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What's the Use of Lectures?

By Donald A. Bligh
368 Pages
ISBN: 0-7879-5162-5 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Jeffrey R. Bell

Department of Biology
CSU Chico


What's the Use of Lectures? is an update of a book originally published in the 1970s to help new lecturers prepare and properly use the lecturing method. The author, Donald A. Bligh, was an active researcher in the physiology of learning in the 1970s and has been heavily involved in staff development and teaching for the last thirty years in the British higher education system. This book is of general interest to anyone who would like to improve the effectiveness of his or her lectures. In particular, the book has a wealth of information about how students learn and how they respond to different lecturing and teaching methods.

The book has five main sections covering (a) what lectures can achieve; (b) factors that affect student learning; (c) effective lecturing techniques; (d) alternatives to the lecture; and, finally, (e) how to prepare a lecture. Over half of the book is devoted to the third section on effective lecturing techniques, and this is the section that will be of most interest to those who would like to improve their lectures. The first two sections discuss the results of research, primarily from the 1960s and 1970s, on what students learn from lectures and on the factors that affect their learning during lectures. Section four is a short treatment of alternatives to the lecture and is the weakest section of the book, with almost no discussion of some of the current popular alternatives in the United States. The final section offers sage advice from an experienced lecturer on how to prepare first lectures. All of the sections are well organized and well written.

In the first section, Bligh makes the case that lectures are as good as other methods at transmitting information, less effective than discussion methods for promoting student thought, generally not appropriate for changing student attitudes, and ineffective for changing student behaviors. Evidence supporting these assertions comes primarily from comparisons of a large number of studies done during the 1950s and 1960s. Most of these studies show no significant difference between different approaches, especially when acquisition of knowledge is the measure. Most of Bligh's conclusions seem consistent with current research results, but it would be preferable to have an updated analysis that included discussion of the newer problem-based learning approaches and the online learning systems. Bligh mentions a couple of key reservations for all of these types of studies. For example, few educators use only one method of instruction, thus making the categories less distinct than they appear. In addition, the researcher doing the study usually has a definite bias in favor of one of the methods--and it usually isn't the lecture.

In the second section of his book Bligh discusses research over the last forty years on memory, arousal, attention, and motivation. He published original research in this field in the 1970s and is able to explain clearly the results of some very technical studies. Perhaps the most important result that comes out of the studies on memory is the requirement for some period of quiet for students to reflect on new information and consolidate the memory. It is also essential to avoid any sort of overload during which the student is presented with too much information. This directly leads to some of the most important advice given later in the book: most lecturers need to slow down and leave pauses in their lectures for students to catch up and consolidate what has already been covered.

The third section of the book discusses various ways to improve lectures by taking into account the results of the studies on student learning. Bligh begins with a chapter on organization and makes the old points that students need to be presented with the organization of the lecture at the beginning, the relevance of the material must be explained, points should be itemized, each key point should have a visual display, and, finally, each lecture should end with a summary. This is followed by several very detailed chapters on various aspects of lecturing. While probably the most important chapters for really learning how to lecture better, they are also the most difficult to apply in practice, as they require very detailed thought about every sentence and event in the lecture.

The subsequent chapters are more easily applied and include practical advice on aids (chalkboard, PowerPoint, etc.) student note-taking, handouts, lecturing styles, ways of obtaining feedback, and evaluating lectures. Of all of the techniques he suggests in order to promote more active students in lectures, "buzz groups" seems to be his favorite. The "buzz group" technique entails the lecturer pausing the lecture and posing a question for the class. The students work in small groups on the question, and then, after an appropriate period of time, the groups report their solutions. The student answers are discussed, and then the lecture continues. This section of the book, which has eleven chapters, is a truly impressive effort to take apart every possible component of a lecture and analyze how to best utilize every aspect of a lecture to more effectively teach students.

The fourth section of the book discusses alternatives to the lecture, primarily "buzz groups" and various types of discussion and group assignments. In this section the author makes the key point that the instructor and the students usually have multiple goals, and since no one method is best for achieving all of the different goals, then multiple different teaching methods should be used in every class. Although this is one of the more up-to-date sections of the book, it still does not consider many alternatives to the lecture that are popular in the US. For instance, no mention is made of topics such as constructivism or authentic assessment. In addition, while there is some overlap with the techniques mentioned in Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross' Classroom Assessment Techniques, many useful techniques described in that book are not covered here.

The final section of the book includes a couple of short chapters on how to prepare a lecture, as well as a brief summary of the main points in the book. As in the chapters on how to improve lectures, Bligh very methodically and thoroughly goes over every step in the process of preparing the instruction unit, from determining what the department expects, to deciding on objectives, choosing appropriate methods, deciding how to divide up the time, and so forth. He even has a chapter on how to write your lecture notes. My only quibble with this section would be that there is no discussion of student assessment, an important factor in determining what students learn.

In summary, this book is a very thorough and methodical examination of lecturing, covering everything from what lectures can accomplish to the finest details of how to use a lecture for almost any goal an instructor could imagine. While the careful detail and considerations of every facet of a lecture is one of the book's main strengths, sometimes the level of detail was so great that I felt like Bligh was trying to subtly discourage lecturing by showing just how difficult it really is to lecture well. For anyone who spends a significant amount of time lecturing, this book has a wealth of information and ideas that would, I think, improve almost anyone's teaching.

Posted July 19, 2002
Modified July 24, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Jeffrey R. Bell.

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