The Compleat Lecturer

The Compleat Lecturer – or, the quintessence of traditional lecturing

Bruce G Charlton

Professor Bruce G Charlton 

School of Psychology
Newcastle University



The primacy of lectures in providing a framework of knowledge and understanding for most students in most types of undergraduate-level study has been recognized in universities and colleges for many hundreds of years; and nothing substantive has happened to challenge this primacy. I set-out a plausible rationale for the effectiveness of lecturing, based upon assumptions regarding human nature and evolved psychology.  Then, based upon this framework, I discuss some principles of good lecturing; with reference to the lecturer’s art and craft, implications for design of courses and lecture theatres, and the responsibilities of teaching administrators and the lecture audience. My conclusion is that – properly done – lecturing is potentially a first-rate method of teaching; rewarding both for lecturer and lectured-to. And, if there is a single word that encapsulates the essence of that in which lectures excel; the word is ‘explaining’.

Introduction - the first mass medium

Lectures are the most ancient form of the ‘mass media’ – because they are a one-to-many method of communicating.

The lecture was the first method of amplifying the range of teaching from the apprenticeship situation of one-to-one (or a handful of people), by creating an environment with good visibility and acoustics suitable for larger groups of students; being used to provide mostly verbal instruction in a curriculum which took the attendees through a ‘course’ of study.

Something of the sort seems to have been used in Greek and Roman civilizations – but it was at the founding of the European Medieval universities (from around 1100) in places like Bologna, Padua, Salamanca, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge; when the lecture became the main focus of higher (post-school) teaching. 

In the early Medieval era, before the invention of printing and the availability of cheap books, the lecture was usually given slowly, as a form of dictation – and an ideal student’s lecture notes were therefore an accurate copy of the manuscript book from which the lecturer was reading. At a more advanced level, the lecture was a commentary (exposition, clarification, discussion, expansion) of a classic text; which would slowly be worked-through, line by line. 

As books became more widely available, at least in libraries, the lecture evolved into a personal distillation by the lecturer of knowledge from a variety of sources – with advanced students amplifying this by further reading. These lectures were not always read-out, nor were they always given at dictation speed – but the delivery of a lecture could be enlivened and tailored to class response by elements of improvisation on the part of the lecturer; and the making of lecture notes necessarily became a more engaged and creative business - a matter of extracting, summarizing, structuring. 

This type of lecturing probably reached its peak in the Scottish and German universities of the 18th and 19th century ‘Enlightenment’ era; when leading Professors became figures of national, even international, fame and significance. Such a semi-structured, semi-improvised lecture – having a skeletal plan, but with room for extempore features; systematic yet active and somewhat unpredictable - seems to me the ideal and best form of lecturing; as both lecturer and student are most engaged, and there is no possibility of either side switching to ‘autopilot’ - which may easily happen when a lecturer is simply reading aloud from notes and a student passively transcribing them.

To contrast the Medieval/ dictation and Enlightenment-style lectures: the Medieval lecture essentially provides merely a written resource for later private study; whereas the Enlightenment lecture is itself a part of the educational experience. When the lecture is structured yet partly-improvised; the mind of both lecturer and student are engaged, and education is very obviously going-on in the here-and-now; understanding, learning and insights are actively happening in the classroom. 

This type of lecture served as a vital introduction and orientation to what would have otherwise (to a novice) been a bewildering rage of sources – in pre-textbook days, sources typically too advanced to be easily comprehensible to the beginner.

A lecture course of this kind will give the student a structure of knowledge and understanding - valuable in itself, and upon-which he can build by private study. However, most students have probably always neglected private study and relied heavily upon their lecture notes (so long as the lecturer is doing a good job). Student-made lecture notes may be superior (for the student who made them) even to the best textbook; because making lecture notes (in class, and revising them afterwards) is an active and creative process of deep-learning.

The end result of lecture note-taking is (at its best) a revision text uniquely-tailored to the student’s personal character, learning style and needs.  

The effectiveness of lecturing

Lectures work; but nobody seems to know why. And the lack of an accepted rationale for the method seems to make people feel guilty about using lectures.

