Killing the lecture …

I was recently asked by the university to take part in a ‘fun’ debate amongst Associate Deans on the topic “The lecture is dead”.  Having said yes, I then discovered I had to debate the negative.  UNSW Law teaches interactive seminar style classes, not lectures.  So, arguing the opposite of what I believed, as a lawyer I tried to do the best for my client.  My argument was essentially that it was a useful adjunct to discursive learning – sort of where the flipped classroom models are heading.

The exercise though did raise for me some genuine questions about when lecture-style transmission of summarised, structured knowledge might be appropriate in an ideal law curriculum.  My thinking is running along these lines:

  • If lectures are the predominant form of teaching, students don’t read materials beforehand – why struggle through when you’ll get the answers in the lecture – the way everyone’s an expert after a 30 min TED talk. It kills the constructivist idea of building your own knowledge, and atrophies the skills of legal analysis and interpretation needed when reading cases and articles on your own in practice.
  • On the other hand, if a student is genuinely interested in a subject, and will critically listen and then go off to independently follow up ideas and confusions they have – then lectures might be a wonderfully efficient approach to introduce the landscape of an academic field. The student gets an overview of a subject without wasting time struggling through materials that aren’t in the end relevant to the student’s self-directed learning journey.  This sounds like a fantasy for undergraduates, but it is pretty close to what we all do when we attend conferences.  We pick the talks that interest us, and then follow up what’s relevant.

So lectures let you opt out and choose your own path.  Active learning approaches – seminars, workshops, group assignments, do the opposite.  They require engagement with all the material.

So that suggests to me that active learning, small group approaches are necessary for degrees that qualify for practice – LLB and JD; but lectures with little required reading or follow-up are ideal for post-graduate self-directed learning where the classes are just a scaffold – the sort of degree that the LLM used to be (that is before the AQF thought it was either something on the conveyor belt to a PhD or another trade qualification).

Of course universities have long been teaching it the other way around.

Alex Steel

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