A Revolutionary Teaching Method

Shows two children in lab coats in front of a volcano experiment to illustrate the topic which is how to get students excited about STEM

by Hanne S. Finstad, Ph.D. and founder of Scientist Factory.

If you’ve ever taken a lecture-style university course, you know that they can be dull to an extent where they make you yawn more than chamomile tea. Rather than being engaged in the lecture, you think about completely unrelated things and look at your watch. When I was a student, I chose not to go to class if the lecturer wasn’t good. Instead, I prioritized reading, doing problem sets, and participating in study groups. I only seemed to learn something when I actively participated myself.

Such a student-centered strategy finds support in a 2011 paper published in Science. An experienced lecturer competed with two new lecturers in a week-long university physics course in the study. The goal was to test whether newer teaching methods would prove more efficient than the traditional lecture-based way of teaching.

The study group had 271 participants, and the control group had 267. For one week, with three hours of teaching, the students learned about electromagnetic radiation. The scientists measured the participants’ activity levels during class and their attendance rates. Initially, there was no difference between the two groups. The experienced lecturer, who taught the control group, used a PowerPoint presentation while the students took notes. He also utilized practical examples and demonstrations and concluded his lectures by asking questions that the students answered with a clicker. The students got points for participating.

The two inexperienced lecturers had formerly only worked as teaching assistants and employed a completely different strategy. The students were asked to read a text before they arrived in class, and they began teaching by going through the text and answering questions. Everyone teamed up with a partner at the beginning of each class. The teaching itself was a mix of student discussion, solving problem sets in smaller groups, and focused feedback from the lecturers. In other words, this was no traditional lecture. The students received targeted guidance instead. The attendance rate in this group increased by 20%.

Before the study started, all three lecturers had agreed on learning outcomes and made a multiple-choice quiz to test the level of learning. After the three sessions, the control group got 41% of the questions right. The study group, by contrast, got 74%. Random guessing would have given 23% correct answers, so both groups had learned something. Yet, the study group’s result was twice as good as the control group. Moreover, 90% of the participants in the study group said that they liked that form of learning.

If you’re a lecturer, you might want to employ this strategy. A more detailed recipe follows below:

Give the students a text that prepares them for what you’re going to go through in class and a couple of assignments that go with the text. Go through the text and assignments at the beginning of class.

Fill the next 50 minutes according to this plan:

  • 2 minutes student discussion about a question
  • 4 minutes feedback and guidance from the teacher
  • 2 minutes discussion about a question
  • 4 minutes feedback and guidance from the teacher
  • 3 minutes student discussion about a question
  • 5 minutes feedback and guidance from the teacher
  • 1 minute where you return to one of the first questions
  • 3 minutes student discussion about a question
  • 6 minutes feedback and guidance from the teacher
  • 6 minutes for a group assignment
  • 5 minutes feedback from the teacher, maybe including a demonstration
  • 5 minutes with continued group discussion
  • 4 minutes feedback from the teacher


  • Science, vol 332, pp. 862-864, 13 May 2011

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