Can all day lectures work? (Tufte considered)

by Scott | 9/15/2009

For years I’d heard about Edward Tufte’s famous all day lecture. I’d owned his books, but somehow never made it to the show. That changed last year. I caught his seminar here in Seattle.

As it turns out the full day seminar, like many seminars, is almost entirely lecture based. Tufte is up front, lecturing, telling stories, and asking the crowd of several hundred to flip to the appropriate pages of their books to follow along.  The event is super popular, as the same course sells out year after year. I didn’t count but by my guess he had nearly 800 people attend that day in Seattle.

But from all the learning theory research I’ve read, all arrows point away from these lecture marathons. Here’s why:

  1. They’re passive. Sitting and listening can inform but you are guaranteed not to learn a new skill since you can’t practice it. With no practice there is only vicarious experience.
  2. You don’t meet others at your level. One side benefit of a bad workshop is if you are actively working with peers you can learn from them and make connections useful for learning later. In a 500 or 800 person room, where you never break into groups, this is impossible.
  3. Retroactive and Proactive interference kills.  It’s counter-intuitive, but there is strong research suggesting cramming lessons into a single is self-defeating. Your brain has limits on how it digests new information, and if there are not frequent breaks and light activities to give the brain time to recover, less learning occurs in 8 intense hours than might occur in 5 well paced ones.

There are two factors at work explaining the dominance of all day, mostly lecture events:

  1. It generates more revenue.  If you don’t break into groups of give exercises, you can fit more people into a room. More people, per room, per course means more revenue per hour for the people running the event.
  2. It’s less work for the teacher. Lecturing is the easiest method in the world. It requires few risks and little student involvement, or opportunity for students to challenge the teacher.
  3. It’s less stressful for the audience. Sitting in a lecture is a passive, and therefore safe experience. While you won’t learn as much, there’s zero risk of embarrassment or the awkwardness of meeting new people.

Have you been to an all day lecture, or all day course that was mostly lecture? What did you think? And how does what you know about learning theory match what you saw?

6 Responses to “Can all day lectures work? (Tufte considered)”

  1. Steven Levy Says:

    I too have attended Tufte’s all-day lecture. I agree with your points, Scott.

    However, at the time I had used his books as reference material for a few years. Thus format was useful for me because I was able to dip into the stream when he brought up an idea or angle I hadn’t considered before. I imagine if the material were new to me, it would have been a long day.

  2. Scott Says:

    I will say the books are beautiful and interesting, and he does make them the center point of the course. For those who have never been, he avoids using slides and refers as much as possible to pages of the books as he goes.

    I’ll write up a separate post someday about Tufte in general. There’s a difference between being interesting and being applicable to the real world.

  3. Mike Ramm Says:

    I give all-day courses on project management and some of them are lecture-based, some are exercise-based. the reasons you mention are correct – it is easier and cheaper to make an all-lecture course. If you want to pay attention to each of the participants, they will have to pay much more, which sometimes is not acceptable. On the other hand, the more interactive the education, the more useful it is but it is also the more exhausting.

    You have to find the balance (which is difficult) depending on the topic of the course and the background and the interest of the participants.

  4. Dwayne Phillips Says:

    I have never had the privilege of attending one of Tufte’s lectures. I guess that his all-day lecture works because people want to be there. They choose to be there. They spend money to be there. They are interested in hearing what he has to say, not the guy next to them in some breakout session.

  5. Scott Says:


    I agree as to why. What’s interesting is the research is pretty strong that despite people’s motivation for being willing to sit at a lecture all day, they’d learn more and get more value for their money if the day was comprised of exercises and activities, even if solo, rather than sitting and listening.

    The problem is few know this, and some people are annoyed by having to participate in their own learning, since it’s different when compared to decades of sitting in lectures being called “learning” or “teaching”.

  6. Scott Says:

    Mike: Thanks for the supporting evidence.

    And of course, it’s worth mentioning how much more value a teacher can provide if they get to see their students more than once. When I taught at the University of Washington over a semester, it’s an entirely higher level of teaching and attention you can give when you actually get to observe your students over time. Something that’s impossible in a single day experience.

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