B.S. in the Classroom: Effective Teaching or Superstition?

Posted April 24, 2009

One of the reasons I feel attached to members of CTEG (Critical Thinking Education Group — a group I have discussed in previous posts) is the emphasis so many place on the importance of evaluating resources and teaching techniques for their effectiveness. In other words, when we employ new methods, approaches, and demonstrations, we should do so because we have some evidence that they accomplish their goals.

At a poster session at the Western Psychological Association’s Annual Convention yesterday I met a couple of researchers who are interested in just that. Both presented studies which describe some of the problems with education today — the effectiveness of specific teaching practices. I thought that one in particular would be of interest to my readers: Investigation of Potential Superstitious Behavior In Using Psychology Teaching Activities by Inna Kanevsky of San Diego Mesa College.

The adoption of many pedagogical tools by school boards (often people with little no scientific or educational training) appears to me to be the result of anything except actual effectiveness. I am sure that some are cases of greed (the member uses his/her position to provide customers for a friend with a product to sell), but most are probably the result of good salesmanship by the seller or enthusiasm for education by the board member(s). They want to make a difference and the product(s) seem to be something that will help. However, it is a waste of money, time, and effort to adopt practices which are unsupported. In many cases, the students are impaired by the very pedagogy designed to facilitate learning.

The study conducted by Inna Kanevsky involved assessing actual learning outcomes from 4 activities compared to traditional presentation of the material. These are popular classroom activities in undergraduate psychology courses which cover the topic of learning.

What She Found

Example Generation in Class (by students) vs. Lecture with Instructor-Given Examples:
When students were asked to generate examples of punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement in small groups, they found the activity interesting and useful for learning. However, there was no difference in quiz scores compared to semesters in which the instructor provided examples during lecture.

Identifying Examples Using Clickers vs. Lecture:
“Clickers” are wireless devices which students use to respond to multiple-choice questions during classes. The answers are recorded so that the instructor may track each student’s performance. These are popular systems, but there is little evidence that they improve test scores. In this study, students who used clickers to identify examples of classical and operant conditioning scored higher on quiz questions than those who did not. However, it appears that this difference was only found for questions which were similar to the practice questions which suggests familiarity, rather than learning, may be responsible for the difference. I will need to verify this with the author.

The “Shaping Game” vs. Demonstration by Instructor vs. Video Clips:
The Shaping Game involves groups of 3-4 students who are each assigned a “job” as a trainer, subject, or observer. The trainer uses a clicker (the noise-maker kind!) to instruct the subject on the behavior they wish to shape. Points are earned for successful shaping. After playing this game, students’ scores on a question relating to the effectiveness of shaping were higher than those who did not play the game, however, they did not score higher on questions related to the definition of shaping. The author concluded that “the shaping game does not help students learn what shaping is, but does help them learn how to use it…”

Tarzan’s Teeth Game vs. Lecture:
Tarzan’s Teeth is a group game designed to help students learn the concepts of task analysis and free chaining in learning. The game involves analyzing the steps of brushing one’s teeth, then describe those steps so that someone with limited language can learn to perform the task. Students who engaged in this activity scored higher on a quiz question about task analysis those who did not.

So, it appears that some “active learning” activities improve learning outcomes while some do not. Classroom demonstrations and games take up valuable class time, but there are larger-scale issues to consider. The cost of clicker systems is shouldered by students who are already burdened with outrageous textbook costs. In elementary and secondary education, entire “learning systems” are often purchased for students district- or school-wide. The money spent on this could provide higher salaries for teachers and staff or restore art, music, and physical education programs once thought essential.

We should all consider evidence when choosing to employ pedagogical tools. When a tool is untested, test it!


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