Instructional Techniques: Those Used and Those Perceived to Promote Learning

Researchers Daniel Smith and Thomas Valentine begin by making an important point. At two-year colleges “the classroom serves as the epicenter of involvement.” (p. 134) The same could be said for commuter campuses as well. Students who attend two-year colleges often do so part- time and regularly do so combining school with work, family, and a host of other responsibilities. The same can increasingly be said of many students who commute to campus to take classes. At many institutions students now spend considerably less time on campus, and so if they are to be engaged with academic life, that involvement pretty much begins and ends in the classroom. So, are faculty using instructional techniques that do involve students in the classroom?

Smith and Valentine’s study put that question to 744 full- and part-time faculty teaching at eight technical colleges in the state of Georgia. They selected 18 specific instructional techniques (among them lecture, whole-class discussion, multimedia devices, hands-on activities, small group discussions, simulation activities, case studies, portfolios, and guest lectures) and asked faculty how often they used each of these techniques in the last 10 class sessions they taught.

And what did they find? “Overall, 92.8% of the respondents said they lectured four or more class sessions, with over half (52.6%) of these respondents indicating that they lectured during all 10 of the class sessions.” (p. 144) That made lecture the most used of these 18 instructional strategies. The other most commonly used techniques were full-group discussion, in 7.55 of the 10 sessions; course textbooks, used in 7.53 sessions; multimedia devices, used in 7.42 sessions; and hands-on activities, used in 6.64 of the sessions. Least-used techniques included peer tutors, used in 2.79 sessions; case studies, used in 2.78 sessions; portfolios, used in 2.58 sessions; capstone projects, used in 1.74 sessions; and guest lectures, used in 0.97 sessions.

That lecture continues to be the dominant instructional strategy is not surprising. Its widespread use is well documented. But it was the answer to the second research question that was most interesting and most surprising. Researchers Smith and Valentine also asked faculty to use a four-point scale to rate each of the 18 instructional approaches in terms of their effectiveness in helping students acquire information, acquire a skill, and apply knowledge. “The survey respondents consistently rated hands-on activities and practical exercises as the two most effective instructional techniques to accomplish the three student learning outcomes.” (p. 148) Lecture was rated the seventh-most effective method in accomplishing these objectives. Respondents rated debates, student-led discussion, portfolios, guest lecturers, and course textbooks as least effective at accomplishing these learning objectives.

Here’s what the researchers conclude. “Survey results indicated that technical college faculty approached their teaching responsibilities primarily from a teacher-centered perspective; however, the survey respondents identified instructional practices in a learner-centered paradigm to be more effective in aiding students in mastering three learning outcomes.” (p. 133)

Beyond that finding is the concern with which we began. If commuting students spend most of their time on campus in classrooms, then that venue is crucial in developing the engagement and commitment that degree completion requires. These findings raise questions about whether the teaching methods being used most frequently are the ones best suited to accomplishing the kind of engagement and success in learning that motivates students to continue their education.


Smith, D. J. and Valentine, T. (2012). The use and perceived effectiveness of instructional practices in two-year technical colleges. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 23 (1), 133-161.

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