One Learns More by Listening than Talking

By 06/29/2010

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Is the stand-up lecture the better educational method?  Or should students be encouraged to engage in problem solving, sometimes on their own, sometimes with the guidance of their teacher?

I’ve often wondered, in part because in some undergraduate classes I mainly lecture, while in others I engage students in conversations that might loosely be termed problem-solving. Students like the latter approach better, if end-of-course evaluations are to be believed, but I have often wondered whether much was learned from all the conversation.

Now, two German economists, Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann, working with data collected from American teachers back in 2003, have shown that the lecture style, for all its unpopularity today, may still be the better method for teaching 8th graders.

While students were given international tests in math and science, their teachers were asked what percentage of the overall class time was being spent on lectures, and what percent was being spent either on individual problem-solving or problem solving under the guidance of the teacher.  Test results for 8th graders who had a lecture-oriented teacher for one of the two subjects (math or science) and a teacher who took a problem solving approach for the other subject, were then compared to see in which subject the student learned more.

The study is very sophisticated.  It adjusts for many other factors that affect student test performance, and many other teacher characteristics.  So the results are not easily dismissed as due to some other factor—though it is conceivable that any teacher who chooses the lecture method is just a better teacher overall (over and above other indicators of teacher quality available to the researchers).

So I am no longer prepared to apologize for my brilliant lectures jam-packed with scintillating content.  For students it may be more fun to talk than to listen, but chances seem good that they learn more by listening.

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