The "Lecture Fail" Project Finds that Most College Lectures are Mind-Numbing and Dull

Barry Lenson

The “Lecture Fail” Project Finds that Most College Lectures are Mind-Numbing and Dull

College Lectures are Mind-Numbing and Dull

  • “I’ve had a lot of boring class lectures. I’d say most of my classes are pretty boring.”
  • “The majority of my lectures are boring, and the inspiring lectures are in the minority.”
  • “If I have to sit in a lecture and there’s a PowerPoint and the professor stands in front of the class and reads word for word off the slide, I’d fall asleep. That’s not learning.”

Those three quotes come from videos that students have submitted to “Lecture Fail: Students Share their Critiques of College Teaching,” an ongoing project that is being conducted online by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The project is simple in concept, yet powerful. College students log in and upload videos in which they describe their experiences in lecture courses. If you’d like to see these videos for yourself, CLICK HERE and go to the project page. You can even fire up your webcam, create a video of your own, and upload it there.

Even though the project is still in progress, it has already concluded that low-quality lectures often result from “. . . professors’ poor use of slide software that dumps too much information on students in a less-than-compelling fashion.”

If Lectures Aren’t Working . . .

If lectures aren’t working, why don’t colleges simply stop offering them? There are some simple answers to that question...

  • Lectures keep the cost of teaching low. In a lecture format, one professor can deliver a learning “product” to as many as several hundred students in just an hour.  You can do the math on that. If one professor is paid the equivalent of $500/hour and can deliver learning to 250 students in that hour, the cost of that experience amounts to only $2.00 per student per hour. Compare that to a much more expensive classroom experience, in which 10 students meet with that professor in a small classroom. In that scenario, the professor is paid $500/hour and only delivers learning to 10 students; that inflates the cost to $50 per student per hour.  Colleges typically offer those learning experiences too in more advanced classes that are offered to students who are majoring in a subject. But to keep their budgets balanced, colleges are forced to keep lectures part of the mix.
  • Lectures maximize the “bang for the buck” that colleges get from their most important professors. If a university has a “big name” professor, he or she can address a lecture that is attended by a roomful of students. Then graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) can teach sections of the class that are attended by smaller groups of students.
  • Lectures are efficient. When it comes to delivering the course content for more general courses – like the core curriculum courses that all students are required to take at most colleges – lectures work well, and cost-effectively. Yet that doesn’t explain why colleges allow lectures to be boring recitations of PowerPoints. There are, in fact, many inspiring lecturers on the faculties of most colleges and universities. So it shouldn’t be terribly hard to make lectures fascinating, just by making sure that strong lecturers are assigned to give lecture classes. Yet the videos that have been submitted to The Chronicle’s “Lecture Fail” project indicate that some colleges are not doing that.

What about Online Learning?

More colleges are also discovering that online learning offers a cost-efficient way to deliver their educational “product” to a large number of students.

Is that a good or a bad thing? The answer is, it depends on the quality and nature of the course materials that colleges are using in their college computer labs or on their intranets, or online.  There are excellent online courses, and there are others that are no better than boring lectures. In fact, some colleges are using course materials in their labs that are simply boring videos of boring professors delivering boring lectures.

But here’s a radical thought. Why not make instruction inspiring, interesting, engaging, and high-quality? After all, excellent instruction can be delivered in a lecture, in a small seminar, or on a computer monitor.

The really important question isn’t really how content is delivered, but what the content is.

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