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Review of Research Examining Pedagogical Approaches

Prepared by Melissa CF Becker, MSW

Studies and articles examining pedagogical approaches can be found in a wide range of literature bases, such as social work, education, psychology, sociology, feminist, and critical theory. They are often embedded in other areas as well, such as learning styles literature, communication studies literature, and medical, dental and legal studies literatures. Theoretical issues in pedagogy have been written about extensively, but direct comparisons of the effectiveness of a range of different pedagogical approaches are rare. Much of what is out there, especially regarding newer pedagogical approaches, uses the notion of "traditional instruction" as a foil against which to contrast the more student-centered, active learning approaches. It is important to examine some issues involved in this contrast between "traditional" instruction and other approaches.

Since there are no concrete answers in the research saying "X is the pedagogical approach for teaching social work that has been experimentally shown to produce the best outcomes", the best way to proceed based on the existing pedagogical research is to take the issues identified and examined by the research and allow them to inform our discussion of how they apply to the specific problem at hand.

Examining differences between pedagogical approaches

Active versus passive learning

Recently, the concept of active learning has gained popularity (O’Neal, 1996; Steiner, Stromwall, Brzuzy & Gerdes, 1999). Active learning involves and engages students in their own learning and encourages students to make connections among different forms of learning and knowledge (Coulshed, 1993; O’Neal, 1996; Steiner et al., 1999). Active learning also involves students in activities that require their participation. Active learning is contrasted with passive learning, which often conceptualizes the student as a passive receiver of information, or a container in which learning is placed (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1993; Dore, 1994; Gould & Taylor, 1996; O’Neal, 1996). Didactic, lecture-based teaching is often conceptualized as a passive learning technique, as students sit and take in information from the lecturer.

Active learning is stimulated by such approaches as experiential, collaborative, problem-based, reflective and case-based learning, because students are more actively involved in what knowledge they incorporate and how they gain this knowledge. They are expected to share information, conduct projects, gain knowledge through experience, think and reflect critically, and/or problem-solve either together or individually. Methods such as dialogue and discussion, either based on critical pedagogy or in conjunction with lectures, can be considered active in that they encourage students to speak up, think critically, and share in the creation of knowledge. These are not concrete distinctions; any pedagogy can encourage or discourage active learning, depending on the goals of the course, the perspective of the professor, and the professor’s willingness to incorporate student decision-making and experiences into the course. It has been theorized that when students are involved in active learning, they become more invested in gaining knowledge and learning through their experiences, as well as becoming more skilled in problem-solving, and in transferring knowledge to new experiences (Allen, 1993; Coulshed, 1993; Dore, 1994; Gould & Taylor; Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson & Skon, 1981; Laird, 1993; Sinnot & Johnson, 1996).

Acknowledgement of student agency & experience

Pedagogical approaches differ in the level of involvement of students in the process and content of courses, knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. Here again, traditional instructional methods (most often lecture or lecture and discussion-based courses) rely less on what experiences, perspectives, and knowledge students bring with them into courses (Dore, 1994; Shor, 1992; Tice, 1990). Instead, there is a tendency for lecture-based courses to be more teacher-centered and rely more on the knowledge that the teacher brings in to disseminate to students.

Other teaching methods, to varying degrees, consciously utilize students’ backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences to help create an environment where learning and knowledge creation is shared (Dore, 1994; McKeachie, 1990; Steiner et al., 1999). These methods also tend to place more emphasis on students’ responsibility for their own learning, and as such highlight students’ abilities to help each other learn. Because students are seen as responsible for their own learning and a more active part of the classroom process, teachers who use more collaborative, problem-solving or critical theory methods tend to give more of a voice to students in deciding what they will focus on and what resources they need in order to meet their learning goals (Cockrell, Caplow & Donaldson, 2000; Sinnott & Johnson, 1996).

Roles and power issues in the classroom

The roles of teacher and student change within different pedagogical approaches. In the traditional lecture-based classroom, the relationship between teacher and student is hierarchical; the teacher carries the power of knowledge, directing the course and distributing knowledge for students to receive (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1993; Friere, 1970). In some of the more student-centered pedagogies, such as collaborative, reflective and experiential learning, teacher and student roles are less hierarchical, and knowledge is something that everyone has and everyone can share (McKeachie, 1990; Qin, Johnson & Johnson, 1995). In this type of environment, teachers and students both learn and teach.

There are distinctions between the different student-centered approaches in the level of decision-making allowed students and the explicitness of the attention paid to power issues in the classroom. Students are given various levels of choice in tailoring assignments and learning goals to correspond with their interests. In problem-based learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning and reflective learning, teachers often serve a more facilitative than directive role; they are there as a resource for students, but students teach each other. In a classroom where a critical pedagogy is being used as the framework, role and power issues become more explicit, and larger structural forces are examined in relation to issues of culture, race, class and gender and how these forces effect the learning environment (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1993; Dore, 1994; Freire, 1970; Pennell & Ristock, 1999; Rossiter, 1993).

