Evidence for Various Research-based Instructional Strategies: Countering Critiques

There are several bloggers continuing to criticize constructivist-inspired teaching methods.  They almost always base their criticisms on a 2006 opinion piece by Kirshner, Sweller (inventor of Cognitive Load Theory), and Clark entitled “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” The authors of this piece have also gone on to criticize videogames, pedagogical agents, and other constructivist-inspired teaching methods and technologies, but curiously, not simulations, which they like, even though I would call simulations one of the most quintessential constructivist learning environments (you wouldn’t want an airplane pilot who only learned from lectures and worked examples, would you?).  Why are so many bloggers citing this piece?  Partly because biased criticisms of constructivism were put all over Wikipedia in 2007 by a grad student, and many bloggers today get their opinions about education and psychology from Wikipedia (or other bloggers who read Wikipedia).  I don’t blame them, since most educational and psychological research is mostly published behind a pay wall or written in inaccessible language (see Stephen Pinker on Why Academic Writing Stinks).

Now to be fair, there are several of what I would consider valid critiques that one could make about constructivism and instructional techniques and technologies inspired by constructivism.  I list some critiques of constructivism in general in an AERA theoretical paper on embodied cognition, enactivism, and education.  More pragmatically speaking, however, one critique of the constructivist-inspired teaching techniques listed below is that the most effective techniques are difficult to implement well – certainly harder to do than traditional lecture. They require extensive training on how to effectively facilitate student learning, they require some technological fluency in some cases, and most importantly they require changing one’s conceptions about how people learn.

We contend that most instructors lack the rich and nuanced understanding of teaching and learning that science education researchers have developed. Therefore, active learning as designed and implemented by typical college biology instructors may superficially resemble active learning used by education researchers, but lacks the constructivist elements necessary for improving learning. (ref)

Active learning and other constructivist-inspired techniques need to challenge student misconceptions and instructors need to be trained in how people learn and keep up with educational research in their discipline.  Other studies found that faculty who read educational research journals in their discipline are more likely to use active learning strategies, and also students learn more from instructors who can more accurately predict students’ mistakes and misconceptions.  Charles Henderson has researched several barriers to implementing research-based instructional strategies.

Another criticism is that some of the constructivist-inspired instructional techniques and technologies may be no better than or even worse than lecture and direct instruction for short-term rote learning (like Hattie found in Visible Learning for problem-based learning).  However, there are other important types of learning and performance.  There is transfer – classroom learning doesn’t matter much if learning doesn’t transfer to future courses and to the real world.  There is engagement, self-efficacy, and motivation – learning math well, for example, doesn’t matter much if you hate it and avoid studying it or any subjects that depend on it in the future (like engineering, science, …).  Many multimedia learning and cognitive load studies from the 80s and 90s that these bloggers are citing that show benefits of direct instruction techniques also involve “participants who have no specific interest in learning the domain involved and who are also given a very short study time” (de Jong, 2009), and so there is little generalizability to real-world or classroom learning.  Some of the effects that have been found disappear or even reverse when tested in real classrooms or the real world.

So, here is a summary of some actual research studies that show the benefits of a few constructivist-inspired instructional techniques – primarily focusing on evidence at the college (post-secondary) level.

Active Learning

  • Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds
    • That is a summary of a large-scale 2014 meta-analysis by Scott Freeman and others of 640 studies comparing active learning methods to lecture in STEM courses.
      • “undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods.”
      • “The studies analyzed here document that active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning. The analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.” (ref)
      • If the failure rates of 34 percent for lecturing and 22 percent in classes with some active learning were applied to the 7 million U.S. undergraduates who say they want to pursue STEM majors, some 2.38 million students would fail lecture-style courses vs. 1.54 million with active learning. That’s 840,000 additional students failing under lecturing, a difference of 55 percent compared to the failure rate of active learning. “That 840,000 students is a large portion of the million additional STEM majors the president’s council called for,” Freeman said.” (ref)
    • See also Scott Freeman’s resources for implementing the “high-structure format” he uses in his courses, which were also shown in a study to benefit student learning.
      • “We found no evidence that points from active-learning exercises inflate grades or reduce the impact of exams on final grades. When we controlled for variation in student ability, failure rates were lower in a moderately structured course design and were dramatically lower in a highly structured course design. This result supports the hypothesis that active-learning exercises can make students more skilled learners and help bridge the gap between poorly prepared students and their better-prepared peers.”
  • Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research (pdf) by Michael Prince, 2004
    • “Although the results vary in strength, this study has found support for all forms of active learning examined. Some of the findings, such as the benefits of student engagement, are unlikely to be controversial although the magnitude of improvements resulting from active-engagement methods may come as a surprise.”
  • Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses (pdf) by Richard Hake, 1998.
    • “courses (N = 4458) which made substantial use of IE [interactive engagement] methods achieved an average gain, almost two standard deviations of above that of the traditional courses”
    • See also his blog and various social media accounts.
  • Interactive teaching methods double learning in undergraduate physics class
    • A summary of a study (pdf) by Deslauriers, Schelew, Wieman, 2011
    • We found increased student attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in the section taught using research-based instruction.”
    • “The research team found that students in the interactive class were nearly twice as engaged as their counterparts in the traditional class. Students from the experimental class uniformly scored nearly twice as well in a test designed to determine their grasp of complex physics concepts.”
  • Teaching methods comparison in a large Calculus class (pdf) by Warren Code and others, 2014
    • “Our study provides an example of active learning pedagogy (including materials and
      assessment used) for students at this level of mathematics in a classroom of over one hundred students, and we report improved student performance – on conceptual items in particular – with a switching replication in that each section outperformed the other on the topic for which it received the intervention.”
  • Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (pdf, 2012)
    • Not a study, but a report by the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) which summarizes some studies.
    • “Studies have shown that classroom approaches that engage students as active participants improve retention of information and critical thinking skills and can significantly increase STEM-major interest and perseverance, compared with conventional lecturing. In one study, for example, students in traditional lecture courses were twice as likely to leave engineering and three times as likely to drop out of college entirely compared with students taught using active learning techniques. In another study, students in a physics class that used active learning methods learned twice as much as those taught in a traditional class, as measured by test results.”

