Researchers have found that less than one-third of teachers engage students in complex learning, limiting student opportunities for building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They have observed that higher engagement from teachers can improve development ofskills that are crucial for success in higher education of children.
This new study was conducted in a partnership between researchers from Flinders University and Melbourne Graduate School of Education and published in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education.
Researchers filmed and assessed the content of classrooms across South Australia and Victoriaand found that nearly 70% of student tasks involved superficial learning—simple question and answers, taking notes or listening to teachers, rather than activities that engage students on a deeper level.
Dr Helen Stephenson, lead researcher from the University of South Australia (UniSA), said that teachers need more support to plan interactive and constructive lessons that promote deep learning.
“When we look at learning, the greater the engagement, the deeper the learning. But too often students are doing low-engagement, passive work. In our study, around 70% of classroom content was considered ‘passive’ (where students had little observable input) or ‘active’ where they may have been doing something simple, like answering questions on a fact sheet,” explained Dr Stephenson.
She further added, “Deep learning requires the organisation of knowledge into conceptual structures, which we know improves the retention of information and therefore improves learning outcomes. Deep learning also supports knowledge that’s needed for innovations. Small changes to teachers’ existing lesson plans and teaching can significantly increase student engagement and consequently their overall results.”
Explaining how existing models of teaching can be adapted or modified for higher level of interactivity and learning for students, Dr Stephenson said, “At a base level, teachers need to consider how they can adjust their existing classroom activities so that more tasks are on the deeper end of the learning scale. Take for example, watching a video. Students can silently watch a video (which is ‘passive’); write questions that arise for them while watching the video (which is ‘constructive’); or watch a video and discuss it with another student to age different ideas (which is ‘interactive’).”
Interactive engagement in classrooms is where students are involved in activities with other students that stimulate them to develop deeper understanding. They make judgements, propose and critique arguments or opinions, and work out solutions to problems. Dr Stephenson believes “these activities can also help them develop critical thinking and reasoning skills, all of which are predictors of improved learning.”
One of the main findings of the research was that many teachers seemed not to know or fully appreciate the importance of how their lesson tasks could stimulate different modes of student engagement.
“Even changing class activities from ‘active’ to ‘constructive’ can go a long way towards improving student learning. Teachers should be supported to undertake professional development to shift their thinking towards practices that support deeper learning and better outcomes for students,” Dr Stephenson suggests.