75th anniversary: 28) RSO Education: on the value of lectures

Still diving into the archives of Wageningen University Library, I found a pamphlet by Hofstee on the value of lectures written in 1965.  It includes a short argumentation about the value of live lectures and contrast sharply with the current shift to online education. This is the second blog on RSO Education.

In 1965, Hofstee published a pamphlet called Heeft College Lopen Zin? (Is it useful to attend lectures?) in which he discusses the value of old-fashioned lecturing. He starts with the following sentences:

 “Attending lectures is an issue of which its usefulness is doubted upon by students – judging from the many absentees. They are probably not alone in this. It is likely that, from time to time, many academic lecturers too get the feeling that their monologues and discussions with students are of limited value and that it might be wise to let students independently study the syllabus instead” (translated from Hofstee, 1965).

Hofstee wanted to demonstrate the value of lectures by executing a small research on students from the course Introduction to Social Sciences followed by 61 students. This course includes a complete syllabus for students to study. The exam will test their knowledge on the syllabus. In principle, students should thus be able to pass the exam by only studying the syllabus. Consequently, the lectures are to aid the study progress and are not vital to the assessment outcome. But by looking at the relationship between the lecture attendance and the grade, Hofstee concludes that attending lectures is likely to have a positive effect on the grade.

That was 1965. Fast forward to now.

At Wageningen University, the printed out thick syllabi are replaced by digital articles. A course is constructed out of various teaching methods including not only lectures but also group discussions, tutorials, excursion and so on. Academic lecturers, as Hofstee called them, deploy a range of teaching skills and learning styles to capture the attention of students. Each course is evaluated after completion and each year teachers are asked to modify their teaching as they see fit. Yearly innovation funds stimulate teachers to think about new forms of teaching, always seeking to improve the quality of teaching.

Yet, lectures remain an important ingredient in the courses and so are the issues with lecture attendance. Lecture attendance is not just a discussion at the Wageningen University but very much a wider phenomenon. In 2014, Harvard University even went as far as secretly photographing students in lecture halls to study the attendance[1]. Besides this highly criticised experiment, more research has been done on lecture attendance, its presumed benefits and the reasons for not attending (see for example Doggrell, 2020; Fernandez et al, 2008; Horton et al, 2012; Meehan and McCallig, 2019; Poirier, 2017). Interestingly, the academics writing on this issue are not unanimously in favour of Hofstee’s conclusions. On one hand, Horton et al (2012) conclude that the correlation between assessment outcome and lecture attendance is “surprisingly weak”. Lectures can even lead to students’ boredom and decreased motivation (Blouin at al, 2008; Short and Martin, 2011).

On the other hand, academics indicate that lectures have great value. The interpersonal relation between students and lecturer, a demonstrated interest of the lecturer in the subject and the critical dialogue are factors that can make any lecture an inspiration and lecturing transformative. A good lecture makes student think (Poirier, 2017). On top of that, we are now experiencing a period without live lectures. The current COVID-19 pandemic pushed academics towards digital education. The shift to online education made us aware of the value of lecturing, the teaching in front of a classroom, the social element, the chats in the hallway, or the student that lingers after class as she has a few questions left. After a year of online education, students complain about the lack of interaction, the high amounts of screen time and declining motivation. They miss the classroom and probably also miss the lectures. These very current insights can lead to a revival of the live lectures on campus and, as Hofstee states:

…reinforce the feeling of usefulness among lecturers and stimulate students to honour us with their presence.” (translated from Hofstee, 1965)


Doggrell, S. A. (2020). No apparent association between lecture attendance or accessing lecture recordings and academic outcomes in a medical laboratory science course. BMC medical education, 20(1), 1-12.

Fernandes, L., Maley, M., & Cruickshank, C. (2008). The impact of online lecture recordings on learning outcomes in pharmacology. J Int Assoc Med Sci Educ18(2), 62-70.

Hofstee, E. W. (1965). Heeft college-lopen zin?.

Horton, D. M., Wiederman, S. D., & Saint, D. A. (2012). Assessment outcome is weakly correlated with lecture attendance: influence of learning style and use of alternative materials. Advances in physiology education36(2), 108-115.

Meehan, M., & McCallig, J. (2019). Effects on learning of time spent by university students attending lectures and/or watching online videos. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning35(2), 283-293.

Poirier, T. I. (2017). Is lecturing obsolete? Advocating for high value transformative lecturing. American journal of pharmaceutical education81(5).