Why the Fuss Over Lectures?

The last few years have seen a burst of new educational platforms. Khan Academy, Coursera and edX, were just a few. At the core of all of these platforms is the same thing: video lectures.

This doesn’t surprise me. When I listed the courses I followed during my experiment to learn MIT’s computer science program over one year, the number one complaint from potential followers was that some of them didn’t have lecture videos.

But to me, this objection was silly. After having done dozens of courses online, I can say video is hardly the most important resource to have. In fact, many courses with written explanations were actually better than the ones with video.

So why all the fuss over lecture videos?

Why Video is Overrated (Even if You Think You Need It)

I like watching lecture videos, and I’d watch them whenever they were available. Videos are nice, and watching a video is certainly less strenuous than reading a textbook.

But after having finished the classes, I came to an unfortunate conclusion—the videos don’t matter too much. Having a video explanation of a concept is nice, but it’s rarely superior to the same explanation in text. Text even has the advantages of searchability and nonlinearity, features missing in video.

What mattered was having practice problems and projects. Under time constraints, speeding up lecture watching to spend more time on practice or insight-building tactics was almost always a good tradeoff. Knowing I’d need to pass the exam later, I’d always pick a course without lectures than one without practice problems.

MIT has recognized this. Although Professor Walter Lewin gave possibly the best introductory physics lectures since Feynman, I’ve been told the lecture-heavy model for classical mechanics is starting to be replaced with one that emphasizes group problem solving. It turns out that students just don’t learn very well from watching lectures.

If this is the case, then why make videos the priority? Why not demand higher quality problem sets with better-explained solutions. These are almost certainly more useful for the subjects that represent the majority of online courses.

Videos are What Students Want (Not What They Need)

I feel the fuss over video has two causes:

  1. Students associate university subjects with lectures, and don’t know how to learn without them.
  2. Watching videos is fun, doing practice problems is hard.

The first to me seems like more of a consequence of the relative novelty that is online education. Because it is so new, educators and students expect it to resemble traditional universities. Even if that resemblance is wasteful.

The second seems like a bigger issue. Students want videos because videos make them feel like they’re learning important new skills and concepts, even when it’s far less useful than solving problems or doing projects.

For the casual learner, maybe this isn’t a bad tradeoff. After all, watching a set of lectures is better than nothing, which may be the alternative if doing problem sets is simply too irritating. But if this is the case, it puts a really low potential value on the educational attainment, if it’s not worth using the tools even in a contrived setting.

Learning Faster Without Lectures

Unfortunately I don’t think this trend is going to go away. Casual learners (which represent the vast majority of MOOC participants) want easy-to-watch videos instead of problems and projects. Course platforms will cater to this, and the emphasis will continue.

However, I think this gives a real advantage to the dedicated learner. I wouldn’t have been able to do two-thirds of the MIT Challenge if I had only taken courses which had lecture videos. But I could pick from the far larger quantity of classes which lacked video, but had assignments and solutions.

This doesn’t mean video is a waste. When I had a class with lectures, I’d watch them (although usually at 1.5x the speed), but a class without video wouldn’t be any more difficult as long as I had access to a textbook or comprehensive course notes.

Why You Can Learn Without Lectures Too

I can just imagine now all the people reading this who feel they are the exception. Maybe I’m an oddity who can learn well without lectures, but you are different and need someone to verbally talk you through it.

I had the same worry the first time I did a class without lectures. I assumed it would be much more difficult, after all, wasn’t the lecture where all the learning was going on?

My fears turned out to be completely unfounded. My first non-video class was actually much easier to understand and better taught than many with comprehensive video lectures. Later I would do a class without videos or text, and it also turned out to be much easier than I had expected, because the projects were so robustly explained and supported.

The Danger of Watching Videos as “Learning”

One reason I’m pessimistic about video is that it gives a false sense of accomplishment. I learned early on in the challenge not to trust my intuition of how well I understood a course after only watching the lectures. It wasn’t until I’d been beaten down by problem sets that I realized all the gaps in my understanding.

This is why I’m skeptical of the students who claim they “learn” better by video. Because it’s easy to get the feeling of learning something by passively watching an explanation, even if it doesn’t translate into a useful skill.

If you’re serious about learning a subject, by all means watch some videos, but don’t make it your priority. Focus on getting to practice as soon as possible, since that’s where you’ll discover and fill the gaps that create a deep understanding.

  • Trent Fowler

    These are all great points, especially the bit about text being scannable and nonlinear. To be honest I find the plodding cadence of most lectures to be insufferable, and it’s pretty rare for their to be an insight that requires being spoken as opposed to written. It also occurs to me that, as I go about learning “x”, doing a Google search for “problem sets related to ‘x'” would be a good investment.

