Defenders of the lecture will often point to a widely popular lecture-style format found easily on the internet – TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, and Design Talks). These talks typically combine the spoken word with various media (audio, video, image), thus resembling something similar to a modern university lecture.
Yet, TED Talks also keep a relatively tight time cap at 18 minutes, more than halving the typical university class period. What is our aspiring-lecturer to do?
The emerging consensus response seems to advocate for 10 to 15 minute blocks of “classic” lecture (i.e. straight presenting) divided by some sort of class activity where students reflect upon or apply the lecture content. This blend is often represented as an interactive lecture-tutorial hybrid, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or sometimes “lecturettes.” The problematic assumption is that students will reset their internal “attention clocks” through these interspersed activities. The logic follows that we then have another 15 minutes before students attention precipitously wanes. Tick-tock.
I would like to reflect on this for a moment. To me, this seems to conflate two different complaints against the classic lecture. The teaching-learning activities (TLAs) are typically implemented in order to allow the students to deepen their knowledge of the concepts – this is what transforms the passive learning environment of the classic lecture into the active learning environment of the flipped classroom.
The attention span of students seems to be a very different matter. A recent analysis offered by Neil Bradbury criticized the magical 10-15 minute window, summarily noting:
“A review of the literature on this topic reveals many discussions referring to prior studies but scant few primary investigations. Alarmingly, the most often cited source for a rapid decline in student attention during a lecture barely discusses student attention at all. Of the studies that do attempt to measure attention, many suffer from methodological flaws and subjectivity in data collection. Thus, the available primary data do not support the concept of a 10- to 15-min attention limit. Interestingly, the most consistent finding from a literature review is that the greatest variability in student attention arises from differences between teachers and not from the teaching format itself.”
Interestingly, and as other recent scholarship has shown, the ability to captivate the audience is not due to the format of the learning environment, but the performative ability of the instructor. Unsurprisingly, a bad performance can turn even a 5 minute lecture into an interminable affair. Eleanor Sandry makes an astute observation that educational research frequently excludes personality and rhetorical style from the quantitative evaluations of pedagogy, thus leaving the lecture to be uncharitably characterized as dead learning environment.
I do not think it was accidental that the champion of the didactic argumentative style, Aristotle, was also the champion of rhetorical techniques (noted in our last post). Cool-headed persuasion was most effective when it was combined with emotional flourish. Academic writing, for better or worse, trains young scholars to avoid emotive expression in favor of logical argumentation. Yet, writing a good argument is not necessarily a good template for crafting a good lecture that holds attention.
Thomas Buchanan and Edward Palmer also pose an interesting critique on the anti-lecture paradigm – much of the current research focus on STEM disciplines, especially the applied sciences, where skill acquisition and demonstration is paramount. What of disciplines where interpretation is the primary skill? It can be argued that the act of interpretation necessitates the acquisition of large amounts of contextualizing information – of which the lecture is most effective at disseminating. Additionally, in the disciplines of history or religious studies, narrative creation and story-telling is not only central to their research agendas, but also in their classroom deployment, thus making lecture a valuable modality of pedagogy.
Outside of having students engaging with higher-order thinking, a better argument for breaking up a lecture into segments than attention (or performance) deficit involves “cognitive load,” the idea that our working memory can manage a relatively limited amount of information at one time. Load increases based on the difficulty of the material itself (intrinsic cognitive load), the elements that aid in the information processing (germane cognitive load), and the elements the potentially distract from the information (extraneous cognitive load). Cognitive capacity diminishes not at a set point in time, but at a certain threshold of information – thus it is advised that we pay closer attention to the difficulty and amount of information provided, than merely the time it takes to present it.
Grist for the Mill: I am in no position to settle these arguments – and certainly wish to read more stimulating research – but it seems to me that if your goal is to simply deliver data, especially to students who have very little background, then lecturing would be entirely sufficient. If you have any performance chops or can craft and tell a good story, that lecture could certainly last far longer than 10 or 15 minutes. More importantly, we should pay attention to the quantity and difficulty of the data, and intersperse activities accordingly so students can work with the data in more encompassing ways in order to form a better comprehension of it.
Yet, if we want students to do more than simply recognize and recall facts, or in other words to perform certain skills (such as interpretation, analysis, assessment, and so forth) we need to allow them to practice those skills in a more active classroom environment and this is where lecture falls flat.
*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.
 E.g. Freisen 2014, Bradbury 2016.
 The concept of the lectorial, punctuated with 10-15 minutes blocks, is discussed in Cavanagh 2011.
 Suggestions for livening-up a lecture include watching motivational or charismatic speakers (Bradbury 2016), and incorporating paralinguistic expression and kinesics (non-verbal voice qualities and bodily movement)(Sandry 2006).
 I am unaware of any studies that look at the reception of the classic lecture that is ritually delivered at almost every academic conference. If there are apologists among my readers who claim that you enjoy conference lectures, and consequently students should learn to enjoy all classroom lectures, please let me suggest this. The conference papers you enjoyed are either performed by charismatic scholars or are related to your deeply invested academic interests. Imagine at a conference I asked you to take copious notes on a poorly performed presentation of which you had no background knowledge. Then, after you sat bleary-eyed through the presentation, I would give you a quiz on it. Or even better, make you write a paper about it. Performance and motivation matters for lecturing and learning.
 Buchanan & Palmer 2017.
- Bradbury, Neil A. 2016. “Attention Span During Lectures: 8 Seconds, 10 Minutes, or More?” Advanced Physiological Education, Vol. 40, pp. 509–513
- Buchanan, Thomas & Palmer, Edward. 2017. “Student Perceptions of the History Lecture: Does this Delivery Mode have a Future in the Humanities?” Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 1-17.
- Cavanagh, Michael. 2011. “Students’ Experiences of Active Engagement through Cooperative Learning Activities in Lectures,” Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 23–33.
- Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.” Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
- Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.