What is the purpose of a lecture? | What is the role of a a lecturer?

Most of us have probably been to a lecture. We know what it looks like and sounds like and could say (with a reasonable amount of certainty) if we were in one or not. But what exactly constitutes a lecture? What defines a lecture? This is actually quite hard to specify, especially as we increasingly move away from traditional lecture formats in favour of online learning, flipped classrooms etcetera.

A lecture might be a place where we transmit information, foster curiosity, introduce basic concepts, explain complex topics, provide students with examples, stimulate critical thinking or even provide moral guidance. It may take a narrative form. Or not. But at its most simple and straightforward, a lecture should be a situation in which teachers create the conditions for learning.

Learning itself is a slippery concept but, put very simply, learning means gaining new knowledge. Knowledge can be atomistic (separate and disparate) or holistic. And the ways that we can approach learning can be deep (i.e. related to personal experience, motivation etc.) or surface (e.g. learning to the test). In a good lecture, we would hope to create a situation in which learners had the possibility to gain holistic knowledge via deep approaches to learning. But how exactly do we do that?

Jean Piaget’s (1936) theory of cognitive development explains how individuals build understanding. Piaget posits schemas as the building blocks of knowledge. Rather than knowledge being simply transmitted to us, we evaluate each new piece of knowledge to see how it fits with our existing schemas (ways in which we understand the world). If the new knowledge fits, we assimilate it. If the new knowledge conflicts with our schemas, we must work out how to accommodate it. This is an uncomfortable process and may involve some cognitive dissonance. However, it is an important part of knowledge development.

Based on Piaget’s ideas about learning, we can make the case that a “good lecture” (in which learners have the possibility to gain holistic knowledge via deep approaches to learning) might consist of the following steps:

  1. Activate prior knowledge
  2. Highlight the relevant context (schema)
  3. Provide ways to integrate new knowledge into the schemas
  4. Emphasise the need to update one’s schema

There are likely as many different ways of accomplishing each of these steps as there are teachers. None is right and none is wrong. There are just more successful and less successful approaches depending on the particular context and the particular learners. We (teachers) cannot make learners learn. We can only create situations in which learning is a likely outcome. But having an idea of what we are aiming for must surely increase our chances!

Reflecting on all of this and on my own learning from earlier pedagogical courses reminded me that intended learning outcomes are key to designing a good lecture. If we don’t know what learning we want to take place, how can we create situations in which that learning can take place?

What is a lecture?