Using Evidence-Based Teaching Methods to Improve Education

Jeffrey Henriques's picture
Increasing Student Success

The author, Bryan K. Saville, has kindly permitted the TLE to publish this article on our site. Dr. Saville is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at James Madison University.  In 2002, he received the McKeachie Early Career Award from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP).  Dr. Saville currently serves as associate editor for Teaching of Psychology. 

Over the past few decades, educators have spent considerable time discussing the state of American education.  Quite often, their conclusions have been less than flattering.  Over 25 years ago, Cameron (1983) lamented: "Most predictions about the future of colleges and universities as organizations include conditions of decline" (p. 359).  More recently, Hersh and Merrow (2005) suggested that, "Higher education, long viewed as the crown jewel of American education, is tarnished" (p. 1).  A recent article in The New York Times echoed this sentiment: "At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world.  Yet in terms of its core mission -- turning teenagers into educated college graduates -- much of the system is simply failing" (Leonhardt, 2009).  By many accounts, then, students are not learning what they should be learning during their formative college years.

There are numerous reasons for the purported downfall in American education: (a) many students view college as nothing more than job preparation, (b) students often come to college ill-prepared for the rigors of higher education, (c) what students want in a college is not exactly what colleges are offering, and (d) administrative emphasis on the "bottom line" (i.e., money) is creating conditions that are not conducive to learning (see Hersh & Merrow, 2005).  In this essay, I argue that one other factor is having a negative impact on American higher education: the continued use of ineffective teaching methods.

What is Teaching?

Ask any student (and many teachers) to explain what teaching is, and he or she will likely provide a description that equates teaching with lecturing. Although teaching certainly entails more than just lecturing, it is easy to see why students hold this belief.  Enter many college classrooms, and one will likely observe some variation of the following scene: (a) a teacher, standing at the front of the classroom, working his or her way through a set of PowerPoint slides, some of which may contain useful pictures, diagrams, or even movie clips, but most of which contain text that the teacher reads word-for-word; and (b) students, some of whom are furiously attempting to write down every word that appears on the PowerPoint slides, but many of whom are engaged in other activities such as texting friends, reading the school newspaper, gazing off into space, listening discreetly to their iPods, or even catching a catnap -- activities to which our PowerPoint-toting teacher is either oblivious or doesn't seem to care.  Of course, not all lecture-based classrooms resemble this hypothetical Hades of learning.  What is certain, however, is that most college instructors use lecture-based teaching methods (Benjamin, 2002).

Unfortunately, lectures tend to be relatively ineffective at improving student learning.  In fact, numerous studies have found that alternative teaching methods tend to be more effective than lectures at improving a wide range of student-learning outcomes (e.g., Benedict & Anderton, 2004; Dochy, Segers, Van de Bossche, & Gijbels, 2002; Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen, 1979; Saville, Zinn, & Elliott, 2005; Saville, Zinn, Neef, Van Norman, & Ferreri, 2006; Tiwari, Lai, So, & Yuen, 2006).  Certainly, there are ways to improve the impact of one's lectures (Bain, 2004; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006), but simply altering one's lectures does not negate the fact that many lecture-based teaching methods fail to capitalize on what psychologists know about human learning (Halpern & Hakel, 2003).

If a primary goal of teaching is to optimize student learning, as many teachers believe, it also seems reasonable, then, to assume that teachers of psychology should use teaching methods that have the biggest impact on learning.  The recommendation to use effective teaching methods mirrors a recent trend in another area of psychology, a trend that I would like briefly to discuss.

Evidence-Based Treatment

Over the past decade or so, there has been much debate in clinical psychology regarding the use of evidence-based treatment, or EBT (e.g., Burns & Hoagwood, 2005; Goodheart, Kazdin, & Sternberg, 2006; Hunsley, 2007; Kazdin, 2008a, 2008b; Norcross, Beutler, & Levant, 2005; Weston, Novotny, & Thompson-Brenne, 2004).  Briefly, EBT refers to "the interventions or techniques... that have produced therapeutic change in controlled trials" (Kazdin, 2008a, p. 147).  Closely related to EBT is evidence-based practice, or EBP, which is "clinical practice that is informed by evidence about interventions, clinical expertise, and patient needs, values, and preferences and their integration in decision making about individual care" (Kazdin, 2008a, p. 147; see also APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, 2006).  Thus, whereas EBT refers to treatments whose efficacy has been established in controlled settings, EPB entails the implementation of effective treatments in real-world clinical settings.  One can draw a similar analogy with regard to teaching.  EBT is analogous to teaching practices that have been shown to enhance student learning under controlled conditions, and EBP is akin to implementing these practices in the classroom.

Although one might assume that EBP is simply the application of EBT in new settings or with new individuals, the connection between EBT and EPB has been a topic of hot debate.  On one hand, researchers have argued that clinicians need to use EBT because these treatments have empirical support (Dawes, 1994; Hayes, Follette, Dawes, & Grady, 1995).  Clinicians, however, have voiced concern that the results from studies occurring under highly controlled conditions are too contrived to generalize easily into real-world clinical settings, where numerous factors affect treatment outcomes (Hoagwood, Hibbs, Brent, & Jensen, 1995; Weston & Morrison, 2001).  Again, one can draw an analogy with the teaching of psychology: Although the outcomes of laboratory-based teaching studies may show that a particular practice seems to improve student learning, producing the same results in the classroom might be more difficult (see Chew et al., 2009; Daniel & Poole, 2009).

