Are Medical Lectures Harmful to the Process of Learning?

J. Willis Hurst, MD


December 11, 2001

In This Article

Modern Medical Lecturers Compared to Famous Orators of the Past

Many modern lecturers seem to believe that their orations are as effective as the oratory of the well-known speakers of the past. What modern medical lecturers do not realize is that most famous orators of the past were masters at seizing the emotions of the moment. Sir William Osler's charm was spell-binding. Legend holds that the members of an audience who listened to him could not escape his influence. It should be pointed out, however, that most of his medical teaching was done at the patient's bedside or in the pathology department -- not in a lecture hall. The orations that were recorded and handed down were rarely about the scientific details of medicine. Rather, his lectures usually dealt with the behavior of doctors in relation to their patients and to society; to teach medicine, he made ward rounds with a few house pupils.

When Franklin Roosevelt gave his "Fear" speech, the whole nation crowded around the existing radios hoping to hear a positive approach to the solution of a prolonged economic depression. In other words, the people listening to every word he said were emotionally involved. So too were the British people who listened to Sir Winston Churchill's powerful speeches on England's role in World War II. They heard and remembered every word he said because the bombs were falling on London.

The average medical lecturer has none of the emotional leverage to apply to his or her nodding listeners that Osler, Roosevelt, and Churchill had. Accordingly, the busy, overwhelmed students and practitioners usually find it difficult to listen to every lecturer that addresses them. In fact, while most members of the audience want to learn medicine, the panoply of facts that are often delivered by the speaker are commonly more than the listener's brain can receive and store for future use. It is not the speaker's fault, nor is it the listener's fault. The brain was simply not designed for such a barrage of words, even if they are strung together by an expert.