Are Medical Lectures Harmful to the Process of Learning?

J. Willis Hurst, MD


December 11, 2001

In This Article

But Are Medical Lectures Harmful?

The answer is yes and no, depending on the ability of the lecturer and the emotional mind-set of the audience members.

At times, excellent lecturers may stimulate some of the members of the audience to look further into the subject they have discussed. Should that occur, the listener might fix the newly heard material in their long memory, where it may be called into consciousness at a later time to be used as part of a thinking process. Still, the price of time that one pays may be enormous because a 1-hour lecture may contain no more information than can be gleaned from well-focused reading for 10 minutes. In such a case, the lecture was not harmful but it cost too much of one's time to gain useful information.

There is such a thing as lecture addiction. For years, junior and senior medical students have expressed relief when they reflect on their experience in the first 2 years of medical school. They often say they are sick and tired of lectures. I always point out that teaching basic science is difficult when the students are not planning to be basic scientists. Add to that the fact that basic sciences are changing so rapidly that the information retained by a senior student is already out of date when compared to the information thrown at the freshman student.

Even though the students admit that after their examinations were over they forgot most of the content of the lectures in basic science, they will often ask for a lecture on a clinical problem. This highlights a serious problem. Such a reaction indicates that the only way they know how to solve problems is to listen to a lecture on the subject. When this happens, I usually point out to the nascent clinical trainees that a lecture is not the best way to search for and find answers, because once they leave the educational institution, they won't be able to find someone to lecture to them about every medical problem they encounter. They must become proficient in asking themselves the right questions about any of the unsolved problems they place on the Problem Lists of their patients. They must develop the habit of carefully focused reading in a textbook, journal, or on the Internet in their effort to solve the many problems they encounter. If lectures are offered as a substitute for pursuing the answers to carefully thought out questions about a patient, they may indeed be harmful. This is true because an active, questioning mind always wins over a passive, inactive mind that merely sops up information without organizing it.