Typically lectures are taken for granted (which makes it unlikely that they will be improved); but the attitude is often hostile, and sporadic attempts are made to replace lectures with almost-anything-else in the name of innovative teaching: such experiments are usually short-lived… In modern mass higher education systems, it is impractical, and unaffordable, to replace lectures with a sufficient quantity of individual or small-group teaching. Attempts to do so, in any more than an ineffectual and token fashion, merely lead to less teaching of students.

Yet pragmatic realism about the lack of viable options is not a positive reason in favour of promoting lecturing as a valuable method in its own right; nor is it likely to guide or inspire good lecturing.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of lectures’ specific effectiveness comes from what people actually do, rather than what people say. I find it highly significant that lectures have been especially used in teaching the most quantitative and systematic sciences, and for intensive professional training courses such as medicine, engineering and law.

In other words, lectures have been a focus of teaching in exactly the situations where transmission of knowledge is most vital, and in subjects where relevant learning is most validly measurable. This is an indirect argument in favour of their value.

(Of course, lectures will only get you so-far; and individual teaching by direct and sustained personal contact or ‘apprenticeship’ - supported by ‘drill’ or repeated practical exercises - remain absolutely essential methods for learning specialized and high level skills.)

Taking these observations of long tradition and their place in serious professional education together, there seems to be ample prima facie evidence that lectures are a good teaching method in many circumstances and for many students. However, it is not generally understood why lectures are useful - or, at least, plausible positive explanations why good lectures are effective are not generally articulated. And because their rationale is not understood, the conduct of lectures has often been changed in ways that tend to make them less effective.

Human nature and evolved psychology

I believe that the effectiveness of lecturing can be understood by taking into consideration what is plausibly known of human nature and evolved psychology. In brief; lectures are effective when, and insofar as, they tap-into spontaneous human social behaviours, as these are understood by the various psychological disciplines.

Therefore, the primary and specific reason for their effectiveness is essentially that lectures are a form of spoken communication, which is delivered to an audience by an actually present and visible person, through a series of repeated social interactions.

A lecture can be considered as a formally-structured social event whose pattern fits some aspects of evolved ‘human nature’; and when that basic event is well-designed and ‘exploited’ in a lecture, this situation artificially manipulates instinctive human behaviour in order to improve learning.

As well as being spoken communications, lectures are properly delivered by an actually present individual person. This living presence creates a here-and-now social situation which unfolds in real time. Because humans are social animals, we are naturally more alert and vigilant in actual social situations.

What makes the lecture a ‘social event’ is the potential (even when, as usual, not actually realised) for two-way communication. Think of the difference between attending a play in a theatre and watching a movie: a theatre audience is typically much quieter and more focused than that of a movie. Because, although in practice the actors and audience almost-never communicate individually; the reality of human presence has a powerful effect on the activity, alertness and concentration of individuals in the audience - especially in a theatre when the audience can be seen and heard from the stage.

In lectures, this factor of presence works mainly by actual sensory-contact (mainly visual and auditory) between lecturer (or actor) and audience. The situation of real-time social communication makes students spontaneously more vigilant than when alone with a book or computer, because a student’s failure to pay attention can be observed.

A properly-conducted lecture also exploits the psychological disposition to attend to persons of authority in social situations. In effect, the formal lecture is a mutually beneficial ‘collusion’ between class and lecturer: the class lends authority, and the lecturer uses it, in mutually-valued pursuit of effective education. Indeed, the physical structure of a well-designed lecture theatre - the arrangements of seats and stage - enables a situation in which a group’s attention is spontaneously focused on the lecturer; and this physical structure, of itself, artificially generates authority in the lecturer.

Most evolutionary psychologists would agree that humans were naturally selected to attend-to, and thus better remember, the words of authoritative individuals. The lecture situation is that socially-effective collusion whereby a class of students implicitly, by their silent attention, temporarily creates a psychological state of authority for the lecturer with the purpose of making learning more effective.

This situation ought to be mutually gratifying as well as for mutual benefit: to have authority bestowed-upon-him is gratifying to the lecturer; and the resulting enhancement of attention and memorability is gratifying and beneficial for the students. The justification is improved motivation, and therefore learning, all-round.

