Want to teach students to solve problems? Ditch the lecture

Teaching styles may be interfering with skill development, researchers find

We've covered a lot of research lately criticizing traditional lecture halls as an effective way for students to learn. 

Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin suggested that lectures are biased against minority, low-income, and female students, and EAB's senior consultant Ann Forman told us that "student learning outcomes may not be maximized by the traditional lecture format"—to name a few.

Now, a new study from the University of British Columbia's (UBC) Okanagan campus concludes that lectures are unlikely to teach students problem-solving skills.

The UBC researchers define problem solving as a "person's capacity to use their brain power to resolve a real, cross-disciplinary situation in which a solution (is) not immediately obvious."

Heather Hurren, one of the study's authors and a manager of academic development at UBC's Centre for Teaching and Learning in Kelowna, says that "problem solving is becoming an increasingly sought-after skill."

Here's how employers look for problem-solving skills during interviews

Plus, a 2011 study from Statistics Canada shows people tend to experience a plateau in their problem-solving skills during adulthood—which could explain why schools have been zeroing in on the best way to impart these skills early on.

To conduct the study, the UBC researchers created a testing system adapted from a test originally from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which assesses students in only 15 minutes.

The researchers issued the test to a total of 2,229 first- and upper-year students from 26 courses. Each student completed the test twice—once at the beginning of the school year's first semester, and again at the end. 

Interestingly enough, the study did detect the development of problem-solving skills, but only within first-year students, whose problem-solving skills increased by about 10% in their first semester.

After freshman year, the students in traditional lecture courses showed no sign of problem-solving improvement.

Andis Klegeris, another of the study's authors, says the results show that traditional university lectures aren't building the skills students will need for future employment.

If not the lecture, then what?

"If they haven't already, professors will need to move from traditional lectures and expectations of memorization to approaches that see small groups of students actively discover knowledge on their own," says Hurren. 

Active learning classrooms, explained

Writing for BBC News, Matt Pickles names a number of schools that have already shifted toward active learning classrooms, including:

  • Harvard University;
  • Stanford University;
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and
  • Edge Hill University in Lancashire, United Kingdom.

Pickles cites a study by Professor Scott Freeman of the University of Washington that found "students' rate of failure was lower when they moved from lectures to active learning, and their exam results improved" (Grant, UBC Okanagan News, 12/14; Pickles, BBC News, 11/23).

New physical designs could facilitate active learning. Here's how to build them in a cost effective way


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