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A Comparison of Short Term and Long Term Retention: Lecture Combined with Discussion Versus Cooperative Learning.

A comparison of teaching techniques in an introductory college-level course revealed lecture combined with discussion produced superior short-term retention than that of cooperative learning in participating students. However, minimal differences were noted in long-term. While the investigation involved a limited number of students, the results do suggest a need for additional studies on a larger scale. Suggestions for improvement of instruction with each of these techniques are reviewed.

With an added emphasis on improving outcomes in higher education, the skilled professor continually searches for effective instructional procedures. Although often maligned, the lecture is a traditional, common, and familiar teaching technique. A lecture is a well-prepared oral presentation on a topic by a qualified person. It is often combined with another popular teaching strategy, discussion. The many different definitions of discussion as a learning tool include three basic elements: (a) a group of people (b) brought together for face to face oral communication (c) to share knowledge or make a decision (Bormann, 1975; Kahler, Morgan, Holmes, & Bundy, 1985).

Content drives some discussions (Kasulis, 1984). Characteristic of these discussions is a teacher who introduces concepts or the structures learning of new information. Discussions within formal classrooms are often of this type. Participant sharing of insights or experiences is another discussion technique (Segerstrale, 1984). The teacher encourages exchange of information and does not attempt to dominate the interaction. In the third type of discussion, the group analyzes a problem or completes an assigned task (Wilkinson, 1984). The task provides direction to the group discussion.

Cooperative learning is a method touted by many as an effective instructional alternative to improve academic performance to competitive learning or individualistic learning (Johnson, & Johnson, 1980). Typically, cooperative learning involves arranging opportunities for small groups of students to work together to master material (Moorman, 1994). More specifically, students demonstrate positive interdependence in creating a single product. Individual accountability is also expected during cooperative learning lessons.

Research dedicated to the individual teaching strategies of lecture and discussion in higher education is expansive. However, research focusing on the relationship between these two often-combined strategies is limited. The present study compares college student performance using two instructional formats, lecture combined with discussion versus cooperative learning.


Participants and Settings

During the 1997 fall semester, the researchers evaluated traditional college student (aged 18 to 24 years) performance in an introductory special education class. At the beginning of the semester, the 10 members of the class were given the opportunity to participate in the study. The students had not received prior instruction in the course content. During the course of the study, the students did not take parallel courses.

Measurement System

The investigators established a measurement system to compare the effects of lecture combined discussion versus cooperative learning. Using guidelines suggested by Oosterhof (1996), multiple-choice tests assessed concepts presented during each class. The tests had a total possibility of forty correct answers (twenty responses focusing on topics presented through lecture combined with discussion, twenty responses addressing subjects presented through cooperative learning). Addressing the concepts presented through lecture combined with discussion and cooperative learning, the forty multiple-choice questions were randomly presented to the students. The same achievement tests were administered at the beginning and end of the class session in which the interventions were applied. Students answered questions on an achievement test that covered the information presented in each class.

Independent and Dependent Variables

The present study evaluated the relationship between lecture combined with discussion and cooperative learning on the achievement test results of students immediately following the intervention and up to four months later. The independent variable in this experiment was the way that new information was presented, either through lecture combined with discussion or cooperative learning. The dependent variable was the percentage of correct responses on the students' achievement tests.

Experimental Procedures

The investigators equally randomized the presentation of concepts between cooperative learning and lecture combined with discussion. A total of four lessons (i.e., two cooperative learning lessons, two lecture combined with discussion) were presented during each session. Each lesson lasted approximately 20 minutes. The lecture combined with discussion were content driven. The teacher of the course introduced key concepts and opportunities to discuss that were offered throughout the lecture combined with discussion period. Utilizing a variation of the new American lecture strategy (Silver, Hanson, Strong, & Schwartz, 1996), the investigators developed the lecture combined with discussion lessons by: (1) identifying key concepts, (2) posing topical questions, (3) providing visual organizers, (4) providing visual organizers that required students to record specific information during the lecture, and (5) focusing discussion by posing topical questions.

Cooperative learning lessons entailed a jigsaw activity in which students were divided into teams of two to four individuals. Individual team members completed equal portions of the total task assigned to the team. Students were responsible for learning all aspects of the information (Nattiv, Winitzky, & Drickey, 1991). The instructor monitored individual and team efforts and provided task assistance when necessary (Fisher, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1996).

In order to measure effectiveness of the instruction, forty item quizzes were administered to the subjects at the beginning and end of each class session. At the end of the semester, the instructor administered a final examination that randomly evaluated key concepts presented during the prior ten-week period. Four months after the end of the semester, each subject was contacted and subsequently took the same test to measure long term retention of taught concepts.