It is, indeed, precisely because the authority structure of a formal lecture is so powerful an instrument for focusing attention and improving learning that the lecture medium can be abused for propaganda purposes – for example by political or religious orators who orchestrate mass-meetings or rallies.

Because lectures can so effectively exploit human psychology, lectures are indeed intrinsically an imposition by one upon the many. The justification for such a potentially-hazardous asymmetry of power, and a factor that tends to prevent abuse, is the requirement that the lecturing process must genuinely be motivated by a shared ethic of education.

The lecturer’s self-presentation

A lecture is a matter of persons; so the lecturer ought to be seen and known personally – at least to the extent that knowing is valuable in learning.

Of course, a lecture is not a ‘chat show’, and certainly ought not to be ‘confessional’ in nature; and the teacher’s perceived personality can only really be a ‘persona’ – a kind-of dramatic mask adopted for performance. However, although partial and selective, the lecturer’s persona needs to be authentic – it needs to be some honest aspect of the reality of his character. This is especially the case when, as is optimal, the relationship between lecturer and audience is extended over multiple interactions. An authentic persona allows an honest, natural, spontaneous relationship to develop.

It is therefore likely to be helpful for lecturers to introduce themselves in reasonable detail; and furthermore to refer to personal contacts, experiences and anecdotes. Years of feedback, in the form of examination answers written from memory, indicates that personal data certainly assists in learning; serving as pegs upon-which to hang those explanations and facts which are the heart of a lecture. 

In other words, the lecturer should embrace the benefits of allowing the audience to know something about himself – always bearing in mind that this is justified only in terms of what is educationally helpful.

It also needs to be noted that a lecturer’s persona will - almost inevitably - annoy and grate-upon some members of the class; since different people have different personal likes and dislikes. Indeed, this is strictly unavoidable; since it is a weakness of the strength of the lecture method.

However, you don’t really need to like someone to learn from him. Serious students will usually be able to set-aside such irritations - so long as they have learned to trust the lecturer’s honesty and competence.

How large a lecture audience is possible?

A perennial question is the ratio of teacher and students in a class: one teacher to how many students? How large a lecture class can effectively, or optimally, be taught at once?

I would argue that for specifically educational purposes (as contrasted with entertainment, or mental stimulation) there is something like an absolute maximum size for teaching lectures; which size depends upon how good a lecturer, how well-designed the lecture theatre, and how motivated and disciplined are the students.

For average situations, this maximum is about two hundred – and numbers in excess of this (e.g. those sitting far away) will probably be getting very little from the lecture while – by their disengagement, and inattention – be damaging the experience of the rest. With too-large lectures, only some smaller proportion of the class will truly be engaged and actively-learning: this situation constitutes a type of fake teaching, because it pretends to something it cannot deliver.

At one time I mostly lectured in a steeply-raked, two-tier Victorian-built theatre that sat about 250, and yet the lectures ‘worked’, because none of the audience were very far away from the lecturer (the balcony seating jutted forward over the lower seats), so despite the numbers there were good acoustics and sight-lines. Furthermore, the large classes were usually of cohesive, highly intelligent and motivated groups (e.g. medical or dental students) - keen and able to learn.

But that was an ideal situation; not readily transferable to other circumstances such as sub-optimal lecture theatres, and mixed-subject classes including less-motivated, less competent students. As a broad generalisation, applicable to most lectures (by most lecturers to most students) the ratio ought to be no more than about one-to-a-hundred; that is the lecture theatre should not usually be larger than a hundred seats (assuming that the genuine intent is that all students present may be engaged in active classroom learning).   

A hundred students in a class is actually a very large number; and keeping classes down to this size (and only as big as this, in a reasonably well-designed venue) would not be regarded as an onerous constraint by any serious educational institution… however (by what they actually do, rather than what they say) sadly few institutions really are serious about education. 

So there is often pressure to push above even this maximum class size; for example by using audio-visual amplification technology to address many hundreds of students in vast, or multiple-simultaneous, venues… These, I can only regard as pseudo-lectures; and they have little to do with a serious attempt to provide real education.

At most, such situations may attain the level of those ‘dictation-transcription’ lecture of the Medieval universities; in which both lecturer and audience have ‘engaged autopilot’. But in an era of abundant, accessible and good quality textbooks, such exercises are largely redundant; and insofar as many modern lectures conform to this description, then this probably accounts for the generally poor reputation of the lecture method.

