Student Perspectives on the Value of Lectures

James R. Brawer, Ph.D., Marc Lener, B.Sc., Colin Chalk, MDCM, FRCPC

McGill University



Critics of the lecture methodology see it as an outmoded device for passive transfer of factual information. Defenders view it as critical, thought-provoking discourse. There is little data clearly supporting either view. Most significantly, the health professional student viewpoint is under-represented in the literature. We have, therefore, investigated the factors that motivate medical and dental students to attend non-compulsory lectures in the basic medical sciences. First year medical and dental students were asked to explain in writing why they attended lectures in a course in which the examinations are based entirely on a set of published notes. Thematic content analysis of the student responses was performed. Ten advantages to attending lectures emerged as dominant themes. These were reformatted as statements and arranged in a questionnaire asking students to indicate on a Likert scale the extent to which they agreed with each statement. The questionnaire was distributed to the new class of the following year. Most of the advantages were highly rated by the second class of students. Those that facilitate learning, e.g. providing focus or breadth, ranked higher than those that merely support learning (anxiety reduction). The advantage that ranked the lowest was time-efficiency, suggesting that students do not view the lecture as a particularly effective way to acquire factual information. We conclude that a substantial number of medical and dental students at McGill view lectures as a valuable multifaceted aid to learning.


For the past few decades, the lecture as a pedagogic methodology has been under attack. According to current conventional wisdom, lectures serve little purpose other than passive transfer of factual information1. They are inefficient, obsolete, and oppressive2,3. The lecture is, in part, a victim of a more general postmodernist disenchantment with the concepts of authority and hierarchy3. The status of the lecture has also suffered from rapidly developing technology that presumably liberates students and enables them to pursue and direct their own educations with minimal guidance from faculty.

The lecture methodology does have its partisans, albeit a minority, who are no less passionate than its detractors. They see the lecture, at its best, as a critical, thought-provoking discourse in which a seasoned expert shares knowledge, experience and insight3. They maintain that conceptual information is best conveyed by spoken communication and that the human presence of the lecturer, as well as the social context, contribute significantly to learning4.

In view of the relatively scant and inconsistent data supporting either side, it is difficult to make sense of this vehement, often vitriolic dispute. Using student performance as an indicator, the majority of comparative outcome studies show no significant differences between the efficacy of lectures and a variety of other pedagogic methods in terms of knowledge acquisition1. Ostensibly, lectures are less effective than other methods when the objective is the application of knowledge, development of thinking skills, or the modification of attitudes1 Although several more recent studies support this assertion5,6, others do not7-9.

The lecture controversy is largely centered on the perceptions of educators. There is little in the literature on the viewpoint of students, particularly those in health professional schools. The paucity of information on student perceptions precludes a complete, balanced and meaningful evaluation of the effectiveness of the lecture as a pedagogic methodology in medical and dental programs. As the beneficiaries of the educational enterprise, the judgment of students is unquestionably as important as that of education providers. We have, therefore, set out to address this issue by exploring the factors that motivate students to attend non-compulsory lectures in a course in which the examinations are based entirely on published notes. Our results indicate that a considerable number first year medical and dental students at McGill recognize a rich variety of pedagogic advantages in the lecture method and that they prioritize these benefits according to their perceived utility.


Phase 1

We began with a qualitative approach in order to survey student views on the value of lectures. The sample population consisted of 200 first-year medical and dental students enrolled in the neuroscience component of the basic medical science curriculum (Basis of Medicine) in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. The students have been informed that lectures are optional and that the examinations are based on notes distributed to the class. The sampling instrument was a single page questionnaire that asked the students to explain in their own words, on the reverse side of the page, why they attended lectures. The students were also asked to indicate their gender, prior educational experience, and level of lecture attendance. The questionnaire was pilot tested on five students from the course and distributed to the rest of the class during the last week of the course. The students were asked to return their questionnaires within a week.

Out of 200 questionnaires distributed, 50 responses were received. Thematic content analysis of the student responses was performed using a constant comparison technique adapted from grounded theory10. The individual responses were read independently by J.B. and M.L. in order to identify prominent themes. The readers then met to discuss their results and to reach a consensus. The list of themes was subsequently corroborated independently by C.C. who checked the themes against the student responses. In order to estimate the relative frequency of occurrence of the themes, all 3 investigators reread the responses and counted the occurrence of each theme. J.B. searched the responses for common trends and identified representative quotations.

Phase 2

Ten advantages to attending lecture emerged as prominent themes in the analysis performed in phase 1. These themes were reformatted as statements and arranged in a second questionnaire in which students were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with each statement using a Likert scale of 1-5. Each statement in the questionnaire was reviewed by members of the McGill Centre for Medical Education in order to insure that it best reflected the corresponding theme identified in phase 1. Students were also asked to indicate their level of lecture attendance.

The sample population was the first-year medical and dental students enrolled in the neuroscience component of Basis of Medicine in the year following the study in phase 1. The questionnaire was pilot tested on 5 students in the class and was then distributed to the whole class toward the end of the course. The students were asked to return the questionnaires by the end of the course. The average numerical response for each theme was then calculated.


Phase 1

The 50 responses varied in length and quality of content. Some contained no more than a few general phrases, whereas others consisted of substantive, well-structured narratives. Ten advantages of lecture attendance emerged as major themes. These themes, supported by representative quotes, are presented as follows:

1) Lectures provide focus and emphasis
“I find that I get an idea of the really important ideas….”, “I prefer lectures to other interactive formats… because lectures will cover the important points in a clear manner….”, “…I feel the instructor will highlight the most important issues….”

