Why I Lecture

Short answer: because I am lazy.

Well, maybe that’s not the whole story, but that is really what it boils down to. Teaching is hard work; lecturing is hard work. However, lecturing is the most efficient way to convey information to 100+ people at the same time.

When I started in medical education, we had lectures and labs. That was what we did. In lecture, we stood up and spoke for 50 minutes per hour (if we were “good”). We started on time and ended on time. I taught, but I am not sure they learned.

In the first decade or so of teaching medical school, my idea was to convey information from the textbooks in a somewhat more distilled manner. What I wanted to do was to take information that was available in the textbook, repackage it in a way that made sense to me, and present it to the class. I would color in diagrams of the various layers of muscles in the arm; I would repeat (but reword) the textbook and atlases.

But did I teach or engage the students? Some, maybe. My lectures got good to great student evaluations, for the most part; students mostly passed the course. But there were 5-10 students in the back of the room reading newspapers.

In my second decade of teaching, what I did in my lectures certainly changed. I was no longer repackaging easily accessible and understandable materials. The content of the lectures migrated toward focusing more on challenging concepts that the students need to understand and linking structures and concepts that were not obvious from the textbook.

For example, in neuroscience, the concept of feedback inhibition and disinhibition are extremely difficult concepts for most students, especially in the basal nuclei (ganglia). So, I focused on those concepts. In gross anatomy, textbooks would describe the seventh cranial nerve (facial nerve) in multiple different regions of the head and neck separated sometimes by tens of pages of text and diagrams. I took it as my mission to bring the disparate parts of the nerve and put it together into a comprehensive whole.

The goal was not so much to teach material but to put context around the information that the student was to learn. In these efforts, I increased my discussions about the functional correlates of what I was describing and clinical consequences of maladies associated with the structures I was describing. Consequently, students told me my lectures were more “relevant.”

But did I teach or engage the students? Some, maybe. My lectures got good to great student evaluations, for the most part; students mostly passed the course and I had strong attendance at my lectures. But was that because I was more entertaining?

Now in my third decade in medical education, I don’t teach much anymore as I am mostly an administrator. But I still think about lectures and how to do them. I now think of them more as stories and how I can use that story to prick at the interests of the student. And then to use that story to frame the dialogue of what the learner should be able to do with the content.

In the earliest days, a lecture would take about 2-3 hours to prepare; in the latter days of my second decade, a lecture would take 8-12 hours to prepare (for the first time) and 3-4 hours to update the following year. Now, simply putting together a framework for a lecture takes several days to a week – and that is before I even think about selecting images and putting together the PowerPoint.

But, no matter what I do or did, regardless of whether I used an audience response system, “raise your hand” system, or more Socratic dialogue during the lecture, in every case, it was a matter of my being on a stage, feeling that the lecture was a performance, and delivering material to a group of people that I hoped would get something out of what I was doing.

But I have no evidence that the students who just attended my lectures benefitted at all from my work.

If I had been smarter or had more appreciation for educational theory over the decades, I would have tried to engage the learners more in activities that are more meaningful to them. I would have tried to assess their level of comprehension and learning as I went along. I would have given them opportunities – during the formative sessions – to test their thinking.

Sessions that engage learners in cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral activities are difficult to develop; lectures are easy. And lectures take me a long time to develop.

So, I have hewed to the easy for now. However, I must challenge myself to work more effectively with learners rather than simply teach students. That should be the keystone of what I do in my third decade.

Note: The views in this commentary are my own and not necessarily those of my institution, employer, or colleagues.

(Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on December 23, 2014 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-i-lecture-terence-ma)

Leave a comment


  1. I am yet to complete my first decade of lecturing. Preparing for lectures has equally helped me evolve as a person and as a teacher. As a fledgling performer (Lecturer) I am learning, adapting and evolving tremendously each time. I always enjoy reading, discussing and learning new methods from the experiences of veteran lecturers. Thank you for being an inspiration. I enjoy reading your reflections a lot!


  2. Delivering lectures is a means for introspection and learning. That old saw saying that one doesn’t truly learn until one teaches is certainly true. Trying to figure out what is important and what is not is a real challenge regardless of how often one has lectured.



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