Harvard Study Shows that Lecture-Style Presentations Lead to Higher Student Achievement

By Education Next 04/19/2011

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Janice B. Riddell, (203) 912-8675, janice_riddell@hks.harvard.edu, External Relations, Education Next
Guido Schwerdt, schwerdt@ifo.de
Amelie C. Wuppermann, wuppermann@uni-mainz.de

Harvard Study Shows that Lecture-Style Presentations Lead to Higher Student Achievement

Widely-used problem-solving pedagogy as implemented in practice is not as effective for raising achievement levels

Cambridge, MA – A new study finds that 8th grade students in the U.S. score higher on standardized tests in math and science when their teachers allocate greater amounts of class time to lecture-style presentations than to group problem-solving activities.  For both math and science, the study finds that a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecture-style presentations (for example, increasing the share of time spent lecturing from 60 to 70 percent) is associated with a rise in student test scores of 4 percent of a standard deviation for the students who had the exact same peers in both their math and science classes – or between one and two months’ worth of learning in a typical school year.

These estimates are based on the actual implementation of teaching practices that the researchers observe in practice.  Thus, while problem-solving activities may be very effective if implemented in the correct way, simply inducing the average teacher employed today to shift time in class from lecture style presentations to problem solving, without concern for how this is implemented, contains little potential to increase student achievement.  On the contrary, the study’s results indicate that there might even be adverse effects on student learning.

Guido Schwerdt, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, and Amelie C. Wuppermann, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mainz, Germany, conducted the study.  A research article, “Sage on the Stage,” presenting the study’s findings will appear in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next.

The researchers used data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  Their sample includes 6,310 students in 205 U.S. schools with 639 teachers (303 math teachers and 355 science teachers, of which 19 teacher both subjects).  In addition to test scores in math and science, the TIMSS data include information on teacher characteristics, qualifications, and classroom practices.  Most important for the analysis, teachers were asked what proportion of time in a typical week students spent on each of eight activities, and the authors’ methodology focused on three of these activities — listening to lecture-style presentations, working on problems with the teacher’s guidance, and working on problems without guidance — as a “good proxy for the time in class in which students are taught new material.”  They divide the amount of time spent listening to lecture-style presentations by the total amount of time spent on each of these three activities to generate a single measure of how much time the teacher devoted to lecturing relative to how much time was devoted to problem-solving activities.

Schwerdt and Wuppermann observe that in recent years, a consensus has emerged among researchers that teacher quality “matters enormously for student performance,” but that relatively few rigorous studies have looked inside the classroom to see what kinds of teaching styles are the most effective.  Their study of teaching styles finds 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.”  They report that prominent organizations such as the National Research Council and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for at least the last three decades, have “called for teachers to engage students in constructing their own new knowledge through more hands-on learning and group work.”  The emphasis on group problem-solving instructional methods has been incorporated into most U.S. teacher preparation programs, and the authors found that teachers in the study’s sample allocated, on average, twice as much time to problem-solving activities as to lecturing, or “direct instruction.”

The researchers recognize that a key challenge in studying the effects of teaching practices is that “teachers may adjust their methods in response to the ability or behavior of their students,” perhaps relying more on lectures when assigned more capable or attentive students.  To address these concerns, they “exploit the fact that the TIMSS study tested each student in both mathematics and science,” which allowed them to compare the math and science test scores of individual students whose teacher in one subject tended to emphasize a different teaching style than their teacher in the other subject.  They found that in both math and science, the positive relationship between lecture-style methods and test score gains was maintained. The estimated .04 standard deviation impact of a greater emphasis on lecturing is based on students who had the same peers in both classes, because that minimizes the chances that teaching styles — and their consequences — might differ depending on the composition of the class.

About the Authors
Guido Schwerdt is a postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University and a research at the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, Germany.  Amelie C. Wuppermann is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mainz, Germany.

About Education Next
Education Next
is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

For more information please visit:  www.educationnext.org

Comment on this article
  • Bob says:

    So teaching to the test really does work, duh! But can they apply their knowledge outside of taking a test which doesn’t measure application.

  • Randall F says:

    Interesting study but it assumes that learning = doing well on a standardized test. A better study would be to see if lecturing leads to better critical thinking and problem solving skills.

  • Parker says:

    Come on commenters. Enough with the test bashing. Might there be too much testing? Maybe. But, I would wager that students who score better on tests would score better on any critical thinking task you gave them also. I can usually tell which students in my class will score well on standardized tests by just talking to them for a minutes about what we are doing in class. The ones who can articulate thoughts and show understanding are the ones who also perform well on those world ending god-awful standardized tests.