In fact, if modern students have only attended ‘PowerPoint’-style presentations to audiences numbered in their hundreds; in which the proceedings occur in the dark, making note-taking impossible; surrounded by people on laptops and mobile phones, browsing the internet and social messaging; the invisible teacher merely an amplified, disembodied and un-localised voice reading-off the slides; and the entire substantive content available in lecture handouts or on the internet - then these students have, in fact, never actually experienced a real lecture.

Such unfortunate students are being palmed-off with a dishonest simulacrum of what lectures can and ought to be. 

Talk and Chalk and problems with ‘visual aids’

‘Talk and Chalk’ is a slang term for the traditional, and I would say best, method of lecturing – although nowadays a whiteboard and dry-wipe marker pen is used rather than a blackboard and chalk.

(Aside: The blackboard and chalk were very messy, and the chalk dust was unpleasant for the lecturer. However, for reasons I cannot altogether explain, I believe that the blackboard was overall a more effective teaching method than the whiteboard; and that classes enjoyed blackboard teaching more than whiteboard. One hunch is that writing and illustrating with chalks imposed on the lecturer a slow and stylised way of working. My understanding is that blackboards have by now been removed from almost all universities and colleges – so ‘chalk’ is probably no longer an option.)

Talk and Chalk means that the lecture content is delivered by some combination of the spoken word, and material written or drawn on the board in real time for the audience to copy.

Thus the only cognitive transition the lecture audience needs to make, is between taking notes ‘aurally’ from dictation, alternating with copying words and pictures - and for most students this alternation is not a problem. Those parts of the lecture written on the board tend to be key facts and concepts – such as references, summaries, definitions, tables and diagrams. The spoken parts amplify and illustrate these key facts and concepts.

For example: the lecturer defines key terms at dictation speed and written on the board; then verbally explains a concept while students listen; then summarises the explanation on the board, while students copy. He may then invite questions.   

‘Visual aids’ comprise media such as projected slides, audio-visual material such as videos or short movies, overhead projectors, ‘demonstrations’ at the front of the lecture theatre, and so on. While these may sometimes be necessary, and at other times provide a useful change and stimulus, I would argue that in general they are all significantly sub-optimal.

The problem is partly that visual aids encourage passive observation, and discourage the creative process of making of lecture notes – since they typically contain too much information and/ or information of a kind which cannot be captured in lecture notes. But another problem is that visual aids generate the need for a ‘cognitive gear change’ between very different media – in the sense that learning from a photograph, detailed slide, or movie is of a different form than speaking, writing and drawing.

For example, if the audience has been watching a five minute video; when the video finishes and the attention needs to be reactivated for Talk and Chalk teaching, then there is a kind of mental waking-up, a ‘lurch’, that results from the need for a sudden effort after passive relaxation.

This gear change is not necessarily fatal to the lecture, but it is a difficulty which takes some time and discipline to overcome – and it leads almost inevitably to a psychological fragmentation of the lecture.  

Therefore, I believe that lecturers should in general stick-to Talk and Chalk, and resist the temptation to add visual aids – except when absolutely necessary.

Such uniformity of lecture medium does, however, imply a need to give the audience short breaks to refresh attention - to converse, stand and stretch limbs, and fidget. A fifty minute lecture requires at least one such break of a couple of minutes - just enough time for the lecturer to wipe the whiteboards.

Problems with hand-outs and online-lecture records

My repeated emphasis on the importance of making each lecture into a real time, here and now, unique and un-repeatable, active learning event; is what explains why hand-outs and internet ‘support’ are so often a problem, with negative effects on learning.

The core problem is that anything which diminishes the importance of being-there, paying-attention, understanding and recording the information; will certainly diminish the learning.

Typically, education needs both sticks and carrots - that is; punishments and rewards to enforce attendance, alertness and cognitive effort. Otherwise, over the ups-and-downs (and temptations) of a long course of lectures; class attendance, and therefore the chance for active-learning, invariably fall-off to some extent (due to the weakness of will of a minority of students). But attendance and attention may collapse alarmingly and to low levels, even when lectures are of high quality, when lectures are not explicitly (and also implicitly) regarded by the authorities as being central and necessary to the teaching.

