Education Next has an article Harvard Study Shows that Lecture-Style Presentations Lead to Higher Student Achievement that weighs in on a currently controversial subject in education circles: the value of lectures. There is a longer article about the study also in Education Next: Sage on the Stage by Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann, and the full report (including the actual regression models fitted) is available from the authors.
The dominant meme among recent graduates of education schools is that lecturing is dead, and that almost any other approach to teaching is better. This is not a particularly recent meme: John Dewey argued for hand-on learning in place of lecturing over a century ago and Alison King’s article “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side” was published in College Teaching, Vol. 41, 1993 and has been cited at least 186 times. Thus the conclusion of the Harvard study, that lecturing is sometimes superior, has been greeted by many as heresy, even though the majority of teaching is still done by lecturing.
The study itself evaluated one variable: amount of time spent lecturing versus amount of time spent on in-class problem solving for middle-school students. The output measurement was scores on standardized tests.
This was not a controlled experiment the way a drug trial might be, with different groups of students being randomly assigned to get different educational treatments. It would be impossible to do that on a large scale, and the impossible to do a double-blind study.
Instead, the authors came up with a clever trick for using existing data from many students and still get good matching controls. The used the TIMSS data from “6,310 students in 205 schools with 639 teachers (303 math teachers and 355 science teachers, of which 19 teach both subjects). “ Information about classroom practices had been collected, including amount of time spent in 8 different in-class activities. On average the teachers spend about 40% of classroom time on problem-solving activities and 20% on lecturing.
One of the problems with using existing data like this is separating cause from effect—do students do better under one teaching style or is that teaching style chosen because the students are better scholars? The clever trick here is that the students were tested in 2 different but related subjects (math and science), usually taught by two different teachers. Thus differences in score for a single student control to a large extent for the student-specific variables that usually confound such studies.
Here is their main result:
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.
The effect was even stronger in classes where the same group of students were together for both math and science, and stronger still among above-average students. It seems that the popular (with teachers) group work is hurting the brighter students. The evidence that above-average students are hurt more by avoiding lectures than below-average students is only suggestive, not statistically significant—both groups are hurt by avoiding lecturing.
The authors do put in all the appropriate caveats about the limitations of their study: only 8th graders were in science and math on one particular measurement of achievement (albeit a highly respected one) and the information about pedagogical time use came from teachers’ self reports, which may have strong observer bias, given the dominant meme that one particular teaching style is preferred.
Given the limitations of the data, our finding that spending increased time on lecture-style teaching improves student test scores results should not be translated into a call for more lecture-style teaching in general. But the results do suggest that traditional lecture-style teaching in U.S. middle schools is less of a problem than is often believed.
Newer teaching methods might be beneficial for student achievement if implemented in the proper way, but our findings imply that simply inducing teachers to shift time in class from lecture-style presentations to problem solving without ensuring effective implementation is unlikely to raise overall student achievement in math and science. On the contrary, our results indicate that there might even be an adverse impact on student learning.