Education: You can’t improve by sticking with what works

Education: You can’t improve by sticking with what works

In a book, What’s the Use of Lectures?, Mr Donald Bligh notes that lectures have been compared to reading and independent study, projects, discussion and audio and video learning. None of the comparators have been shown to be more effective in transmitting information.


In a book, What’s the Use of Lectures?, Mr Donald Bligh notes that lectures have been compared to reading and independent study, projects, discussion and audio and video learning. None of the comparators have been shown to be more effective in transmitting information. In other words, reading and independent study are just as good as listening to a lecture. Video delivery of content is just as good as a live lecture. Numerous studies have not shown that lectures are better than any of the other forms of education, but the converse is also the case.In truth, lectures — at least, in the traditional form that is totally passive, without student engagement — are an ineffectual tool for promoting conceptual understanding, synthesis, analysis and application of knowledge. Despite the data and research, they remain the most widely used tool, especially in higher educational institutions.

What is the biggest obstacle to educational transformation? It is a combination of a number of factors, the biggest being inertia. Of the many reasons why it is difficult to effect change, let me deal with the four major hindrances frequently observed around the world.


First is the fear of change. Faculty and teachers are apprehensive that other methods of instruction will be more difficult and time-consuming. So they carry on with the same modes even when they know that what they are doing is not working well and there are better options available that do not involve additional work.

It is interesting to note that many of these alternatives, such as those employed at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School and other places, actually save time by reducing repetition and leveraging on existing resources. Effective programmes in physics and other courses have been conducted with no major increase in workload.

Forsaking lectures need not increase workloads. The trouble is that many faculties cannot conceive of students learning on their own, rather than only imbibing what they are taught by lecturers. This mindset is likely to be a major impediment to change.

The second factor is institutional inertia and scepticism to change. To a considerable degree, it is very easy to do what we always do, as no one will ask questions and there is no need to justify a change.

So it is very simple to just publish a course description and a syllabus, stating that the course will be taught through lectures. The students can only find out what the course consists of by attending the lecture, though they are provided with a bare list of topics, sans details. It is possible for the same course taught by different instructors to vary a lot.

Even examinations often do not describe the contents of the course. Yet, no one will ask questions to justify resorting to lectures. On the other hand, questions will be raised if changes are proposed.


The third factor is the lack of knowledge about educational research on the part of specialised faculty in universities and colleges where teaching is less rewarded than research.

For example, there was enormous scepticism when our Duke-NUS educational team Dr Robert Kamei and Dr Sandy Cook proposed that there be no live lectures. They were asked questions such as: “How can you teach without lectures?” and “How can you cover the topic?”

This reflects the lack of awareness that conventional methods are not very effective. It also shows the lack of knowledge about the significant amount of research that has been done on alternative and effective methods of instruction.

The fourth and most important factor in many cases is the lack of availability of support and resources to effect the change. Many resources that are different from what is used in traditional lectures, have to be developed. This requires time, energy and commitment.

Fortunately, in many areas, these resources are now readily available. They have to be organised and developed towards particular courses. It is vital to clarify goals and learning objectives. Examinations and assessment techniques have to be built, linking learning objectives, content and assessment, for the system to work.

I believe these hindrances can be overcome only when there is acknowledgment of what works and what does not. But for change to really happen, teaching and education need to be based on clear outcomes — and not only the number of hours spent on lectures or direct teaching.

This requires institutions to embrace an evidence-based approach to education and a reward system that incentivises effective and innovative education, as well as developing a robust education research culture.


K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

This is part of a series on the way we learn. To read the other articles, visit .

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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