The idea may be promulgated that lectures are intended to be miss-able without disadvantage by provision of all ‘necessary’ material without need for attendance (or attention while attending) - for example by handouts, internet material, or making audio and/ or video recordings of lectures. This is something that administrators may emphasise as an amenity, or in order to ‘reassure’ students that they will not be ‘penalised’ for absences (unavoidable, or otherwise). Such an attitude, increasingly common - due to technological advances - is lethal to the educational benefits of real lecturing.      

In practice there needs to be occasional exceptions to the requirement for lecture attendance to obtain optimal educational benefit. But exceptions must be exceptional; arrangements and adjustments should be one-off, specific and tailored, not routine nor prescribed; and exceptions cannot without educational harm, be addressed in ways that compromise the integrity of the principle of attendance.

It ought clearly to be articulated and respected that the mass of students will need actually to be present and participating in lectures to get the fullest benefit.

To put the matter curtly: arrangements to assist those who do not attend lectures should be regarded as a specific privilege, not a universal right. Because if a student is not disadvantaged by failure actually to attend and be attentive during a lecture course; then there must be something seriously wrong with those lectures!

Lecture Theatre - design and usage

The size of audience that can effectively be lectured-to partly depends on the specific venue. Indeed, lecture theatre design is very important – and many (probably most) lecture theatres are significantly (sometimes grossly) unfit for purpose

For small classes, the specifics of a lecture theatre are relatively less important – since everyone can see and hear what is happening; but as the size of the class increases, the design becomes more and more important; until with large classes (above about 100) only the very best-designed lecture theatres are adequate. 

It is necessary that the audience in a lecture be in audio-visual contact with the lecturer. In general, the closer the physical proximity of lecturer and audience, the better. For big classes this means that the lecture theatre must have a steep rake; that is, steeply-sloped seats (as in a traditional theatre – some Medieval lecture theatres were positively vertiginous in this respect!); so that all students are close enough that they can clearly hear and see the lecturer and any visuals, because the sight-line is above the heads of the students sitting in front. 

Another aspect of sight-lines is that all members of the audience need to be able to maintain ‘eye contact’ with the lecturer. This implies the lecture theatre should be well lit, with plenty of bright lights especially at the front where the lecturer and writing boards are located. In sum, the level of brightness in a lecture theatres should be more like a bright kitchen (500 Lux) than a gloomy bedroom (50 Lux). As well as encouraging eye contact, and maintaining alertness, bright lighting also enables lecture notes to be created more effectively.

Naturally, the benefits of a bright environment also mean that the ‘house lights’ (illuminating the audience) should be kept-on for most of the lecture – with the whole room lit such that everybody can see everybody else. The practice of showing slides on a screen in a dark room should be kept to a minimum (when it is not possible to eliminate slides altogether). 

As well as sight-lines, the lecture theatre acoustics must be good; including an absence of background noises and external noises (e.g. from traffic, builders, or conversations from students passing outside). Sound-proofing is necessary both to avoid distraction, and in order that all students present can easily hear what is being said without artificial means of amplification.

The use of microphones may sometimes be unavoidable for some lecturers and some venues (even I have occasionally been forced into this by laryngitis – although I have trained myself to ‘project’ the voice like a stage actor). But microphones should be discouraged and the usage of amplification regarded as exceptional - since electronic reproduction interposes a psychological barrier between lecturer and audience. (For example, most amplification systems do not localise the voice to the exact place from which the lecturer is speaking – which creates an alienating dislocation.)

Of the other ‘sensory’ factors, the most important – and most neglected - is ventilation. Lecture theatres simply must have an ample flow of cool air – because a warm, stuffy, humid lecture theatre may become soporific such as to render a lecture futile. Therefore it is better for the lecture theatre to be a bit too cold than too hot; and too draughty than too stuffy. After all, in extremis the lecturer and students can always wear an extra layer!  

Furthermore, and vitally; taking lectures seriously means building enough lecture theatres of the necessary size, and designing them to be effective environments for learning. There is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – colleges should simply find and copy the best examples of lecture theatre design (which are often the oldest).