Thus, the relation between EBT and EBP is not as clear as one might assume.  As Kazdin (2008a) noted, though, even in the face of such contentious debate, researchers and clinicians ultimately have the same long-term goal in mind: to provide the best care to people who are in need of clinical services.  Kazdin (2008a) therefore urged researchers to spend more time studying other factors that might impact treatment efficacy in real-world settings and recommended that clinicians use EBT whenever possible. Whatever twists and turns the EBT-EBP debate takes, though, as Kazdin (2008a) noted, "The best practice will continue to be based on the best science" (p. 157).

Evidence-Based Teaching Methods

Just as clinicians should be using treatments "based on the best science," so should teachers of psychology be using effective teaching methods -- namely, those evidence-based teaching methods that have the biggest impact on student learning.  At this point, some readers might be wondering, "Okay, I'll buy into your argument.  What are some of these evidence-based teaching methods, and where can I read more about them?"  Fortunately, readers interested in learning more about evidence-based teaching methods need look no further (at least to begin with) than previous E-xcellence in Teaching essays.  For example, the Computer-Aided Personalized System of Instruction (Pear, 2004), Just-in-Time Teaching (Benedict & Apple, 2005; see also Benedict & Anderton, 2004; Novak, Patterson, Gavrin, & Christian, 1999), and Reciprocal Peer Tutoring (Riggio, 2007; see also Fantuzzo, Dimeff, & Fox, 1989) have been subjected to rigorous analysis and have produced positive student-learning outcomes.  Other evidence-based teaching methods include Problem-Based Learning (PBL; Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001) and Peer Instruction (PI; Crouch & Mazur, 2001), both of which emerged outside of psychology (PBL in medicine and PI in physics) but have shown promise in psychology courses (Chew, 2005; Connor-Greene, 2002; Connor-Greene, 2005; Yandell & Giordano, 2009).  Finally, Keller's (1968) Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), although not as popular as it was 30 years ago, continues to produce positive outcomes (see Buskist, Cush, & DeGrandpre, 1991; Fox, 2004).

Unfortunately, extensive discussion of each of these methods is beyond the scope of this article.  I would, however, like briefly to discuss interteaching, a new evidence-based teaching method that has its roots in the behavior-analytic tradition (Boyce & Hineline, 2002).  The general format for interteaching works as follows (see Saville, Lambert, & Robertson, in press, for a more detailed description).  The instructor first prepares a preparation (prep) guide, consisting of questions designed to guide students through a particular reading assignment.  Students then have several days to complete the prep guide before class.  In class, students work in pairs and discuss the prep-guide items.  During the discussions, the teacher traverses the classroom, answering questions and guiding discussion.  After students finish the discussions, they complete a record sheet on which they list how their discussions went and which prep-guide items were difficult.  The instructor then uses the record sheets to prepare a brief clarifying lecture that begins the next class period; the lecture lasts approximately one-third of the class period and focuses on those items that students listed most often on their record sheets.  Following the clarifying lecture, students spend approximately two-thirds of the class period discussing the next prep guide.

Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have conducted a number of studies comparing interteaching to more traditional teaching methods.  In our first study (Saville et al., 2005), a lab-based study in which we compared interteaching to lecture, reading, and control, we found that students in the interteaching condition performed significantly better on a multiple-choice quiz given 1 week later than students in other conditions. Moreover, students in the lecture and reading conditions did no better on the quiz than students in the control condition, who had no exposure to the material before taking the quiz.

To examine the generality of Saville et al.'s (2005) findings, we then compared interteaching to lecture in two sections of an undergraduate research methods course (Saville et al., 2006, Study 2).  We alternated between interteaching and lecture several times during the semester and counterbalanced the order across sections.  We found that students in the interteaching condition scored consistently higher on exams (about 10% higher across all exams) than students in the lecture condition.  Moreover, students reported that they preferred interteaching to lecture, a finding that others have since replicated (Goto & Schneider, 2009; Scoboria & Pascual-Leone, in press).

We have also conducted a series of lab-based and classroom-based studies in which we examined which components of interteaching contribute to its efficacy (e.g., Saville & Zinn, 2009), whether certain student characteristics predict success in interteaching-based classes (Lambert & Saville, 2009), and ways to make interteaching even more effective (e.g., by adding brief post-discussion quizzes; see Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).  In other words, we have studied EBT and engaged in EBP.  Throughout this process, we have continued to collect data and share our findings with others, remembering always that, "The best practice will continue to be based on the best science" (Kazdin, 2008a, p. 157).  As Gurung and Schwartz (2009) noted, the teaching of psychology will advance when teachers not only collect data on their pedagogical practices, but also when they share their outcomes with others (see also Gurung, 2009).


Teachers of psychology have a unique opportunity to impact what their students learn in college.  In few disciplines can teachers use what they know about their own subject matter to effect positive change.  To have the greatest impact, though, teachers of psychology need to use effective teaching methods -- namely, those evidence-based methods that have been shown empirically to impact student learning.  Fortunately, there are numerous practices that seem to be more effective than traditional lecture-based strategies and that teachers can mold to their particular situation (Chew et al., 2009).  Certainly, implementing any new teaching method can be tricky and sometimes frustrating, especially in classroom settings where students have grown accustomed to lectures and where other factors affect what they learn.  Nevertheless, implementing effective teaching strategies, which, in turn, can have a positive impact on student learning, is a worthy endeavor.  It is one that may help to slow, or even reverse, what many see as a rapidly declining educational system.


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