The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1 Introduction

“The first duty of a lecturer: to hand you after an hour's discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks, and keep on the mantelpiece forever.” – Virginia Woolf
“College is a place where a professor's lecture notes go straight to the students' lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either” – Mark Twain
“Academic chairs are many, but wise and noble teachers are few; lecture rooms are numerous and large, but the number of young people who genuinely thirst after truth and justice is small.” – Albert Einstein
“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep” – Albert Camus
“When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.” – Marcel Archard
​“Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners.” – Kingsley Amis
“The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatises, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
“My lecture was a complete success, but the audience was a failure.” – Anon

Lectures have been employed for hundreds of years as a platform for disseminating ideas and knowledge and for guiding and motivating students, and they continue to be a cornerstone of higher education practices today. Lectures can be defined as the delivery of a course through a series of presentations by academic staff members to a group of students, usually with visual prompts and aids. The term 'lecture' can encompass a range of styles, approaches and formats that will be investigated throughout this chapter. Some of these involve considerable student participation. Traditionally, however, lectures have involved the one-way transmission of course content from academics to students.

But lectures have more than a mere dissemination role. If their intention were merely to provide the students with basic information on the course, then there would be good reason simply to abandon them and provide a competent set of notes in their place. Lectures should also motivate and challenge students and give them insights. This is elegantly summarised by a student who attended Alfred Marshall’s lectures at the University of Cambridge at the turn of the century:

“He was certainly a unique teacher. He seemed to grip the mind of his hearer and force it through unaccustomed exercises, with many a violent jolt and breathless chase. He loved to puzzle and perplex you and then suddenly to dazzle you with unexpected light. ‘Ages of darkness and moments of vision’, was one description of his lectures, I remember. But the vision was worth it, and was not to be appreciated without the preliminary bewilderment…. What we brought away from Marshall’s lectures was certainly not any ordered knowledge of economics, not enough, as he had predicted, for passing an examination, but perhaps an awakened interest, a little more insight, the memory of some moment of illumination and a sense of the importance of economics.” (As quoted in Groenewegen 1995, p.314)

This quotation captures a key potential difference between a lecture and a textbook exposition. Of course not everyone is capable of holding an audience spellbound throughout a lecture, especially when it is part of the routine of learning. Nonetheless, lectures can be used as an effective means of promoting student learning even if the lecturer is not inspirational. However, they can also be tedious and of little benefit to students. In large part, the success of a lecture depends on how engaged students are and whether it is providing an active learning environment.

This handbook chapter will investigate the costs and benefits of different types of lecture, and will suggest ways in which the traditional lecture can be improved. Although the focus of the chapter is on lecturing, it is not considered in isolation from the other teaching and learning formats that are likely to accompany and complement it.