Study: Student-Centered Learning Ineffective

Published July 1, 2001

A recent evaluation of a class-size reduction program in Wisconsin has concluded that teacher-centered learning is clearly more effective than student-centered learning.

A team led by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Alex Molnar analyzed the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program, which reduces class size to 15 in grades 1-3 at an annual cost of $55 million. The researchers found significant achievement improvements among students in the smaller classes, with almost all of the gain occurring in first grade.

Not all reduced-size classes posted achievement gains, however. In seeking to explain why some reduced-size first-grade classrooms were higher-achieving while others were lower-achieving, the researchers concluded in a December 2000 report that teaching style made the difference. Apparently uncomfortable with that politically incorrect conclusion, the researchers then disavowed the significance of their findings and defended the instructional methods of lower-achieving teachers over those of the higher-achieving teachers.

“It should be noted that although the teaching of lower-achieving teachers jeopardizes achievement as measured by standardized tests, over time the goals and methods of the lower-achieving teachers may not be harmful, and may, indeed be helpful,” write the researchers. “If the goals of thinking and problem-solving are realized, students will be served in the future even though the attainment of basics is delayed.”

The instruction in SAGE classrooms was predominantly teacher-centered. However, in lower-achieving first-grade SAGE classrooms, teachers were found to emphasize personal development and to regard the acquisition of basic skills and fundamental concepts as secondary to the enjoyment of learning. “The teaching methods they preferred were hands-on activities, cooperative group work, problem-solving tasks, and in general, child-centered experiential learning in which the teacher serves as a facilitator,” noted the researchers.

By contrast, teachers in higher-achieving first-grade SAGE classrooms were found to emphasize basic skills and processes through modeling, drill, and practice. They preferred highly structured, goal-directed classrooms with established routines where learning proceeded at a quick pace. Large amounts of time were spent on monitoring learning and understanding, with students required to display knowledge and skills. When those teachers used student-centered activities, “they [used] them in a teacher-centered way.”

While teachers in lower-achieving classrooms generally managed students in a “permissive and inconsistent” manner, classroom management of teachers in higher-achieving classrooms was firm and decisive, “so that students are engaged in intended academic pursuits.”

Since the teaching effect apparently was large enough to be noticed over and above the effect of class-size reduction, the Molnar team’s findings tend to support the view of Tennessee statistician William Sanders, who contends that class size and other factors such as poverty “all pale into triviality in the face of teacher effectiveness.” The UWM researchers, however, concluded that class size is the most important factor.

“Making classes smaller is the first step. Helping teachers improve their teaching is the second step,” the researchers declared. Their report, however, omits the data necessary to reach that conclusion, i.e., the test score difference between higher-achieving and lower-achieving first-grade classrooms, and whether the difference is comparable to the test score difference between regular and reduced-size classrooms.

Since class-size reduction is such an expensive reform, Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency asks: “Why not implement the inexpensive instructional reform first, in the larger classrooms, then observe the effects of class-size reduction on the margins?”

For more information . . .

The SAGE report is available at the Web site of the Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,