Is the large lecture theatre really dead? History tells us no…

AS universities across the world race to modernise their learning spaces to better meet the educational challenges of the 21st century, is the humble lecture theatre’s true value being overlooked? Professor Norma Martin Clement delves into the history books to shine a light on this evolving debate.

There are regular opinion pieces in academic news journals and blogs declaring boldly the large lecture theatre is dead.   Only the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom, however, has been brave enough to create a brand new campus without any large lecture theatres at all.

For a pedagogic-style which pre-dates the invention of the printing press, lectures have been remarkably resilient.


One of the first images of a lecture in progress dates from 1233 (see above image).

It shows Henry of Germany delivering a law lecture at the University of Bologna, Italy. Henry sits in a pulpit-like structure raised above the listeners below.

Looking at the students depicted by Laurentius de Voltolina, it seems that not much has changed in the last 700 years: the keen interested students are seated at the front of the class with their notebooks in front of them.

Two rows back there is the student who had a late night and is now slumbering through the lecture and at the very back of the class are the students who are more interested in chatting to each other than paying attention to the lecture.

The only difference between then and now: Henry would be displaying Powerpoints rather than reading from a book and all the students would be sitting with their laptops propped in front of them.

It almost goes without saying that despite the flowing robes, long curled locks and a variety of headwear, all the students in Laurentius’s painting were men so a further difference in the modern lecture theatre would be the presence of women.

AUTHOR: Professor Norma Martin Clement.


So how has the architecture of the lecture theatre changed over time?

The typical “traditional” lecture theatre with tiered rows of seats can be traced back to the anatomy lecture theatres which originated in Renaissance Italy.

The first permanent lecture theatre with six concentric galleries for spectators was built in Padua in 1594, followed by Leyden in 1597 and the Barber-Surgeon’s Hall in London in 1636.

Seating on rows of wooden benches lasted through to the 19th century, albeit some examples of Victorian lecture theatres have upholstered benches.

Desks for students to write on seem to have come later and certainly mid to late -20th century lecture theatres such as in the Roger Stevens building at the University of Leeds – built in 1970 – have long desks as well as benches.

An alternative lecture theatre design originated at Harvard where Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell pioneered the case method of studying law at the Law School from 1870 which was then extended into the case study method by Harvard Business School from the 1920s.

The Harvard or horseshoe lecture theatre is typically U-shaped with seating which tends not to be as steeply raked as traditional lecture theatres.

The design enables dialogic exchanges between the lecturer and students as it allows the lecturer to move into the U, thereby shifting the interaction from public to social space.

Early innovation

So what innovations in lecture theatre design can we see in the 21st century?

Early interest in learning space design in higher education tended to focus on flat-floored classrooms, with Technology Enhanced Active Learning Spaces (TEALS) pioneered at MIT and North Carolina State University.

The first significant innovation in lecture space design was the Advanced Concept Teaching Space (ACTS) at the University of Queensland which opened in 2009.

This space seating 100 had shallowly arced rows on three tiers, with a double row of desks on each tier and individual swivel chairs on castors allowing students in the front row to turn around and form groups of 4.

The ACTS was designed to allow a hybrid pedagogy melding didactic exposition (the traditional lecture) with interactive collaborative work by the students.

The ACTS also integrated technology with each desk being equipped with a touch screen tablet PC as well as links to students’ own devices.

In many ways the ACTS can be seen as a precursor to the Collaborative Lecture Theatres created at the University of Leeds in 2016. 

Where there is a difference is that students rather than sitting in rows are clustered in ‘pods’ around a shared desk.

The design is not unique to Leeds but the integration of technology, again with a touchscreen hybrid laptop on each desk, is.

Students in one of the University of Leeds's transformed digitally enabled and collaborative lecture theatres.

LEARNING SPACE: Students in one of the University of Leeds’s transformed digitally enabled and collaborative lecture theatres.

‘Mega lecture theatres’

So are Collaborative Lecture Theatres the lecture theatres of the future?

It is notable that in all the examples of Collaborative Lecture Theatres, whether at Leeds or elsewhere, capacity tends to be between 100 and 200.

But as well as Collaborative Lecture Theatres we are also witnessing the construction of what might be called “Mega Lecture Theatres”.

For example Oregon State University has a lecture theatre which accommodates 630 students.

In terms of design it is a completely circular space with the lecturer on a raised stage in the centre of the room.

There are no rows of benches and desks, instead students sit in shallow tiers on individual chairs with writing tablets.

Larger still is Klarman Hall at Harvard Business School holding the full MBA class of 1000 students.

This is a multi-tiered auditorium, again with individual seats and no desks.

In many ways, these Mega Lecture Theatres might be seen as harking back to the lecture theatres of the 16th century where the lecturer expounds and the students listen.

Not broken

So reports of the demise of large lecture theatres seem premature.

Modern universities have a variety of different types of learning spaces, physical and virtual, designed to accommodate different pedagogies.

Lecture theatres will continue to be constructed, refurbished and used, probably because a lecture has never been simply about transmission of information.

And it is that which probably accounts for their longevity and continuing significance across the world.

Professor Norma Martin Clement will be delivering a seminar: Lecture Theatres of the Future? The Leeds experience at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Research on Learning and Innovation on December 4.