The Case for Inductive Teaching

Article excerpt

Students can engage in active problem-solving even before they master theories and equations. BY RICHARD FELDER AND MICHAEL PRINCE

HIGHER EDUCATION is filled with strongly held beliefs that do not always stand up to rigorous scholarly analysis; for example, "You can't be an effective teacher unless you're actively engaged in research" or "Students learn more by working individually than by cooperating in teams." Another well-entrenched tenet of traditional instruction is the notion that students must first master the underlying principles and theories of a discipline before being asked to solve substantive problems in that discipline.

An analysis of the literature suggests that there are sometimes good reasons to "teach backwards" by introducing students to complex and realistic problems before exposing them to the relevant theory and equations. A broad range of inductive teaching methods, such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based teaching and just-in-time teaching, do just that. What inductive methods have in common is that students are presented with a challenge and then learn what they need to know to address that challenge. The methods differ in the nature and scope of the challenge and in the amount of guidance students receive from their instructor as they attempt to complete their tasks.

Inductive approaches have many other features in common, all of which are well grounded in educational theory and widely supported by empirical studies. Inductive methods are all student-centered, meaning that they impose more responsibility on students for their own learning than the traditional lecture-based deductive approach does. They can all be characterized as constructivist methods, building on the widely accepted principle that students construct their own versions of reality rather than simply absorbing versions presented by their teachers. The methods almost always involve students discussing questions and solving problems in class (active learning), with much of the work in and out of class being done by students in groups (collaborative or cooperative learning).

Of course, the most relevant question from the standpoint of classroom instructors is, "Do these methods work?" In a word, yes. …