Press Kit Contact Buy Clark Aldrich Designs Bio Books and Articles Blog, Facebook, and Twitter

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sitting in a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful

Sitting in a classroom-style lecture is painful for most people most of the time. We all know this, yet so many deny it or view it as a personal failing.

When sitting and listening, we squirm. We watch the clock tick slowly. Minutes can seem like hours.

We escape into our own head. We invent activities to either occupy or numb ourselves. The most talented classroom sitters create micro-tasks to busy their hands and the other 80% of their minds.

And it is cumulative. The first hour of lecture is bearable in a day. The second is hard. The third is white-hot excruciating. The periodic highly engaging presenter does little to soften the physiological impact of the subsequent dull one.

This goes beyond a power thing, or even an interest thing, or quality of the teachers thing. Corporate leaders, even Presidents of countries, attending highly relevant daylong events with the highest tier speakers, are suppressing their own body ticks 90 minutes in. The lunch break becomes an oasis.

Students are psychologically ravished daily by this onslaught. And it is costly on all involved.

While it subverts most industrial business and logistics models, two non-adjacent hours of lecture a day should be the highest amount for any institution or program. And the most successful will have even less than that.


  1. Edward de Bono tells a story of watching an artillery drill at a military academy, some time in the 1960s. He noticed that, each time the drill team's howitzer was about to be fired, one of its members would raise his right hand and make a fist. This seemed to have nothing to do with the process of loading, aiming and firing the gun, so he asked about it. It transpired that, in the old days when the guns were drawn by horses, it was part of the drill for a member of the gunnery squad to grasp the reins of the horses just before the gun fired in case the horses were spooked by the explosion and bolted - and grasping the reins was still part of the drill even though the horses were no longer there.

    I think lectures are a bit like that. Is it really necessary to impart knowledge in that way at all? I think my wife is a pretty entertaining lecturer (I know she's always looking for YouTube videos to include) and I think she rarely lectures for more than an hour, but she also records her lectures and puts them on her university website. Perhaps that would be a good way to go. Give students the choice at least.

  2. Hi Bob,

    It is probably sad that I made this post after keynoting a conference! I am hoping I fell more into the engaging camp. But your comment prompted my post for today!

  3. I think it was the NYT that recently had an article on how the QVC evaluates presenters by monitoring phone calls during a live presentation. If phone calls increase during a segment, the producers communicate to presenters via an earpiece telling them whatever they were just doing was working, so they should do it again.

    Too bad we don't have an equivalent technique to measure educational success in real time. :)

  4. I believe the back-channel conversation feature in webinars is a great model - especially when students can debate question themselves. Hopefully the proliferation of portable input devices will make that easier in a face to face lecture as well. What is less satisfying, and your QVC example is perhaps how it should and could work, is how to make the back-channel interact and influence the speaker. I love the This Week in Tech podcast for may reasons, not the least of which is that they do it live with a very robust online community, that does have some ability to change the conversation. It seems like you need at least two or three speakers to be able to have one process the back-channel while the other(s) fill the air.

  5. Well, I have to disagree a bit because not all classrooms are the same. Some instructors are exciting and fun to listen to. If you are learning, you are not bored. And you can learn in a classroom if the instructor is interesting. Lots of classes are boring, but not necessarily because they are classes. They may just lack a dynamic teacher.

  6. That's a worthwhile point, to be sure. But even listening to world-class presenters wears thin into the third hour.