    Do you have any pointers on identifying quality problem sets? It might be difficult if you’re just starting to learn a subject.

  • Corey McMahon

    The information density of lectures (even at 1.5x – 2.0x speed) is too low to justify the amount of time required to truly digest them.

    Additionally learning by watching videos is far too passive. It gives you a sense of accomplishment even though they do little to build understanding of key concepts or help you to retain facts.

    I still find myself making excuses to watch them instead of “doing the work” and resorting to textbooks / exercises at times though. It’s so easy to let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you’re actually accomplishing something by watching hours of lectures, even when the results speak for themselves.

  • Nick Chen

    “The last few years have seen a burst of new educational platforms. Khan Academy, Coursera and edX, were just a few. At the core of all of these platforms is the same thing: video lectures.”

    I think you are overgeneralizing about video lectures and online courses so I’m offering different perspectives about this subject matter.

    While it might have been true of video lectures on ITunesU, not all online educational platforms are passive. Some of these online MOOCs have built-in quizzes during the video lectures that you have to take before you can proceed with the video. Not only does this force you to think but it also gives you immediate feedback if you get it wrong because the lecturer explains the answer.

    While you can watch the videos passively, to get a certificate, you need to actually do the assignments and problem sets. If the course and auto grader is designed properly, you get immediate feedback on your answers including explanations on what you might have done wrong (common mistakes).

    In addition, for newer subjects (at the frontier of research), there simply aren’t enough books available yet. Most of the materials are from newly published academic papers that are hard to digest for students without the necessary background. So lecture slides and lectures (video or real life) from the pioneers of such subjects are the only way to explain them in a way that is accessible.

    So while I agree with the gist of your article, I think it is unfair to lump all video lectures together.

  • Luke

    So true, Scott!

  • Marcelo Chinellato

    Hey Scott,

    Thanks, that is a great post!! I totally agree with you! For years I have skipped lectures at university whenever I found that my time could be better spent elsewhere. I used that time to do problem solving or challenge myself with additional reading. As a result today I feel more comfortable about self taught methods and focus on what yields best results. I think the main advantage from a lecture is to answer your questions or when the lecturer challenges you to participate and give you instant feedback. However, you can’t achieve that through video.

    Most of my friends who stuck to lectures (even the useless ones) said that I would feel “guilty” if they missed them or that they can only learn something if someone else was explaining it to them. I think they just didn’t try hard enough on their own and I guess they just need to change some of their pre-conceptions and will achieve better results!

  • Dave Eckstrom

    I think a very important question to answer, when we launch into the currently fashionable activity of bashing educational video is, “What is a lecture?”. Lectures can be very interactive, not only passive. That can also be true of video lectures.
    And if the key is practice problems, Khan Academy (of which I am not a huge fan, btw) has a very elaborate program of practice problems to support the videos. This makes the videos secondary to the practice and can be used by the student only when they have a genuine question that needs to be answered. In that case, the viewer is not passive, but actively seeking an answer to a question.
    I currently teach my high school chemistry classes through a flipped-classroom approach using educational video that I have created and deliver online. It’s been very successful, but I think that is because chemistry is so abstract it almost demands the narrative of a lecture format. However, the real beauty of flipping my classroom is not the video. It’s that during the day, my classroom is a hive of practice-problem activity, in which I see kids often getting stuck and then flipping open their laptops and going to my video because they are genuinely engaged and now want to know what I’ve said on the video.
    Like MIT, however, I have mostly abandoned that approach when it comes to my physics classes. There the concepts can be built much more easily from the concrete and the abstracted models can be developed more effectively by the students themselves, so I now teach physics through group problem-solving exclusively. The videos are treated as a second-best alternative for kids who were absent or need some remediation.

  • Arjan

    I agree.
    Videos should be regarded as an additional resource. Watching videos can help you to get a picture about whatever you’re going to study, so you’ll find it easier to get started with the real stuff (reading textbooks and doing assignments).

  • Antidote

    From personal experience, I agree with you.
    I don’t use Khan Academy to learn new concepts, just to refresh techniques, of say finding electric field in a toroid, and only in case I can find a video specifically addressing a class of problems I am looking to solve. But this is only when I already have a decent idea about the topic.
    When I needed to learn how to solve, say second order differential equations, I found the videos pretty much useless. Here I need more examples and practice problems. So I switched to Paul’s online notes.

