Yngve Høiseth

Personal website

To Lecture or Not to Lecture: A Letter to Professors

Dear professors,

I recently returned to university after working for almost five years. While I’m largely happy to be back, I was surprised to find no noticeable change in your teaching methods. I would have expected ideas like the flipped classroom to take hold in the intervening years.

I believe that with improved methods, I could learn more, spend less time studying, or some combination of the two. Furthermore, I believe that the same applies to your teaching efforts: You could achieve more and/or spend less time.


My wish is that you update your methods in light of the research that has been done on learning and use some of the new technical tools that are available.

Why do I ask you to do this? I’ve listed my reasons below, along with some possible objections. I want to be brief, so I make them in a sweeping manner. If you think I’m wrong and you have good evidence, I’ll update my beliefs (and this text).

Most lecturers are far worse than the best

Good lectures are rewarding – the great ones are even inspiring. Bad lectures are soul-sucking. Average lectures are boring, and I learn little. Most of you are somewhere around average.

Many lectures by good and great lecturers are available online. See, e.g., Khan Academy or Coursera. Given that great lectures are available, most of you should not lecture at all. Only outliers should. The rest of you should instead point us to the relevant lectures online.

We may not need lectures at all. I learn a lot just by reading and working my way through textbooks. However, I often find it easier to follow an expert’s oral explanation, so I wouldn’t want to rely only on books.

Many don’t like getting up before seven

Quite a few lectures are early in the morning, presumably because of limited lecture hall capacity. You’ve told me you don’t like this, and I know that most students hate getting up early. We are almost done with linear TV in favor of streaming when we want. That should be the model for lectures, too.

There are other good reasons for why a fixed time and place is impractical. I may be travelling, visiting the doctor or have other lectures that conflict with yours.

Automate repetitive tasks

Every semester, you duplicate a lot of effort from a previous semester. In business, I learned that repetitive tasks should be automated, outsourced or delegated in order to save time and/or increase quality. For example. rather than manually testing an entire software system every time I make a change, I write some automated tests that do this for me. Thankfully, you can leave lecturing to the outliers. They’ve already done the work.

You may lose some swag

Standing in front of a lot of people who are at least apparently listening to you can be exhilarating. You’ll lose that, but I think it’s worth it.

You’re painful to pause or rewind

When I miss any of your points, I ask you to rewind. But I can only do that so much before you and my fellow students start hating me. So I only do it at most a couple of times per lecture. When you’ve asked a question, I’d like to pause and think about it. If it’s a mathematical problem, I’d like to try it myself first. But that’s damn difficult to do with your live performance.

Fortunately, these problems have been solved with books and recorded video.

Students learn at varying speeds

When you’re lecturing to a group of students, you need to pick a single pace. If all students were identical, that would be fine. But in practice, one student’s ideal pace varies from the next student’s. So, we end up with a situation where the pace works for some students, but many end up bored or frustrated.

Again, books and recorded lectures solve this issue because we can pause, rewind and even control the playback speed.

Lectures are OK for meeting other students

I not only want to learn, I also want to get to know my fellow students. Lectures sort of work for that purpose. We’re all in the same room together, we sit next to each other, and we talk in the breaks. But the process would be greatly accelerated if we worked together, debated each other, etc. You could, instead of lecturing, use formats which allowed for these kinds of interactions between students.

A lecture is no guarantee that people have internalized what you said

I’ve heard some of you say that you want to lecture because then you can guarantee that the students know the material. I’m sorry, but that’s wishful thinking. I can easily let my mind wander during lectures – in fact, I often do.

I need deliberate practice

What are you supposed to do with your now freed-up time? Research? You can, of course, but I hope that you’ll instead try to help us in other ways. Concretely, I want as much feedback as I can get from you. And I want you to push me outside my comfort zone. (See this article for more.) Whenever possible, use a system that tests students with minimal effort on your part. Khan Academy, for example, requires students to solve math problems consistently before they are deemed proficient in a topic.

One way of learning facts (which are a requirement even in the age of the Internet) is using active recall and spaced repetition. You (or your teaching assistants) could prepare flashcards rather than lectures.

Won’t we just get started later in the semester?

Not if you take what I say about deliberate practice seriously. You can begin the course by requiring me to produce something that you (or one of your assistants) can review.

Closing remarks

I’d like to repeat that I know that I may be wrong and if presented with good evidence, I’ll happily update my beliefs.

comments powered by Disqus