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On the Benefits of Lectures

One of the axioms of progressivist education is that the lecture format is an inefficient and, potentially, alienating method of instruction.  The “sage on the stage” has to pretend that all students have the same abilities and learning styles, and he or she has to package the material into a linear, factual presentation that keeps the students passive and disengaged from it.  Create more problem-solving units, more collaborative projects, and more “ownership” for the students and learning will increase.

That’s the progressivist theory, and it dominates pedagogy studies and training programs.  Here’s a study from Education Next, however, that reverses the outcome. Guido Schwerdt, postdoc at Harvard University and researchers at the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, and Amelie Wupperman, postdoc at University of Mainz, analyzed data from the 2003 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and were able to draw a significant conclusion.  They charted 6,310 8th-graders in 205 schools in the United States to correlate how well they did on the exam with the kind of instruction they typically receive in math and science classes.  They asked teachers how much they lecture, how much they help students work on their own problems with teacher assistance, and how much they let students work on problems with no teacher assistance at all.

The popularity of problem-solving pedagogy was clear and unsurprising.  Teachers in the study devote twice the time to it that they devote to lecture/presentation (40 percent to 20 percent—the rest of the time goes to classroom management and other activities).

The other finding, however, was quite surprising.  The authors summarize:

“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.”

It wasn’t a large difference—one percent of a standard deviation—but the difference went up when the authors stuck to students who had, the authors write, “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.”

The authors guard against drawing too firm a conclusion from this study, noting, for instance, that TIMSS emphasized factual knowledge, while other tests, such as PISA, emphasize problem solving.  But a softer conclusion they offer with confidence:

“The results suggest that traditional lecture-style teaching in U.S. middle schools is less of a problem than is often believed.”

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