  • Scott Young


    I’ve been doing some Coursera courses and I’d say they are some of the best done videos–short and as interactive as you can get in a video setting. They also have practice problems and quizzes, so I’d say they’re certainly more robust than otherwise.

    My critique isn’t the platform, but students who watch all the lectures but skip the important step of practicing.


    As I said to Dave, it’s merely an emphasis, not an omission. Good MOOCs have a lot of interactive parts and problem solving, so they’re certainly not passive. But I think they emphasize the passive parts because casual (and lazy) students will often skip the work part to do the watching part.


  • Joy

    Even with the in-lecture quizzes and the like, I much prefer reading the textbook, especially for certain subjects. Take the instance of language learning -at a certain point your level will not be in sync with the lecture material. Better to skip though a book and repeat/quiz on key information. Or take a subject you already have some familiarity with -is it really worth it to sit through 40 minutes (or 20 if you’re fast) to get to the nuggets you haven’t heard?

    For this reason, I’ve found myself quitting a MOOC on genetics because I’m too bored/frustrated with sifting through the excessive thoroughness. Back to books and original papers for me.

    Scott, you probably knew some physics or biology and merely “tested out” as a way of verifying/”taking” a course on MIT open courseware? This seems important to make headway into an undergrad depth of knowledge on a given subject.

    I’ve heard that some people learn primarily though auditory pathways or that auditory learning holds more easily/or longer in our memory, but I still think this is inferior. I can still remember songs I learned in choir or heard on the radio (however, some of that also involved constant feedback and testing). So what if you can passively recognize a concept or melody or even reproduce some of it -to sing the melody *in tune, with precision* or put your own creative spin on the information seems the point of university.

  • Jeremy

    Great post! Completely agree. Similarly I find reading on its own has the danger of a passive, easy sense of learning something, without fully engaging with the material or processing the hard parts.

  • phil


    what did you do if you didn’t understand the answer to a problem even after looking at the solution?

  • Scott Young


    Then you have to go back to the sources and seek out explanations. You can do this by watching videos, reading textbooks, even looking at Wikipedia or other resources.


  • Panda

    Hi Scott,
    Good point.
    The more control you have for where and how much you are for learning a subject, like in books, you can go to any page at any time, staring at any sentence for however much time you need, the more individually reasonable you can arrange your energy for different topics(sections) in a course.

    It’s just so much easier to turn pages to where you want than to turn video to a certain time point you want. Actively seeking an answer with content section guide is much more efficient than being fed with a fixed order speech.

    For myself, I’m starting to write blog regularly about my audio DSP textbook reading, pretending to explain it to other people. And I learn so much more by trying to actively “explain” it. It’s all about having active control over your learning.

  • K Muniam

    Thanks! Now I finally know where to get my deliberate practice from!

  • Matthew Pearce

    Video’s more useful than Scott makes out. Listening to someone speak is very natural, and helps, me at least, to see through the notation in technical subjects. Particularly when I’m first trying to get to grips with an area. Lecturers (good ones at least) tend to provide intuition in a way that can sometimes be squeezed out of text by formality.

    More importantly, it’s a false dichotomy. You can watch a video and read a book.

    Problem sets are paramount. But before they can be done successfully some kind of handle on the concepts is needed. Whether that’s obtained from a video or a book… whatever works.

    The point about the range of content available is totally valid. But if video is available there’s no sense in not making use of it

  • Ethan

    It’s uncanny how relevant yours posts are to my situation. The past few weeks I’ve tried to find the most efficient way of learning and I agree that lectures take less effort while feeling like you’ve learnt a lot but in reality, when it comes to applying this to practice problems, you realise that very little actually was comprehended.

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post.

  • Scott Young


    As I state in the post, I like video and I’d always follow it when I was able to. However, after having done a lot of classes, high quality problem sets with in-depth solutions (or some other, yet-undeveloped interactive feedback system) is far more critical to learning.


  • Patrick

    Insightful observations about the danger of passive “learning” through watching. Reminds me of the classic Confucian aphorism, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Nice job unpacking and modernizing this age-old idea.

  • Nikki

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I thought I was crazy! With the influx of podcasts and YouTube videos to teach, I really just want to read the material and apply it! The only time I’ve found video useful is when I can “do” while watching (or listening, in the case of podcasts). But, overall, I’d rather read the transcript, an article, or a book – it’s usually faster and sticks better for me!