The mean pretest percentages of correct responses for the lecture combined with discussion method ranged from a low of 34 to a high of 68. The mean scores for the cooperative learning method ranged from 43 to 75. These data are presented in Figure 1. As summarized in Figure 2, the mean posttest percentages of correct responses for the lecture combined with discussion method ranged from a low of 40 to a high of 89, and the mean scores for the cooperative learning method ranged from 37 to 82. It is evident that the pretest scores were a bit higher for the cooperative method topics, thus yielding less opportunity for substantial gains. A total gain score was computed by adding each of the gain scores for the 10 students with the two instructional methods. The average gain score for the lecture combined with discussion method approach was 146 points (minimum = 75, maximum = 275). The average total gain score for the cooperative learning approach was 77 points (minimum = -60, maximum = 120). Because of the small number of participants in this investigation, no tests for statistically significant differences were conducted. The average gain scores are presented in Figure 3. The gain scores for the lecture combined with discussion were substantially higher than those for the cooperative method; much higher than would be expected due solely to chance.


In addition to pretest and posttest scores, other data were collected. An evaluation of the data for the final test revealed little difference between lecture combined with discussion (mean = 63, minimum = 45, maximum = 80) and cooperative learning (mean = 61, minimum 55, maximum 70). A comparison of the data collected four months later showed there continued to be little difference in long-term retention (lecture combined with discussion: mean = 52, minimum = 40, maximum = 70; cooperative learning: mean = 54, minimum = 45, maximum = 70).


Data indicated lecture combined with discussion yielding better performance in producing short-term retention when compared to that of cooperative learning. However, results were similar when comparing long-term retention. The generalization of these data is limited, however, because of the limited number of students involved in the evaluation of the instructional procedures. Further research with a larger group of students may mimic these results. Yet, the results of this study benefit not only the investigators' teaching but also that of other college and university instructors. Identification of better classroom techniques benefits teacher instructional choices. Because of identified effectiveness, college and university instructors enhance student performance through these choices. Lecture combined with discussion is one choice the skilled professor can make.

The advantages of lecturing are many and include: ease of preparation and planning, orderly and systematic sharing of information to large groups, stimulation of further learning, and preferred presentation approach by many students. However, the lecture has its limitations: measurement of learning is inconvenient, speakers can bias information, speaker style may disturb some listeners, listener attention wanes after approximately fifteen minutes, and long-term retention may be limited (Kahler, Morgan, Holmes, & Bundy, 1985; Legge, 1974; Verner, & Dickenson, 1967). Specific strengths of discussion involve: participation in discussion keeps learners active, promotes development of communication and collaboration, and encourages tolerance for other points of view. There are possible limitations to discussion, however: it requires learner participation, a few group members may dominate discussion, teacher planning time may be extensive, and restriction in time and space interfere with discussion (Kahler, Morgan, Holmes, & Bundy, 1985).

An additional instructional choice the skilled professor can make involves combining lecture with discussion and cooperative learning. Reported benefits of cooperative learning include: increased retention, use of higher level reasoning, better view and acceptance of others, positive attitude, higher self-esteem, greater social support, positive psychological adjustment, greater collaborative skills, better behavior (Johnson, & Johnson, 1980; Slavin, 1991). The benefits may be offset by the weaknesses of cooperative learning: difficulties in grading, extensive teacher planning, ongoing need for teacher intervention, and acceptance of cooperative learning as an effective method of instruction (Vaughn, Bos, & Schumm, 1997). Effective use of cooperative learning involves the skilled professor assuring individual accountability, teaching collaboration and interdependence, providing opportunities for success, offering a conducive room arrangement, structuring activities to match academic goals, and enforcing a management plan (Goor, & Schwenn; 1993; Waldron, 1995). A teaching strategy that combines all of these instructional procedures may exploit the advantages of each while mitigating their individual weaknesses.


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Kasulis, T.P. (1984). Questioning. In M.M. Gullette (Ed.) The art and craft of teaching (pp. 38-48). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Nattiv, A., Winitzky, N., & Drickey, R. Using cooperative learning with preservice elementary and secondary education students. Journal of Teacher Education, 42, 216-225.

Oosterhof, A. (1996). Developing and using classroom assessments. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Segerstrale, U. (1984). The multifaceted role of the section leader. In M.M. Gullette (Ed.) The art and craft of teaching (pp. 49-69). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Slavin, R.E. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Slavin, R.E. (1991). Synthesis of research on cooperative learning. Educational Leadership, 48(5), 71-82.

Silver, H.F., Hanson, J.R., Strong, R.W., & Schwartz, P.B. (1996). Teaching styles and strategies: Interventions to enrich instructional decision-making (3rd ed.). Woodbridge, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Vaughn, S., Bos, C.S., & Schumm, J.S. (1997). Teaching mainstreamed, diverse, and atrisk students in the general education classroom. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Verner, C., & Dickenson, G. (1967). The lecture: An analysis and review of research. Adult Education, 17(2), 85-100.

Waldron, K.A. (1995). Introduction to special education: The inclusive classroom. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

Wilkinson, J. (1984). Varieties of teaching. In M.M. Gullette (Ed.) The art and craft of teaching (pp. 1-9). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robert L. Morgan, Principal, Cooperative School, Rawlins, WY. James E. Whorton, Department of Special Education, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS. Cynthia Gunsalus, Department of Education, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, IN.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Robert L. Morgan, Carbon County School District One, P.O. Box 160, Rawlins, WY.
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Author:Gunsalus, Cynthia
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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