Inquiry-Based Learning

  • Who learns in maths classes depends on how maths is taught
    • A summary of a large set of studies on inquiry-based learning in college mathematics by Sandra Laursen and others.
    • Here is a video of her presenting about the research.
    • “Comparing students taught with the inquiry-based learning approach and those who weren’t, the study found the former reported better learning gains. An analysis of grades found that students in inquiry-based learning (IBL) classes did as well or better than students who did not complete any IBL classes.”
    • “But more importantly, the outcomes for different groups of students were dramatic in IBL classes compared to non-IBL classes. Implementing inquiry-based learning approaches in mathematics improved outcomes not only of high achieving students, but also females, future mathematics teachers and low achieving students.  The study found traditional approaches to teaching in university mathematics favour males and high achieving students. Student-centred approaches improved all students’ mathematical learning.”
  • Departing from Lectures: An Evaluation of a Peer-Led Guided Inquiry Alternative (pdf)
    • This is just a single study that only replaced one lecture a week with a guided inquiry session.
    • “The results from this analysis indicate that a student who attends PLGI sessions can be expected to perform better on exams than another student at the same SAT level. This is especially impressive considering that students in the PLGI sessions did receive one less lecture per week than those in the control group. It should be noted that this is in agreement with previous research findings, which highlight the lack of evidence supporting the hypothesis that lecture promotes learning”
    • Fears that students who had less exposure to lecture would learn less proved to be groundless in this study.”
  • Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Studies of Inquiry-Based Science Teaching: A Meta-Analysis (2012)
    • “The overall mean effect size is .50. Studies that contrasted epistemic activities or the combination of procedural, epistemic, and social activities had the highest mean effect sizes.”
  • Experimental Comparison of Inquiry and Direct Instruction in Science (pdf)
    • In contrast to the dozens of studies on inquiry learning reviewed in the above links, here is one study that saw no significant difference.  In my opinion, that is most likely because of a weak treatment that only lasted 2 weeks, but here is the conclusion the authors draw even if their finding is valid:
    • “Mastery of science content in the alternative modes was our central research question, but the inquiry-versus-direct debate is not just about content: it is also about the nature of science and about efficiency. Most science educators feel that inquiry instruction, by its very nature, provides
      crucial added value, in having students ‘do’ science for themselves. This gives a ‘feel’ for science and hence some appreciation of the nature of scientific inquiry. For direct instruction, given our finding that it does not lead to a better grasp of the basics, it is not as clear what other grounds there are on which to argue superiority. One is that direct instruction is easier from the teaching point of view, particularly for less experienced teachers or those not confident with the content. Another is that the cut-and-dried structure of direct instruction may be less demanding for weaker students, at least initially. There is also merit to the time argument, but our study shows that the time differential is not as great as usually claimed, if both modes include experiential and application aspects, and if inquiry is focused and well guided. True, direct is certainly more efficient than unguided ‘open discovery’, but no one is really advocating the latter. On both content and time grounds, therefore, the ‘efficiency’ of direct instruction is not markedly greater, and any time saving is likely to be outweighed by loss of other benefits. Direct instruction does risk sending the message that science is simply a body of knowledge to be
      learned.”
  • Why Use Inquiry-Based Learning?
    • A summary of some studies on IBL in math education.
    • “An inquiry approach to teaching has also been shown to have a positive effect on students’ acquisition and retention of conceptual understanding.”

Problem-Based Learning

  • When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009)
    • “This study used a qualitative meta-synthesis approach to compare and contrast the assumptions and findings of the meta-analytical research on the effectiveness of PBL. Findings indicated that PBL was superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development and satisfaction of students and teachers, while traditional approaches were more effective for short-term retention as measured by standardized board exams.”
  • There’s a whole journal devoted to research on PBL.

Peer Instruction

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