2) Multimodality exposure reinforces learning
“Lectures provide visual and multimedia aids that help with learning….”, “The biggest reason that I attend lecture is to hear the information….”, “from my experience, it is better to be exposed to the material in all sensory modalities….”

3) Lectures explain/resolve difficulties and complexities in the notes and other readings
“…speaker will explain the information in his or her own words, making it more accessible to us.”, “Attending a lecture on complex material allows you to get a different explanation…than what notes provide.”, “…there are always a few points that I still don’t understand having read the notes…hearing the professor explain or demonstrate it often clears up the confusion right away.”

4) Lectures provide an overview, “the big picture”
“Lectures provide a way to get an overview of the topic.”, “Listening to lectures lets me get the big picture….”, “A prof can help you connect the dots, help you see the big picture….”

5) Lectures provide exposure to experts/role models
“Experts in the field can provide up-to-date answers to questions and stimulate interest….”, “…lecture is a place where we begin to see how a doctor approaches learning the material…how someone more educated and with experience explains the information….”For me, professors are role models.”

6) Lectures are a time-efficient way to learn
“…it cuts the amount of study I have to do at home.”, “…our lecturers…in an hour could cover what it would take me over 2 hours to learn on my own.”, , “…attending lectures is a simple and efficient way to learn about something.”

7) Lectures encourage structure and discipline
”Attending lectures…gives me structure.”, “…it forces me to get out of bed in the morning.”, “…the class schedule encourages discipline in its approach to the material.”

8) Lectures provide depth and insight through examples not present in the readings
“Profs can express ideas that are difficult to convey on paper.”, “It is easier to grasp concepts because of the examples given in class….”, “Professors provide insight and examples which may not be conveyed in the notes.”, “

9) Lectures perpetuate a habitual/traditional way of learning – soothe anxiety
‘I am in the habit….”, ”I feel pressure (internal) to go and I am afraid to miss something.”, “I find that lecture is a “safe method” of learning…”, ”fear of missing a learning experience…”

10) Lectures provide a dynamic, interesting way to learn
“I enjoy lectures because they are a more engaging way of seeing the material….” ,”lectures help me because they are active and more interesting.”, ”…it presents the material in a potentially interesting manner.”

Themes 1) and 2) were encountered most frequently, 3)6) somewhat less frequently, and the remainder yet less so. Many of the narratives indicated that the value of lectures depended upon the quality of the lecturer. The most frequently stated characteristics of a good lecturer were animation, enthusiasm, passion, and clarity/organization.

Phase 2

The themes that emerged from the narrative responses were re-formatted as statements and the students were asked to indicate on a Likert scale of 1-5 the extent to they agreed with each statement (1- Strongly disagree, 2- Disagree, 3- Neutral, 4- Agree, 5- Strongly agree). We split 2 of the themes such that the second questionnaire contained 12 rather than 10 statements. One hundred and ten of the 200 students turned in answer cards. The results are presented in Table 1.

The average lecture attendance of the respondents was 4.3 on a scale in which 5 indicates attendance at all of the lectures and 4, attendance at most of the lectures.


An unexpectedly large number of perceived advantages to lecture attendance emerged from this study. Most of these advantages were highly rated when evaluated numerically in phase 2, confirming that many students regard the lecture method as a valuable multifaceted aid to learning. Advantages that facilitate learning, such as providing focus and overview ranked higher than those that that merely support learning, such as anxiety reduction and comfort, suggesting that the students regard lectures as actively contributing to the learning process. The low rating of anxiety reduction is at odds with a commonly held view that lectures are valued by students for the security that they provide. The relatively high standard deviation, however, indicates greater variability of student opinion than for most of the other themes. Inasmuch as the advantage that ranked the lowest was time efficiency, it would appear that the students do not consider the lecture to be an especially effective way to acquire factual information.

The value of the lecture method as perceived by students depends upon 2 important factors. A dominant theme emerging from the qualitative survey is the rather obvious point that the utility of a lecture depends heavily upon the quality of the lecturer. It would be valuable to know whether teachers who are highly rated by students design their lectures according to principles that correspond to the most highly rated advantages identified in this study.

A second important factor is the availability of an excellent source of factual knowledge. In the case of our neuroscience course, this consisted of a complete set of course notes written by the instructors. In the absence of adequate notes, text, or web material, the utility of lectures may well be skewed toward information acquisition. If the potential of the lecture method is to be fully realized, it is incumbent on educators to insure an adequate alternative source for course content.

As in most surveys, our response rate was not 100% (25% for phase 1, and 55% for phase 2), leaving open the question as to the views of the non-responding students. It is likely that many of these students were simply too busy to engage in a task of no direct benefit to them. It is also possible that non-respondents were indifferent or did not value lecture as an important learning tool. Nonetheless, a 55% response rate in phase 2 represents the attitudes of 110 individual learners for whom the lecture approach is a versatile and effective teaching method.

Course directors in the basic science component of the medical curriculum are often encouraged to consider replacing lectures with more interactive methods, such as small group learning. The underlying assumptions are; 1) that the two methods are essentially interchangeable and 2) small group learning is more effective than lecture. We have identified advantages to the lecture method, perceived by students, many of which may be unique to lectures. We have no information on the student perspective on the advantages of small group learning. Thus, it is not clear that lectures can be simply replaced by small group sessions with no loss to the students. We are currently addressing this issue by applying the methodology used in the present investigation to identify students’ views on the advantages of small group learning.


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Keywords: lectures, students, perceptions, pedagogy, effectiveness