Learning styles and teaching styles

There is not only one way of teaching or one way of learning that will produce the best results; teaching and learning styles differ. Teaching methods have to incorporate different learning styles, since not everyone is going to learn equally well through the same avenues (Berger, 1996; Birnbaum, 1984; Coulshed, 1993; Kramer & Wrenn, 1994). Some students learn better through listening to or reading the information, while others learn through discussion with others or by hands-on experience. Some students find themselves learning more through small group or role play exercises, while other students learn more through individual pursuits. Any pedagogical decisions must take into account that there is not one "best" or most efficient way to teach or to learn.

Content and process of teaching and learning

What and how a professor teaches will, like learning and teaching styles, change the teaching method needed. Not all content will be equally transmitted through the use of each pedagogy. In addition, pedagogical approaches place different emphases on how students learn how to learn. Experiential learning methods place emphasis on learning by doing (Birnbaum, 1984; Coulshed, 1993; Kramer & Wrenn, 1994); reflective learning places emphasis on the interaction of learning by doing and reflecting upon the experience of "doing" (Gould & Taylor, 1996; Papell & Skolnik, 1992). Dialogic methods focus on creating a safe environment for open and respectful discussion of diversity, domination and oppression (Nagda et al., 1999). The choice of method and its effects depends on the teaching and learning goals (McKeachie, 1990; McKeachie, 1999).


Issues in outcomes and effectiveness of pedagogical approaches

What are "good" outcomes and how do you test for them?

One of the difficulties in determining the effectiveness of various teaching methods is that there are many answers to this question (McKeachie, 1990). Methodological issues effect the understanding of whether a teaching method aids the professor in teaching. Not the least of these issues is whether the content the study expects to be transmitted to students is being transmitted clearly; that is, are students being taught what was planned? In addition, how do you determine whether and what a student has learned? Is the particular pedagogy being used the cause of that learning? Is there a difference between the skill of a professor and the effectiveness of the approach?

Studies examine different outcomes, hold different definitions of the pedagogy being tested, and operationalize different variables. Some test knowledge based on short term or long term recall. Studies use different methods to assess the effectiveness of teaching methods. Student and/or teacher self-report can be used, as can course evaluations, student satisfaction, colleague observations, test scores, grades, or alumni surveys.

Amount of "content" taught/learned

While there are few experimental studies of the amount of "content" taught and learned using different pedagogical approaches, social work professors and other educators have written theoretical articles addressing pedagogical issues and theories of teaching and learning, as well as discussing various teaching models (e.g. Allen, 1993; McBroom & Reed, 1994; Vayda & Bogo, 1991; Weast, 1996; Weimer & Lenze, 1994).

One theme found in the literature is that student-centered, small group-based approaches may provide less "content" in terms of objective or factual learning, but may also engage students more fully in the act of learning (e.g. Berger, 1996; Birnbaum, 1984; Gould & Taylor, 1996; McKeachie, 1990; Steiner et al., 1990). In other words, perhaps students do not get as many facts, or surface knowledge, but they do get deep knowledge, in that they learn how to learn (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1993; McKeachie, 1990). In terms of experiential learning methods (i.e. practicum), students take away learning skills that they can then apply to future professional situations (Birnbaum, 1984; Coulshed, 1993; Kramer & Wrenn, 1994; Weaver, 1998).

Collaborative and problem-based learning

Outcome research has been conducted with both collaborative and problem-based learning. Research methods range from a review of written qualitative data on the experiences of students in one class to analyzing quantitative studies using experimental and control groups (e.g. Berger, 1996; Biley, 1999; Johnson et al., 1981; McKeachie, 1990; McKeachie, 1999; Mpofu, Das, Stewart, Dunn & Schmidt, 1998; Qin et al., 1995; van den Hurk, Domans, Wolfhagen & van der Vleuten, 1998; Verhoeven, Verwijnen, Scherpbier & Holdrinet, 1998). Students in the experimental groups receive collaborative learning or problem-based learning classroom experiences, while students in control groups are taught using what is referred to as "traditional instruction."

A surface review of the research on collaborative and problem-based learning seems to indicate generally positive reactions from students and teachers, and students perceive positive effects on their own learning. There are indications that collaborative, small group methods may increase students’ feelings of efficacy. There are not always significant differences between collaborative or problem-based learning and didactic teaching with regard to the retention of factual knowledge, or short/long term recall. Collaborative and problem-based learning strategies may encourage students to become more engaged in learning, but students are not necessarily learning "more" through these methods than "traditional teaching methods." It is difficult to discern whether particular pedagogical approaches are more "effective" than others on either a global or specific scale.


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This page posted January 9, 2001