologue on his or her specialist topic. Students take notes. Then at some later point there is an examination, during which the students will try to recreate the lecturer’s approach to the subject, and maybe add some analysis or commentary if they dare. And if all of that works well, the student gets a degree.

Of course a good deal of lecturing is better than that, but some isn’t. Truly interactive lectures are still rare, and nowadays many student don’t turn up at these events at all. Still, this is a resilient form of teaching, and even now new university buildings will typically contain fairly inflexible (in terms of design and furnishing) lecture theatres. But is that justified?

A recent study in the United States has again called into question the usefulness of the lecture. It revealed that students taught principally through traditional lectures have a high failure rate and learn less effectively. This does not mean that teaching large classes is always bad, but rather than various ‘active learning’ and participation techniques will create a better pedagogical setting. This could include the use of technology, or breaking into smaller groups for more interactive discussions.

In reality many lecturers will already employ interactive learning techniques, even in large lecture classes. However, it is perhaps time to look again at how useful the lecture really is. Certainly in the internet age it can be seriously questioned whether lectures are needed where their purpose is simply to disseminate basic information. But it can also be asked whether a theatre-style lecture room is what is needed as we make use of newly gained pedagogical insights, and whether new academic buildings should contain such facilities at all. It is time to ask whether lecturers really should, well, lecture.

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9 Comments on “Time to retire the sage on the stage?”

  1. Eugene Gath Says:

    Many of these ideas are excellent but I would guess that they operate successfully in universities in the US where often single figure student-staff ratios are the norm. In an environment, where this number is in the mid-20s, such luxuries are impossible.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    It might be worth noting that the ‘study’ mentioned in the post refers only to STEM subjects.


    • Yes, that’s true. Do you think it would be different in the case of humanities or social science students?

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        I am not a believer in binaries, especially when it comes to the ‘two cultures’ and yet the ‘one fits all’ model makes no sense in a learning environment. Different subjects might require different (performative) teaching models. For the same reason, I am glad that the lecture as the default mode of delivering the main course content is put into question (no sympathy for the sage on the stage), equally though I don’t think that the ‘coach on the side’ is going to be the panacea to all our educational ills, as the evangelists of the ‘disruptive pedagogy’ would like us to believe.
        Not too long ago sociologist Frank Furedi wrote a piece in the Guardian ‘In praise of the university lecture’, I particularly liked his definition of the lecture as ‘scholarship in action’ see http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/dec/10/in-praise-of-academic-lecture
        Personally, I think there will always be a future for sages, provided that they uses multiple stages, the virtual and the real are already part of our everyday experience, why shouldn’t that be the case for learning?

  3. Lesley Diack Says:

    There would need to be a fundamental rethink of how to teach courses etc and managing student expectations as well. It would not be an impossibility but would need a few years of change management to work. But have we researched what the best way forward would be?? Having said all that I would love to try!

  4. Brendan Halpin Says:

    A lot of the discussion on this tacitly assumes lectures are the only mode of teaching. They never are: they are always part of a package with tutorials, labs, language classes, group project work, etc. Lectures provide a map, and a lot of the real learning is done in smaller groups. (Which is not to say that incorporating interaction in lectures is not a good thing.)

    Mind you, pressures of austerity have directly reduced this provision in Irish universities over the past 5 years. And worse, there’s a growing enthusiasm for video lectures — instead of a sage on a stage you have an MP4 of a sage on a stage that you can download and never watch!


  5. Thinking back I used to view ‘the lecture’ as the real thing, and book research as hit and miss: I could embroider with it but not map out the pattern.
    Interactive teaching I have no experience of: a recent pre-teaching introduced this to me as a concept. I immediately went back to the school lessons with work boxes, and doing classes. I used to hate them, I shuddered at the thought. Why? I thought better without them. Trying to cover all bases, multi-cognitive teaching – does it work? I would think only with smaller groups/classes.

    I am really glad of this posting though. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out, if left to itself, and not interfered with by politicians etc.

  6. Mark Says:

    The contrast in the PNAS study was between lectures as ‘continuous exposition’ and lectures with elements of active learning (e.g., clickers, worksheets). I am not sure this would be quite clear without access to the original study. Elements of active learning are surely commonplace in lectures – they are so in my experience.

    Also in response to Eugene, the best results were with classes with under 50 students. Few (around 7%) studies were carried out in classes over 200 students.

  7. V.H Says:

    Is it possible that the difference you speak is akin to a play on the stage and a film of the same play. It never really works when the play is recorded directly off the stage. Nor in truth does it work when the play is adapted for film.
    It isn’t so much that a lecture and a film of a lecture aren’t delivering the same data, it’s that they aren’t delivering the same sensory experience.
    So the question for you and those in your position hinges upon your willingness to invest hugely for a once-off major cinematographic production that works in the same way the film Saving Private Ryan explains D-Day for each lecture. Then each year, you simply play it to those taking the course. If the pricing model works why not have film or what-have-ya do the job. Just as long as it isn’t mistaking or equating one method with the other. Which was the experience I had doing some courses with Corsera.
    Et, is it possible what those students in the US got was quite simple sh-1+ and anything would’ve been better.


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