The Lecture as a Teaching Tool

One of the weird features of modern education is the marginalization of the lecture. I partially understand why. As a teacher, I find it frustrating to spend a great deal of time developing a lecture that would be interesting to a group of adults who came to see the lecture on purpose only to find high school students feigning interest. Yet, throughout history good lecturing ability has been associated with so many forms of social, institutional, and individual transformation that it is difficult to side with those who say that lectures are oh so passe. What is worse is that some books speak of the lecture as though it were invented by Voldemort or “the great Satan hisself.” While I fully understand and implement Socratic style teaching, active classroom practice, and various other teaching methods, I also appreciate the usefulness of lecturing and doing so well.

Even the most difficult subjects can be lectured about in a way that is simultaneously intellectually rigorous, rhetorically pleasant, and emotionally captivating. For instance, Ramamurti Shankar’s lectures on Electromagnetic Physics are excellent. I’m using them in advance of Physics 2 next semester because everybody tells me that it will be very difficult. So I watch these lectures and take notes. He is very entertaining:

Lecture’s can be done in almost any style and be captivating if the lecturer possesses the traits typically associated with charisma such as warmth, apparent expertise, and presence. If the lecturer is clearly engaged with the topic and the learners (presence) then listening will make sense because the lecture hall has become a group engagement with something outside the minds of those present (physics, history, the Bible, etc). If the lecturer presents the material in such a way that A) many examples and illustrations demonstrate the material’s truthfulness, usefulness, and if possible beauty, B) the lecture itself contains minimal errors of fact or reasoning (apparent expertise), then listening will make sense because the speaker displays superior authority in the matter than those present. If the lecturer enjoys the hearers and wishes their best (warmth), then listening will make sense because the leader in the room only wants to lead the hearers into a state similar to his own.

In this respect a good lecture must always be not merely informative, but argumentative and persuasive. It must be, not only a device for the delivery of facts but a device for shared apprehension of the world from a certain point of view (even if students eventually reject that point of view).

I really think that many pastors could use more deliberate practice with lectures. Many sermons at the end of the day are delivered without any evidence that it is a lecture worth remembering. There is a way to spiritualize this fact by stating something like this: “people remember what you do, not what you say” or “better that people remember Jesus rather than the message (1 Cor 2:1-2).” The problem with this line of thought is that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians for all his critique of rhetoric over substance, were not only remembered but preserved! They were preserved as ways of remembering Jesus. If somebody’s notes from a sermon end up influencing their devotional life in a positive way you’ve done them a service.

Few people are so expert at lecturing that all of their lectures are memorable, but anybody can make it a point to improve one or two of their lectures a week. I know it can be done, I deliver (including sermons) between 7 and 10 lectures of varying lengths a week. Anyhow, I hope that this post can revitalize your desire to lecture well.


Itunes University has mountains of excellent classes on many subjects that could teach you to lecture well.

Carnegie’s books on public speaking really are good. Read one of them.

Aristotle’s On Rhetoric is something I make use of often.

The Art of Manliness has an excellent series on rhetoric.


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