In Defense of Large Lecture Classes

I’m a fan of seminar classes. I like to get in a group of 10-30 people and really dive into discussion on a set of ideas and information. I like to process things out loud and have my assumptions challenged. When relevant, I like to share my background and experiences as part of the classroom discussion. I am fundamentally a person who believes in the seminar format for higher education.

However, I also truly love a well-formatted lecture class.

The key to a quality lecture seems to be some magical blend of the teacher’s passion and expertise with the relevance and level of engagement of the material at hand. You should walk away from a lecture with a sense that you have gained something that you couldn’t get from the assigned reading. You should have copious scrawled notes and a list of suggested readings. You should actually know and care about what was discussed.

A great public speaker can add depth and comprehension to a lecture class in a way that might not ever be achieved in a seminar. The strength of a discussion-based class is the collective progress toward deeper thinking and engagement with a topic. It’s the sharing of opinions and the group process that sheds light on some complicated topic. It’s what takes the material beyond what is printed on a page and into relevance in the context of students’ lives.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a lecture class you actually love, then take action to be part of it. Sit near the front. Introduce yourself to the lecturer. Do the reading before class. Take notes. Show up.

I was once part of a small history class on the colonial period in the Americas. It was mostly formatted as a seminar course—we would do the readings and discuss them, comparing the themes of the course across various geographic or cultural areas. How was race treated in Spanish colonies vs. French and English? How did certain cultural elements (like machismo) translate from the old world to the new? I enjoyed the classes and the readings, and the professor did a good job of guiding the dialogue. But at a certain point the class got a lot better.

The professor started to lecture. That hadn’t been the intention of the course, but he began spending more time with the spotlight and really using it to expand on the course readings, bring in different perspectives from other scholars, and to lay out the connections and key concepts. It was awesome. He was a great speaker and was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. For all our willingness to discuss or debate ideas, we as students had nothing that came close to his level of familiarity with the topic.

Before this experience, I was a pretty firm believer in the superiority of seminar courses. And for many subjects, I still prefer the chance to discuss and grow in conversation with my peers. But that history course made it clear that the right lecturer with the right subject could do far more in terms of educating and inspiring than a different format could have.

So. What to take from all of this?

As you build your schedule each term, pay attention to the kinds of courses and educational experiences you want. If you’re in your first year, try signing up for both seminars and lecture classes. Regardless of when you are in your academic journey, ask around about professors and find out what kinds of classes they teach and how interesting the material is in that format. Know yourself and your preferences, and take advantage of the array of options you have to hand.

If you do find yourself in a good quality lecture course, remember to make the most of it.

Introduce yourself to the lecturer. You might want to take future classes and/or ask for a letter of recommendation someday.

Do the reading. A good lecturer will assume you have come prepared, and you’ll get way more out of the class for having done so.

Take notes. However works best for you.

DO NOT sit in the front row and spend the hour facebooking/video gaming/online shopping. If you are going to take notes and only notes on your laptop, then work away from anywhere in the room.

But if you plan on doing something distracting with your screen, take yourself to the far sides and back of the room.

Seriously. I do not want to watch your computer antics while trying to sit through any class ever. But especially a good one.

On that ranty note, I wish you the best of luck with your class schedules and your educational endeavors.


What's your experience with lecture classes vs. seminars? Is the subject matter or the professor more important to you when making this kind of decision? I'd love to hear any and all thoughts about large lecture halls.

(But not if you're reading this blog in class)