Opinion: Lectures are a thing of the past

Large lectures are an outdated style of education. Smaller, more personal class sizes are simply better.


Natalia Kempthorne-Curiel

(Natalia Kempthorne-Curiel for WSN)

Noah Zaldivar, Staff Writer

Picture the scene: You signed up for a course titled something like “Interdisciplinary Perceptual Psychology of Architecture.” For some reason, you’ve always wanted to take a course exactly like this. You make your way to class, push open the doors, and BOOM. It’s a lecture with 100 people in it. Spotting a single open seat in the back of the class, you walk over, shuffling past four people, two of whom are somehow already asleep. The professor starts talking and you realize you can hardly hear him, but you can just barely decipher that he’s saying that the microphone for the class hasn’t been set up yet. For the next hour and a half, you miss every third or fourth word the professor says, so your notes look like half-translated hieroglyphics. Eventually, you tune out and start watching Netflix on your laptop. 

Anyone who’s ever had to take a large lecture class has likely had a comparable experience. Boring lecture courses are enough to make anyone completely lose interest in a class they might have been really excited about. To ensure that students are able to retain class content for potentially the rest of their lives, NYU should remove lectures entirely and only provide smaller-sized classes.

It’s been widely reported that smaller class sizes help students grasp class material better. Studies have reported that smaller writing classes led to an increase in material retention at the college level because they allow students to receive an adequate amount of feedback on their work. Feedback is crucial — if a student is only told whether they got the answer right or wrong without any descriptive feedback on how they can do better, they won’t have the tools to actually improve. Smaller class sizes also encourage students to ask questions, offer insights and simply engage more often with their instructors, which they might not be able to do in a room with a crowd of other students also looking to engage. Teachers are able to individually track the successes and shortcomings of their students, and adjust their lesson plans accordingly. Having 100 or more people in a class makes keeping track of each individual student’s learning extremely difficult. 

In fairness, most of the research presented is more concerned with the effects of small class sizes on lower grade levels, around kindergarten, and found that by high school, the effects of larger class sizes were negligible if students were exposed to smaller class sizes at a young age. But in high school, a large class would be around 40 students, not 100 — there’s a big difference.

Beyond that, the greater issue facing students in lecture courses is just plain boredom.

“Some professors just don’t give me the energy I want to keep me engaged, and I end up getting bored and start to doze off,” said Stern student David Green.

The reason why lectures seem to come off as boring is because professors seem to not really be concerned about engaging their listeners, but rather making the delivery of material as straightforward and efficient as possible. In a lecture, a professor can give a lesson in a straightforward, rehearsed manner with little room for deviation. Not only that, but a lecture can easily be recorded and distributed online for anyone who wants to view it again. What this means is that lectures aren’t designed to help students succeed; they’re designed to make teaching easy.

“Large lecture courses give me more control over what I am learning and I feel myself absorbing the most information during large lectures,” Tandon student Mihir Pabby said. “The large lectures also don’t require my complete attention the entire time, so I can easily tune out and practice a topic that’s more difficult for me and tune back in to the lecture when that topic is being discussed.” 

Even when looking at the benefits of lectures, we see the same problem: it’s too easy to tune out. There’s nothing to stop students from losing focus in class and working on other things. When the slides, Zoom recordings and the professor’s dental records are all posted online, it makes lectures feel even more optional. Although Pabby might be using that time to refresh on material he’s less sure of, others might not have that option. 

My mother used to be a teacher, meaning I’ve heard straight from her the difficulties of educating a group of strangers — so obviously my intention isn’t to make anybody’s job more difficult. Instead, my goal is to make teachers’ responsibilities more manageable, so that they can focus on presenting materials more engagingly to students. This way, students will be more likely to retain the information. NYU is wholly aware of the problems surrounding lecture courses, which is exactly why we have the recitation system, which acts as a remedy for the problems of the lecture system. But, at a certain point, it makes you wonder why we even bother trying to fix such a fundamentally flawed style of teaching when we can just replace it.

Smaller discussion-based classes are not a new concept. Our neighbor The New School’s Eugene Lang College has programs focussed on using interactive classrooms making students engage in daily discussion. Even some of our own schools, Liberal Studies and the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, offer smaller classes, but not everyone has the opportunity to take classes in these schools. If smaller non-lecture classes were offered university-wide, then it would be in the benefit of all students, not just those restricted in their programs. Completely removing lecture courses from NYU would be a tremendous overhaul, potentially requiring the hiring of additional teachers, the rebuilding of classrooms, and the restructuring of whole curriculums. It’s not easy, but it is the right thing to work toward in order for the university to position itself as a leader in education. Plus, at the end of the day, it would be a tremendous step for NYU in leading the way for other educational institutions to better their means of teaching students and sending more qualified individuals into the workforce.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Noah Zaldivar at [email protected]