Any motivated lecturer or serious student will be able to say which are the best lecture theatres - unmotivated lecturers and non-attending or unserious students should have no say in the matter! 

The unit of lecturing is the course – with one lecturer per course

The syllabus of a qualification such as a degree is organized into units typically called courses – and as a generalisation it seems to work best when each course is given by a single person. The reasons are probably psychological – but the psychology seems to constrain the educational possibilities. 

Lecturing requires some stability; the lecturer and the class need to get to know each other – and in particular the class needs to get-to-know and learn-to-trust the lecturer, which takes time and repetition. Until this trust is established, the student will experience an inner resistance to learning which is hard to overcome.

The first couple of lectures may be entertaining or they may be dull, but they are seldom fully ‘educational’ in any substantive sense – it is only later in the course when some solid understanding and knowledge is likely to be transmitted. Therefore one-off lectures by multiple lecturers should be avoided; and multiple (team) teaching likewise avoided.

Also, the lectures in a course should be given reasonably close-together; at least once a week, and ideally more often – to assist and accelerate this process of class members developing familiarity, and indeed getting to know each other: as well as bonding the class into a psychological unit, so they develop a cohesive group personality

(Discovering the distinctive group personality of a class, and adjusting the teaching to its needs, is one of the things which keep lecturing fresh and enjoyable. Just like people, no two classes are exactly alike in personality - and some are quite delightful!) 

There needs to be attention both to the desirability of free-standing, individually-comprehensible lectures within the course on the one hand; and on the other hand a meaningful and structured overall arc linking between the individual lectures in a course-of-lectures. Ideally – both should be the aim: each lecture making a ‘short story’ and the whole set of lectures adding-up to make a ‘novel’.

In practice, it is hard to do this – and the emphasis should depend on the motivation and capacity for concentration of the audience. A keener and more able audience can be assumed to retain and keep-up-with earlier lectures, and can therefore appreciate the cross-lecture integration of a grand narrative.

But the large, mixed, distractible type of student audience must be given the content in ‘bite-sized chunks’ of almost-independent lectures – each lecture relying as little as possible on prior knowledge. In such situations the minority of best students will inevitably be frustrated by repetition and lack of cross-lecture integration - but this is an unavoidable disadvantage of mixed-ability teaching to heterogeneous students. 


Lectures cannot do everything in education; in general they work best for setting-out core, essential content and for explaining principles. Indeed - if there is a single word that describes what lectures do best, that word is probably explaining.

The implication is that choices concerning lecture structure and content should be subordinated to optimising that primary goal of explanation. The requirement of effective ‘explanation’ is, indeed, a useful index for deciding on the selection and volume of lecture material; and the degree of precision (or detail) with which a topic is addressed should be guided by the over-arching objective of maximising explanatory clarity.

By contrast, I don’t think lectures work well for open-ended objectives such as exploring, discussing, or encouraging genuine critical thinking. It is the nature of the medium that makes lectures most effective when used for instruction, with confident and clear didacticism. Presumably this is why lectures have generally been most popular in professional education; in fields such as medicine, law, theology and engineering.

Naturally, lectures are limited in what they can do – which is surely obvious. Among the most important limitations is that lectures cannot teach skills (these need supervision, exercises and multiple repetitions); and of course individual private study is always necessary for mastery. For such purposes other teaching methods are necessary.

The lecture medium has stood at the core of serious education in most of the best universities and colleges for many hundreds of years – and for efficient, explanatory teaching, no viable alternative method has emerged either to equal or supersede lectures. That being so; the art and craft of lecturing is worthy of serious consideration.  

Note: I have been interested in university teaching, especially of medicine and science, ever since my very first article – a letter about ‘modelling’ in clinical instruction published in the magazine World Medicine in 1981. As a lecturer; I have taught physiology, anatomy, epidemiology and psychology; to student doctors, dentists, nurses, biologists and psychologists. In 1992, I published a book on medical education (The Making of a Doctor, with RS Downie; Oxford University Press); and I have authored many papers, editorials and journalistic articles on educational themes. The above essay considerably expands upon an earlier publication: Charlton, BG. Lectures are such an effective teaching method because they exploit evolved human psychology to improve learning. Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 1261-1265.