Teaching more by lecturing less

An article in Cell Biology Education by Jennifer Knight and William Wood describes an experiment in which an upper-level biology course was taught in two ways: a traditional lecture format, and in a more interactive format that focused on cooperative problem solving during class time and asked students to learn content outside of class time. The researchers compared the learning gains in the two sections and found that the flipped-classroom model with cooperative problem solving in class resulted in greater conceptual understanding.

It is reasonably widely accepted that lecturing is not the most effective use of class time, and that students often don’t really understand material when they walk out of the lecture hall. Inquiry-based problem solving activities appear to be more useful in helping students to actually understand the material, but these types of activities can be difficult to implement in large classrooms. Faculty need evidence hat the benefits of such a radical transformation outweigh the considerable effort of implementing them.

The traditional lecture format course served as the control in this study and did not involve any cooperative, in-class interactive elements. The instructors posed questions to the class occasionally but there was no further discussion. Homework problems were assigned and worth 20% of the course grade. In the more interactive format course, the instructor still lectured 60-70% of the time – as opposed to a completely “flipped” model where this would be reduced significantly – but included clicker questions, small-group discussions and cooperative work on the “homework problems” during class time.

The fact that students demonstrated greater learning gains (pre-test vs. post-test scores) in the interactive format is not terribly surprising to me (and probably not to the researchers). However, what is surprising to me about this study is that the changes to class format were relatively minor, and still produced these improvements. The instructors didn’t completely eliminate lectures in favour of online content, or have to devise elaborate in-class inquiry activities – they just added some clicker questions and emphasized cooperative learning over competitive, individual study. This gives me hope that transformation of my classes doesn’t have to happen overnight – that incremental changes such as those described here can still improve my students’ learning. I would like to move to a more flipped model over time, but I’ve always been daunted by the amount of work involved in getting everything ready for students to view online and inventing activities for class time.  I would love to see a comparison of a fully flipped model to the interactive-lecture model described in this study to help me decide whether the more drastic change is worth the effort.

Knight, J.K., & Wood, W.B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4, 298-310.

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