New Study Confirms Benefit of Non-Traditional Teaching Methods

By:  Bridgit Burke, Associate Clinical Professor and Director, Civil Rights & Disabilities Law Clinic, Albany Law School

As those in clinical education already knew, the blackboard/lecture method of teaching is not the most effective teaching style. A recent study once again confirms that working in a group to solve problems is far more effective for students than a traditional lecture.

In a study of 850 undergraduate physics students done at the University of British Columbia, groups of students were divided into lecture sections and experimental sections.  The experimental learning format consisted of group work, problem solving, and discussion while the actual memorization was self taught as homework. At the end of the week, the students were given a voluntary test. According to a report in the Economist, “The traditionally taught group’s average score was 41%, compared with 74% for the experimental group–even though the experimental group did not manage to cover all the material it was supposed to, whereas the traditional group did.”  The New York Times reports that the individuals in the non-traditional group were taught by teaching assistants and the traditional group was taught by the usual lectures. 

While we may not find the results surprising, both the New York Times and the Economist are quick to point out that the study may not be perfect.  The disparity is “biggest performance boost ever documented in educational research.” One criticism is that the students in the non-traditional group may simply have responded to the novel approach.  I for one would like to see the day when problem solving teaching is the norm so that we could test this criticism.

3 Responses

  1. I agree that the results should not be surprising. The problem-solving methodology has been proven to be effective in many educational settings.

    The challenge is to get more law teachers to try it. If they try it, they will probably like it.

    I hope that people who have success with problem-based learning, especially in traditional, large enrollment courses, will find ways to share that information.

    I also hope that more problem-solving demonstrations/training sessions will be featured at AALS and other conferences.

    • I taught a first-year property course this spring that featured some traditional lecture/discussion with frequent group problem-solving. The students worked in groups of six or seven. The group process included a self-assessment and peer-assessment of strengths and weaknesses in contributing to the group process after they had been working together for several weeks. I have not seen the evaluations yet, but based on the general “feel” of the class my impression was that the students valued the group problem-solving both for the substantive knowledge gained from working with others on problems related to property law as well as for the development of relationship management skills in working as a team. While there is some work involved in setting up groups and processing the peer assessments, I think it is time and energy well spent. And over the course of the semester there was no meaningful loss in “coverage.”

  2. That’s amazing that the average score of the non-traditional was 74%.I think that really shows that learning is different for each individual. I’m trying to put my kid into a school that’s leaning more towards the non-traditional type.

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