Lecturing Not Effective for Developing Problem-Solving Skills

Reading time: 3


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Does lecture-style teaching improve problem solving skills?

Research from The University of British Columbia suggests: traditional university lectures are likely not an effective way to help post-secondary students acquire problem-solving skills.

In a recent study, researchers at UBC’s Okanagan campus developed a testing system to measure the problem-solving abilities of students in various stages of their undergraduate degrees.

Future Employers:

The data shows that while students see their problem-solving skills increase by nearly 10 per cent in their first semester, students in the majority of disciplines experience little-to-no improvement in all the semesters that follow.
Andis Klegeris and Heather Hurren

The results, according to UBC’s Andis Klegeris, show that traditional university lectures may not be building the skills students are hoping to acquire and their future employers have come to expect.

“There is strong evidence that different methods of teaching can heavily influence the development of problem-solving skills,” said Klegeris, an associate professor of biology. “It does not appear that the traditional, lecture-style of information delivery is well suited to helping students build those skills.”

As part of the study, Klegeris and fellow UBC researcher Heather Hurren adapted a test used by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), so that students could be assessed in 15 minutes.

The test was written by nearly 1,000 students at various stages of their undergraduate degree, with one problem-solving test given at the beginning of school year’s first semester and the other at semester’s end. Problem solving was defined as person’s capacity to use their brain power to resolve a real, cross-disciplinary situation in which a solution was not immediately obvious.

Discover Knowledge:

The study concluded that only first-year students saw significant improvements in their problem-solving abilities.

“As problem-solving is becoming an increasingly sought-after skill, it is likely post-secondary institutions will need to adapt their teaching … to ensure students are able to better participate in a skill-based economy,” says Hurren, who is the manager of academic development at UBC’s Centre for Teaching and Learning in Kelowna. “If they haven’t already, professors will need to move from traditional lectures and expectations of memorization to approaches that see small groups of students actively discover knowledge on their own.”

According to a 2011 study from Statistics Canada, most people see their problem-solving skills plateau in adulthood, with the exception of those who are engaged in careers that specifically require that skill set.

Klegeris and Hurren’s study was recently published online in the journal Higher Education.


The ability to effectively problem solve is a highly valued competency expected of university graduates, independent of their area of study. Evaluation of problem-solving skill (PSS) development is hindered by a shortage of available tools for monitoring student progress and by lack of defined instructional strategies for development of these skills. Our research is aimed at addressing these problems. We have developed an evaluation tool, which we applied to study the dynamics of undergraduate student PSS. We tested first- and upper-year students from 26 different courses (total enrollment of 2229 students). Overall improvement of PSS was detected for the first-year students over their first term of study. There were no significant differences between the PSS of first- and upper-year students, and no improvement was detected over a single term by measuring PSS in upper-year students. Only three courses were effective at facilitating PSS. Our data indicate that most of the standard lecture approaches do not develop undergraduate student PSS and that universities and individual instructors must take active steps to advance this critical skill set in university students.

Teacher Toolkit has access to the full research: to download the full report, click here.

3 thoughts on “Lecturing Not Effective for Developing Problem-Solving Skills

  1. This came up in a conversation I had this morning with some Chinese lecturers I am teaching. They often have to teach large amounts of students in packed lecture theatres and are concerned about their students’ ability to think for themselves in this setting.

    If anyone out there knows of teaching resources, or strategies, that can enable students to collaborate, solve problems or think critically in a lecture theatre then I’d love to hear from you.

    P.s. Really enjoyed your talk at the Bett Show on Saturday @TeacherToolkit!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.