  • Kiran

    One of the assumptions made in this post is that all lectures have the same information density, which is certainly not true. There are lecture videos that I can breeze through, and there are other which introduce several keywords or terms that I don’t understand well enough, which would require one to slow down a lot.
    I find this true of Coursera as well. In the same course taught by one prof, one video can be a breeze and the other, well, a plod.
    I find the doing the following helps in my understanding: I listen to a lecture and write down questions, usually Explain this or Describe that. A day later, I make an audio podcast of the question and the answer. At that point (if I’m unable to answer well) I jump through the slides to fill in gaps in my understanding.
    Listening to the podcasts later not only refreshes my understanding, but throws up a lot of questions that highlight gaps in what I know.

  • Malcolm

    I agree that video isn’t the best way to learn. I’ve been doing alot of video tutorials on learning to use a 3d graphics program and I was frustrated when trying to do the tutorial after watching it or while watching the tutorial.

    I found myself having to keep rewinding the tutorial to catch minor things, where text would have been much quicker to find. Video was fine for an overview of the techniques but watching for an hour and then taking 2 hours was to try and replicate the procedures not to mention forgetting what you do after that because you’re just trying to get through the tutorial is just not efficient.

    I would think a quick written summary would be quicker, but its harder for the producer of the tutorial sometimes to do text vs. just recording your screen. I do get frustrated though with text learning i.e. computer books written including tutorials. There’s too much chance for error that puts a stop to everything until you figure out what you did wrong or if the book had a typo.

    I think one way to improve the process would be to not try and produce a step by step process to produce something but instead take the key points and focus on practicing those through repetition or greater understanding of the big picture.

    I think the biggest problem with video is false idea that you are learning when you are really mostly consuming entertainment unless you are actively trying to take notes and or comprehend.

  • Amy


    I completely agree with your skepticism of one’s ability to learn “better” by watching lectures. I am a firm believer that all education is self-education. To learn, one must be an active participant and it is far too easy to become passive when watching a video. However, I also think you are also overlooking the value these videos can add to one’s education.

    This value is heavily dependent upon the subject, and structure, of the course. For an entry level physics course, in which the professor’s lecture is simply a regurgitation of the information in the textbook, the value of this lecture is limited. For an intermediate history course, in which the professor’s lecture explores the connections between several different primary and secondary sources, the value of this lecture is significantly greater.

    Learning the “basics” can easily be achieved by reading a textbook and answering practice questions. However, as one progresses into more advanced material, I believe the lecture is extremely useful in exploring the various different viewpoints of a subject, how this subject relates to the individual, and how this subject relates to humanity as a whole. In addition, I believe it is “easier” to learn technical material from a textbook that it is to learn more humanistic material (i.e., history, philosophy, etc.).

    So, while my primary concern when evaluating free, open, online course is the availability of a good reading list and numerous practice problems/writing assignments, the availability of lectures also influences my decision. And I certainly hope that as more and more universities publish open courseware, they continue to include taped lectures with this information.

  • Rick

    Dear Scott, I’d like to share my point of view on this interesting topic.
    Bear in mind that I’m a college student.

    As I’ve been using MIT OCW’s material in addition to my own material for some of the courses I follow at university, I completely get your point that video lectures, at some point, are more unuseful than else.
    Let’s define that point.

    Being a student in a scientific subject (Physics) I know that the real essence of learning lies in problem solving. You may know every physical law, but if you can’t apply them to actual problems, that means nothing.
    Solving problems is the most important thing, but you need to know some theory before. “Walk before run”.
    So if you are a “pro” student, in the sense that your actual job and duty is to study, then you need to focus on problems, provided you know the theory, and most the times video lectures are not an optimized way of spending the time available to study.

    Studying theory on a book or on some notes AND having access to problems with solutions (and possibly the solving method, if available for any of those probems) is better than having access at just video lectures.

    This apply in particular to scientific subjects; I don’t study any social or humanistic subject at college, therefore I don’t have an opinion on that.

    Let’s also say that in my free time I like to study on MOOC sites; to be honest I only use Coursera.
    In this case I’m a “non-pro” student, which means I study for fun and the things I study are not part of my curriculum studiorum.
    It is nice to have video lectures, in general I find them relaxing, easy to follow, because of their slow-pace a course on Coursera does not take efforts and time to be followed.

    My 3 cents.

    — Rick

  • Rick

    Reading my comment again I think I missed my point.
    I’d like to explain it briefly: a student should focus on exercises. Video lectures are good, but having access to notes/books and exercises is what a student is (should) looking for.
    That is if you’re a “pro” student on my previous definition.

    If you’re a “non-pro” student, that thought doesn’t hold any longer.
    For example, video lectures have been the core of the Coursera course on Mozart’s Sonatas I attended this fall.