When learning a new concept, should students engage in problem solving followed by teaching or teaching followed by problem solving? Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Learning strategies and teaching models trigger fierce debates among educators. Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich have concluded that tackling a problem independently before receiving the instruction works best. The success rate of one of the institute’s most important courses has increased by 20% thanks to this approach, which goes against the dominant teaching formula.

This content was published on September 4, 2021 – 11:00


“If you want to achieve ideal learning outcomes, it is best to first solve a problem specifically related to a topic before exploring the underlying principles,” says Manu Kapur, professor at ETH, author of ‘a study. External linkon the subject with postdoctoral researcher Tanmay Sinha. Key to this approach is the experience of productive failure, a theory conceptualized and developed by Kapur.

For a long time, the dominant paradigm in education has been that we learn new things best when someone explains them to us. First instruction, then practice. This is the educational formula followed today in classrooms and amphitheatres, notes ETH Zurich in a published press release.External link this week. But Kapur and Sinha have shown that the opposite is the case.

In a meta-analysis of educational research from the past 15 years, they reviewed 53 studies with 166 comparative analyzes, all of which addressed the question of which learning strategy is most effective: instruction before practice or vice versa. versa. The study focused on how well school-aged and college-aged students grasped or were able to successfully apply the concepts of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Soft skills, such as creating meaning when reading and writing, were excluded from the study.

Almost half (45%) of the students tested were between 12 and 18 years old and attending high school at the time of the study. More than a third (37%) were in university and one in six (15%) was still in elementary school. Almost half (43%) of the students were from North America, 26% from Europe and 28% from Asia.

Three times better than a good teacher

The results go against popular belief in the classroom. All students achieved better learning outcomes when they tried to independently solve exercises before the relevant concepts were explained to them. The difference in results was more pronounced for high school and junior high school students than for elementary school students. The authors explain that this may be the case because elementary school students often lack sufficient knowledge in a subject to effectively solve problems and their analytical skills are less mature.

“Training before learning theory is almost twice as effective as receiving a year of teaching from an exceptional teacher,” says Kapur. Additionally, if students fail “productively” during the practice phase, their learning outcomes are up to three times better than what a great teacher can achieve in a year.

Productive failure: the winning strategy of 4 Aces

What does it mean for students to fail productively? Sinha and Kapur say that there are four mechanisms involved, called the four “As”: activate, become aware, affect, assemble.

First of all, a problem must Activate as much relevant knowledge as possible. “Productive failure,” Kapur says, “requires a certain amount of prior knowledge. If a person wants to solve a statistical problem like finding the standard deviation productively, for example, they should at least be familiar with the most basic concepts such as the mean. Second, students should recognize the gap between what they do and what they don’t already know; it gives them sensitization. Third, it makes them more receptive to new concepts and arouses their interest in solving the problem, i.e. it changes their affect, or psychological state. The fourth and final step is for the instructor or course material to provide an explanation that applies the new concept to solving the problem and demonstrates why the student solutions missed the mark. It can be described as an acquaintance Assembly.

“Learning outcomes depend on teaching so these four mechanisms all play a key role,” Kapur explains. This is especially true when students tackle problems that can be understood intuitively but for which they still lack the knowledge necessary to solve the problem unless they are taught the new concepts.

20% higher success rate at ETH Zurich

Kapur’s team tested their theory directly in one of ETH’s largest one-year courses, Linear Algebra, which hosts around 650 students in the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering. The structure of the course follows the traditional approach: concepts are introduced in lectures then applied and explored in exercises.

The students were given a set of tasks that they could voluntarily attempt to solve before five key lectures each semester. The goal of the exercises was a productive failure. About 60% of the students took the opportunity and did the extra work. The results are impressive: historically, just over half of students (55%) pass the course on average. The pass rate for students who failed productively before class was 20% higher, and their grades were significantly better. For the authors, this is proof that those who engage in productive failure learn more.

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