Sage on the Stage: Is lecturing really all that bad? By Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann

Ever since John Dewey explored hands-on learning at the University of Chicago Laboratory School more than a century ago, lecture-style presentations have been criticized as old-fashioned and ineffective.I skipped the part of the article that explains that last paragraph: This was quite a large study, which allowed the researchers to dig deep into the data. One of the ways they looked at it was to look at that group of students who had a math teacher who used one method and a science teacher who used the other: in other words, the exact same students were looked at in each class. In this way all socio-economic and other external factors should disappear (such as teachers tailoring their classrooms to the abilities of their students), since they tracked one student through two different classes. In this data they found even stronger correlations between lecture-style teaching and results. Ten percent (10%) more time spent on lecture-style teaching resulted in students getting two more months of learning in one year.

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Alternative instructional practices based on active and problem-oriented learning presumably do not suffer from these disadvantages. But they may have their own shortcomings. Learning by problem-solving may be less efficient, as discovery and problem-solving often take more time than mastering information received from an authority figure. And incorrect or misleading information may be conveyed in conversations among students in middle schools.

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In our study, we examine whether student achievement in the United States is affected by the share of teaching time devoted to lecture-style presentations as distinct from problem-solving activities. Employing information on in-class time use provided by a nationally representative sample of U.S. teachers in the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), we estimate the impact of teaching practices on student achievement by looking at the differential effects on the same student of two different teachers, using two different teaching strategies.We find that teaching style matters for student achievement, but in the opposite direction than anticipated by conventional wisdom: an emphasis on lecture-style presentations (rather than problem-solving activities) is associated with an increase—not a decrease—in student achievement.This result implies that a shift to problem-solving instruction is more likely to adversely affect student learning than to improve it.

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Contrary to contemporary pedagogical thinking, we find that students score higher on standardized tests in the subject in which their teachers spent more time on lecture-style presentations than in the subject in which the teacher devoted more time to problem-solving activities. For both math and science, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecture-style presentations (e.g., increasing the share of time spent lecturing from 20 to 30 percent) is associated with an increase in student test scores of 1 percent of a standard deviation. Another way to state the same finding is that students learn less in the classes in which their teachers spend more time on in-class problem solving.

Importantly, the strength of the relationship increases when we restrict our analysis to the roughly one-third of students in the TIMSS sample who had the exact same peers in both their math and science classes. Among this group of students, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecturing is associated with an increase in test scores of almost 4 percent of a standard deviation—or between one and two months’ worth of learning in a typical school year (see Figure 3). This pattern increases our confidence that the overall result does not reflect differences in the peer composition of students’ math or science classes. In fact, it suggests that peer effects may actually be leading us to understate the strength of the relationship between lecturing and student learning.

(An unabridged version of the article is available here.)

Also, another summary of this study is available here: Harvard Study Shows that Lecture-Style Presentations Lead to Higher Student Achievement

(Of course, in the process of looking over this tab I opened four more based on links from this one!)

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