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Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Learning With Fewer Teachers

State budget deficits are causing schools all across the nation to cut expenses, often including cutting teaching staff. Colleges are increasingly under fire for rising tuition and professors who don't teach enough classes. What all this boils down to is the pressing need to "do more with less." But how? Schools already have too many problems. Schools should not get distracted from the fundamentals of teaching and learning.

A recent study from University of Washington professors compared two approaches for teaching large introductory biology classes: 1) traditional lecture method, and 2) “active learning” without lecture. Eliminating lecture does not in itself improve teacher-student ratios. Indeed, some have said it doesn’t matter whether one lectures to 20 students or a thousand.

What is important is to address the question of what happens to educational quality if you reduce the number of teachers. There is certainly no evidence that increasing the number of students in a lecture hall will improve teaching effectiveness, and in fact the opposite is likely. Statistically, increasing class sizes in lecture courses has a disproportionate deleterious effect on socio-economically disadvantaged students. So, as number of teachers decreases in response to economic necessity, we can expect the educational gap to grow between advantaged and disadvantaged.

So, how should educators respond to having more students and fewer teachers? The educational literature has been building for decades toward the  conclusion that lecturing is a poor way to teach. We teachers know about many alternative “active learning” strategies, but just don’t use them much, because lecturing seems so intuitive and for most of us, it has become a habit. And lecturing is the environment in which most of us were trained.

In the U. Washington study, the professors compared grade performance in classes based on lectures with classes based on active learning. The type of active learning they used included pre-class reading quizzes, daily multiple-choice “clicker” questions, a peer group instruction format that included so-called “constructivist” learning exercises, and weekly practice exams. Also, they adjusted learning requirements to require more creative and critical thinking, since most college students have little experience with higher cognitive tasks of synthesizing and  applying learned material in new contexts (as specified in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning). The learning activities went beyond the lower levels of learning vocabulary and understanding of concepts.

Large student populations were involved for both comparison groups, and the classes studied spanned several semesters. Student performance was measured in terms of difference from the predicted performance based on college grades prior to entering this biology class and SAT scores (which are highly reliable predictors, based their previous analysis of five year’s of class data). This analysis also revealed a reliable prediction that disadvantaged students were twice as likely to fail this course  than non-disadvantaged students.

Not surprising (to me at least) was the consistent result of better final grades in the classes that had active learning instead of lectures. The benefit was especially noticeable on exam questions that demanded higher-level thinking. Moreover, the disadvantaged students improved disproportionately.

The authors did not examine possible explanations for why active learning yielded better results than lecturing. I think the explanation is obvious, based on what I know about mechanisms of learning and memory. First, learning from lectures requires sustained paying attention, but a whole generation of multitasking students has emerged who are not very adept at sustained attentiveness. Accordingly, the short attention spans of these students make it difficult for them to be engaged with the lecture content. Engagement lies at the heart of effective learning.

Secondly, active learning requires more engagement because the students have to “do something” instead of just listen. They have to find, assimilate, and use information to solve problems — all of which enhance understanding and are effective memory rehearsal strategies. The social dynamic of student learning teams facilitates these activities. It is much harder to drift off task, daydream, or sleep in class when a student has to interact socially with peers to perform a learning activity.

These ideas have been advocated for several decades. But now, it seems imperative for teachers to use these approaches in an age where there will be fewer teachers and where more students are unable to benefit from lecturing. This requires for many teachers a sea-change in teaching attitude and strategy. It is no longer suffices for a teacher to be a source and dispenser of information. Information already exists in many places, text books, Web sites, and videos, often in better presentation form than a typical teacher can produce. Even the expected role of teachers in explaining everything is problematic. Students remember much better that which they have to figure out. Working in groups makes it easier to figure out difficult material. Students can often explain things to each better than teachers can because teachers have more difficulty in knowing why students are having a comprehension problem.

The teacher must become a manager of learning activities. This means structuring in-class time so that students work collaboratively on learning activities. Students also need homework that gets beyond “busy work.” And, as I have been advocating for some time now, students will benefit from more frequent testing, especially under lower-stakes conditions.

Effective managers are those who can “scale up” to manage more and more people. We can’t wait for a new generation of teachers and professors. We need professional development programs now that emphasize management of student learning.


Haak, D. C., et al. 2011. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology.  Science. 332: 12131-1216.


  1. Hello. I love this blog! I'm teaching as a grad student and always love finding out what really helps learning and memory. I was talking with a fellow teacher about something and was wondering what research exists on it.

    He thinks that it is good to "tell the students that the class will be difficult" so that they can become prepared for the class since it is a math class designed for weeding people out.

    I said that this was a bad idea. I'm pretty sure there must be research that shows telling people something is difficult actually makes learning the material more difficult. The best I can find so far is related to "Attribution Theory" which seems to indicate that when students believe the difficulty is external to them (i.e. the class itself is hard), then they lose motivation to learn because they don't correlate that it their own hard work that will cause them to succeed.

    Do you know of anything that seems a little more on topic though? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

  2. Hi, I love your blog and your commitment to helping others improve their memory. I recently came across a site that promises to improve your photographic memory, something we all have but gave up. You can click above to check it out but this is excellent stuff man, keep up the great work!


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