October 28th, 2014

Lecture Continues as the Dominant Instructional Strategy, Study Finds


Researchers Daniel Smith and Thomas Valentine begin by making an important point. At two-year colleges “the classroom serves as the epicenter of involvement.” (p. 134) The same could be said for commuter campuses as well. Students who attend two-year colleges often do so part-time and regularly do so combining school with work, family, and a host of other responsibilities. The same can increasingly be said of many students who commute to campus to take classes. At many institutions students now spend considerably less time on campus, and so if they are to be engaged with academic life, that involvement pretty much begins and ends in the classroom. So, are faculty using instructional techniques that do involve students in the classroom?

Smith and Valentine’s study put that question to 744 full- and part-time faculty teaching at eight technical colleges in the state of Georgia. They selected 18 specific instructional techniques (among them lecture, whole-class discussion, multimedia devices, hands-on activities, small group discussions, simulation activities, case studies, portfolios, and guest lectures) and asked faculty how often they used each of these techniques in the last 10 class sessions they taught.

And what did they find? “Overall, 92.8% of the respondents said they lectured four or more class sessions, with over half (52.6%) of these respondents indicating that they lectured during all 10 of the class sessions.” (p. 144) That made lecture the most used of these 18 instructional strategies. The other most commonly used techniques were full-group discussion, in 7.55 of the 10 sessions; course textbooks, used in 7.53 sessions; multimedia devices, used in 7.42 sessions; and hands-on activities, used in 6.64 of the sessions. Least-used techniques included peer tutors, used in 2.79 sessions; case studies, used in 2.78 sessions; portfolios, used in 2.58 sessions; capstone projects, used in 1.74 sessions; and guest lectures, used in 0.97 sessions.

That lecture continues to be the dominant instructional strategy is not surprising. Its widespread use is well documented. But it was the answer to the second research question that was most interesting and most surprising. Researchers Smith and Valentine also asked faculty to use a four-point scale to rate each of the 18 instructional approaches in terms of their effectiveness in helping students acquire information, acquire a skill, and apply knowledge. “The survey respondents consistently rated hands-on activities and practical exercises as the two most effective instructional techniques to accomplish the three student learning outcomes.” (p. 148) Lecture was rated the seventh-most effective method in accomplishing these objectives. Respondents rated debates, student-led discussion, portfolios, guest lecturers, and course textbooks as least effective at accomplishing these learning objectives.

Here’s what the researchers conclude. “Survey results indicated that technical college faculty approached their teaching responsibilities primarily from a teacher-centered perspective; however, the survey respondents identified instructional practices in a learner-centered paradigm to be more effective in aiding students in mastering three learning outcomes.” (p. 133)

Beyond that finding is the concern with which we began. If commuting students spend most of their time on campus in classrooms, then that venue is crucial in developing the engagement and commitment that degree completion requires. These findings raise questions about whether the teaching methods being used most frequently are the ones best suited to accomplishing the kind of engagement and success in learning that motivates students to continue their education.

Smith, D. J. and Valentine, T. (2012). The use and perceived effectiveness of instructional practices in two-year technical colleges. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 23 (1), 133-161.

Reprinted from Instructional Techniques: Those Used and Those Perceived to Promote Learning, The Teaching Professor, 27.3 (2013): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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  • I am not surprised by the results. My anecdotal interactions with colleagues suggests the same. I believe the disconnect between our predominant mode of teaching (lecture) vs what we know are better teaching and learning strategies (learner-centered strategies) is a result of the constraints on faculty's time. Developing learner-centered teaching strategies takes time and effort to develop and implement and then we face the typical student resistance that often accompanies learner-centered teaching – it is very counter-cultural from many points of view. Lectures are relatively easy because we (instructors) get to talk about what we know and we remain in control. Students prefer lectures because they get to be passive and take little responsibility for their own learning – it is easier in the short term for them. In contrast learner-centered teaching strategies take time to consider (what activity would be best for this class content, this student demographic, this particular sticky concept?) and then to implement is often messy because students are always coming up with something unexpected – we as instructors have lost control.

    But the learning benefits of learner-centered teaching in the long run I think are worth the effort. And students, I think, come to appreciate the experience and benefits…. later in life. But in the short term, students find it difficult and more work and faculty find it is difficult and more work and worse often do not feel appreciated for their efforts from administration or students.

    What will change survey results in the future? When will faculty indicate that they are using mostly learner-centered teaching strategies rather than lecturing because they know learner-centered strategies produce better learning outcomes? When faculty feel appreciated (awarded) for their efforts rather than being rewarded for telling students what to know and spend the rest of their time on research.

  • Teachers teach the way they were taught. Period. Professors don't have to be professional educators first, with many who have never had a single education course. If we want different outcomes in the classroom, there need to be different requirements to be a professor.

  • Perry Shaw

    With Mel Edwards I see a foundational factor in instructors' commitment to lecture (even when they themselves acknowledge its relative ineffectiveness) is lack of training. As lecture was the dominant model of instruction in their own education they have little experience in other methods.
    In many countries the poor quality of instruction in higher education is being addressed by the requirement that college and university faculty complete a year of educational training before being allowed to teach at university (as is the standard in elementary and secondary education). For example my niece completed a PhD in biology at the University of Queensland (Australia), but before being allowed to teach at the University she was required to complete a one-year Post-Graduate Diploma in Higher Education. Perhaps more colleges could strengthen the educational quality at their institutions by encouraging or even requiring such qualifications to be completed. We have begun on this pilgrimage at our school, requiring new faculty to do Post-Graduate studies in education – and we are already seeing the pay-off.

    • Teresa

      Can you tell me where you find the one year Post-Graduate Diplomas in Higher Education? I have my doctorate, not a PhD and was wondering if there was such a class available to me. Thank you for any information that you can provide.

      • Perry Shaw

        Hi Teresa!
        These Diplomas are becoming quite common in Australia and UK. Most require residence, but a growing number in Australia are being offered by distance education. I am not sure about the entry requirements for international students. If you log in “post graduate diploma in teaching and learning in higher education” into Google you will find numerous options.
        Some of the better options for distance education include:
        •Charles Sturt University (Australia). CSU is one of fastest growing and creative universities in Australia, and a forerunner in distance education. It would be my number one recommendation: http://www.csu.edu.au/courses/graduate-certificat
        •Macquarie University (Australia), one of the top schools in Australia in the field of education: http://courses.mq.edu.au/international/postgradua
        •Central Queensland University (Australia): http://www.cqu.edu.au/study/what-can-i-study/educ

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