The value of the lecture

The lecture is commonly dismissed as an outdated form of pedagogy, both in relation to opportunities opened by new technologies and in terms of emphasis on student activity and discussion. I argue that the lecture is a key part of academic work, and should be seen as a core pedagogy—obviously supplemented by tutorials, assignments, projects, and activities. A lecture plays two essential roles that no other pedagogical form can play:

  • First: an expert provides synthesis and overview of a key topic, which focuses attention on the analytic cutting edge, or key concepts of a particular area.
  • Second: an intellectual (or budding intellectual) community is gathered, the group’s attention is focused on a symbolic object. Sharing a physical space, and sharing a focus on an object, is what builds energy and excitement, what charges up an idea.

A systematic introduction to the key issues in an area can be found in a well-designed distance or mixed mode course. However, such an introduction lacks the energy of the face-to-face encounter, where both lecturer and students are focused on and absorbed by the same object. You can get the second from discussion group, which can be very heated and emotional, but the focus of emotional energy is not on key concepts as expounded by an expert. A good lecture combines these two key ingredients. This is why, as sociologist Randall Collins argues (1998, p. 25), the “… key intellectual event is a lecture or a formal debate, a period of time when an individual holds the floor to deliver a sustained argument on a particular topic.”

The physical assembly of people who are gathered to focus on a particular text or set of ideas has been at the core of the development and transmission of knowledge for over 2000 years. After the invention of printing, it should have been increasingly the case that intellectuals stopped meeting each other, but there is no such trend. The basic form of intellectual communities has remained much the same for over two thousand years: key intellectuals cluster in groups today, as they did in the 400s BCE. The printing press did not make face-to-face interaction redundant, and Facebook and chat rooms will not either. Contact through face-to-face interaction is not incidental, but integral to the development of knowledge.

Of course, not all teaching is good, and not all lectures are good. Everything can be done better or worse. Nonetheless, I argue that a good lecture can achieve what other good pedagogies cannot achieve, and we should be careful of losing something valuable in the constant search for innovation.

Elaborations of this argument can be found in Allais (2013, 2014).


Allais, S. (2013). Losing contact with students in large class teaching. In D. Hornsby, R. Osman, & J. De Matos Ala (Eds.), Teaching Large Classes: Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Quality Tertiary Education. Stellenbosch: SUN Press.

Allais, S. (2014). A critical perspective on large class teaching: the political economy of massification and the sociology of knowledge. Higher Education, 2014(67), 721–734.

Collins, R. (1998). The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.