Finding a balance between teacher talk and interactive engagement

Finding a balance between teacher talk and interactive engagement

Interactive engagement where students discuss what they are learning with peers and/or instructors has been shown to produce better learning outcomes.

In recent years, there has been considerable support for a view that lessons should be dominated by teacher-led activities and that instructional strategies such as Direct Instruction alone provide the answer to more effective teaching. Work from physics education research over the last 20+ years has established a convincing and robust evidence base to challenge this view, and perhaps prompt physics teachers to reflect on the best balance between teacher talk and active student participation to support learning. 

In 1998, Richard Hake published a study called Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousandstudent survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. It aimed to try, as best as was possible, to compare two different teaching methods, defined as follows:

  • Interactive Engagement - methods designed at least in part to promote conceptual understanding through interactive engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors.
  • Traditional - courses reported by instructors to make little or no use of interactive engagement methods, relying primarily on passive-student lectures, recipe labs and algorithmicproblem exams.

Conceptual and problem-solving tests were used to assess learning gains for classes by one or other of the teaching methods. The outcomes across high school, college and university populations aligned. Those taught by the Interactive Engagement methods did significantly better in their tests. In 2016 this work was revisited, drawing together studies over a 20-year period and involving nearly 50,000 students (Von Korff et al., 2016). The findings were the same, seeing larger learning gains for those taught by the Interactive Engagement methods. This advantage was seen across multiple settings irrespective of class size and prior achievement.

Ultimately, the power of research should be in how it informs practice rather than offering an uncontested ‘right way’. The evidence base across these two papers is about as strong as you are likely to find on a subject level. The study was in the US but the content covered is well mapped to UK curriculums and so at the very least it provides considerable food for thought to those reflecting on how they do and should teach physics.

With this in mind, we will offer the final word to Arnold Arons, who offers some guidance on navigating these challenges in his book Teaching Introductory Physics (1996):

…research is showing that didactic exposition of abstract ideas and lines of reasoning (however engaging and lucid we might try to make them) to passive listeners yields pathetically thin results in learning… …I am, of course, not advocating unclear exposition. I am pointing to the necessity of supplementing lucid exposition with exercises that engage the mind of the learner and extract explanation and interpretation in his or her own words.

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