  • Yup. says:

    Yes, it doesn’t have to be teaching to a test — it just has to be teaching! And as Parker points out, there aren’t that many kids who do horribly on standardized tests (not just average, but below average) who are otherwise burning up the classroom with their insights and innovative thinking.

    You have to have things to think about before you can innovate and think critically. You have to KNOW things!

  • Graciela Trilla, Ed.D. says:

    I am concerned about the lack of student diversity, namely that they are “peers”. Assumptions are present that all students are fluent in English and similarly able to synthesize information in a passive teacher-as-lecturer learner format. In fact the study claims that the groups of students were uniform in profile and that this was done to avoid the “consequences” of teachers instructing to the needs of varied students. I believe the study is more an affirmation of homogeneous grouping and teacher ability to focus students using a consistent delivery of instruction rather than a dismissal of student- directed active learning environments. In our typical urban school districts with English learners, students with processing, developmental, and learning issues, disenfranchised parents, class sizes exceeding 35…. differentiated instruction is the expectation. The danger of this kind of study is that “old school” zealots, enamored of the sound of their own voices will gain license in continuing to provide passive, one-dimensional instruction furthering the time honored notion that one size fits all.

  • Lisa Jones says:

    It’s not about “teaching to the test” but rather individual academic achievement versus “group think,” which has been promoted by many for the last 30 years!
    (as referenced in the article)

    Students who know and are able to achieve academically are students who have been taught. (period)

    Imagine that! Achieving results by allowing teachers to actually teach content!!

  • Anne says:

    I would rather my eight year old spend more time learning from the teacher than from her classmates.

  • […] 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. […]

  • C. Mueller says:

    Randall F: Critical thinking skills are only used when a person has background knowledge. This is why lectures work: it imparts KNOWLEDGE from the teacher to the student. Every good teacher then has the students use the knowledge in a practice session–either worksheets or labs. That’s when critical thinking is used. This is also known as Bloom’s Taxonomy.
    Here are references:


  • Joe says:

    Any good teacher knows that all teaching strategies have a place in their repertory.

  • Barry Garelick says:

    Direct instruction provides worked examples for students to solve problems–such problems often are scaffolded so that students can make cognitive leaps in homework assignments that are derided as “drill and kill”. See: http://www.educationnews.org/k-12-schools/fran-henderson-pingry-and-me-a-tale-of-problems-vs-exercises/

  • Kate Martin says:

    I noticed they’re comparing lectures to GROUP problem solving. I think the data clearly shows that if the kids watch Khan Academy to get the lecture or even their teacher doing a lecture in a video for homework, or read the book if they’re capable, they can come to class and learn quite a bit working on problem solving. I would vouch for much of that to be on an individual level as kids are individuals. Some group work is great, but lots of kids hate group work as one or two kids do the work and the rest do nothing. Learning to work in groups shouldn’t have to be what math class is about.

  • Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    It was written by GT:

    “In our typical urban school districts with English learners, students with processing, developmental, and learning issues, disenfranchised parents, class sizes exceeding 35…. differentiated instruction is the expectation.”

    So how is that “Differentiated Instruction” working out? It may be the “expectation” but that hardly makes it “effective”.

    There are a lot of “Best Practices” that are a flop. John Hattie in “Visible Learning” has data that shows this Harvard finding is not unexpected.

  • […] if we just lecture, that is unless we are ineffectively executing alternative approaches. In fact, a recent Harvard study found: . . . while problem-solving activities may be very effective if implemented in the correct […]

  • Gary Peterson says:

    …..but use collaborative methods too because that allows the kind of socialization that enhances executive function when the students help each other to organize the facts and even use higher level cognition. Explicit directions for group work provides a wonderful opportunity to master the material in a fuller manner.

  • Jack says:

    All these comments saying this study is irrelevant because it is measuring success by standardized tests. Here is the problem:

    The majority of schools still use standardized test to measure achievement and grant funding. Yes, group based problem solving would be a great way for kids to learn if they were assessed in real world problem solving scenarios. However that is not the case – teachers are expected to facilitate group based inquiry and problem solving, but are still held accountable by how their students do on the multiple choice standardized tests. Either we come up with a new way of assessing our students that aligns with the common core method of instruction, or we return back to the lecture style teaching which is better suited for the current standardized tests that we are all being subjected to.

    My 2 cents.

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