Thursday, May 12, 2011

New research on student learning: The lecture method sucks; the lecture method rules!

Here are two seemingly conflicting studies on the effectiveness of the lecture method versus a problem-solving approach to classroom instruction. First up is this study done by a group of researchers at U. of British Columbia who found that a problem-solving approach to undergrad science instruction was almost twice as effective as the lecture method as measured by student testing:

In this study, Wieman trained a postdoc, Louis Deslauriers, and a graduate student, Ellen Schelew, in an educational approach, called “deliberate practice,” that asks students to think like scientists and puzzle out problems during class. For 1 week, Deslauriers and Schelew took over one section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors, which met three times for 1 hour. A tenured physics professor continued to teach another large section using the standard lecture format.

The results were dramatic: After the intervention, the students in the deliberate practice section did more than twice as well on a 12-question multiple-choice test of the material as did those in the control section. They were also more engaged—attendance rose by 20% in the experimental section, according to one measure of interest—and a post-study survey found that nearly all said they would have liked the entire 15-week course to have been taught in the more interactive manner.

Contrast that with a study done by German researchers who found, with respect to 8th graders, the lecture method resulted in more student learning than a problem-solving approach.  Here's an excerpt:

To see whether this tilt toward the problem-solving approach helps middle schoolers learn, Schwerdt and Wuppermann identified those 8th graders who had the same classmates in both math and science, but different teachers. Then they estimated the impact on student learning of class time allocated to direct instruction versus problem solving. Under which circumstance did U. S. middle-school students learn more?

Direct instruction won. Students learned 3.6 percent of a standard deviation more if the teacher spent 10 percent more time on direct instruction. That’s one to two months of extra learning during the course of the year.

The students who benefited most from direct instruction were those who were already higher-performing at the beginning of the year. But even initial low performers learned more when direct instruction consumed more class time. Sadly, U.S. middle-school pedagogy is weighted heavily toward problem-solving.

What are law profs suppose to make of this?  Maybe a hybrid style is best; one that combines lectures that deliver background information with in-class problem solving exercises that engage students and reinforce the lecture material  in a concrete way. If you have other ideas about how to reconcile these studies, please let us know in the comments below.

Hat tip to Stephanie West Allen for the U of B.C. study.


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I think that the hybrid method you suggested is the correct solution. You need different approaches because of different learning styles, and one method reinforces another. In addition, a professor that uses only one style can be boring.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | May 12, 2011 8:51:02 PM

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