Back from “guide on the side” to “sage on the stage”?
Effects of teacher-guided and student-activating teaching methods on student learning in higher education

Tim Surma just alerted me to this new article. The study compared the effectiveness of teacher-guided (so-called ‘sage on the stage’) and student-activating teaching methods (so-called ‘guide on the side’). The study was carried out in 80 university courses involving, unfortunately self-report, 1713 students. They controlled for students’ initial interest and course format, homework, and initial interest on the course level. The amount of teacher-guided and student-activating methods were used as predictors. Students’ final interest, subjective learning achievement, and perceived development of academic competencies were the outcome measures – all mediated by students’ cognitive involvement. The results revealed opposing effects of the two methods: Teacher-guided methods were associated with an increase in students’ cognitive involvement, interest, learning achievement, and development of academic competencies, whereas student-activating methods tended to show negative effects.

The highlights of the study were as follows (nutshell of the article):

  • Student-activating methods are claimed to enhance student learning and motivation.
  • Our study with 80 university courses and 1713 students challenges this statement.
  • Cognitive involvement and learning outcomes increased with teacher-guided methods.
  • Student-activating methods tended to have negative effects.
  • The analyses endorse cognitive involvement as a mediator for learning outcomes.

The conclusions:
Even though this study may have its shortcomings and the effects of the distinct teaching methods must not be overrated, the results make an important contribution to the empirical base for educational theory building and political decision making.
Do our findings indicate that university teachers should stop being the guide on the side and return to being the sage on the stage? We refrain from deducing this kind of prescription. However, the empirical data suggest that there might be a disadvantage in using student-activating methods, whereas teacher-guided learning formats seem to be beneficial. We therefore do call into question the blind plea for activating methods in higher education and stress the need for a stronger empirical basis – and as such, for additional meaningful studies. The results presented cast doubt on the quality of activating methods currently employed in university teaching. Any advances towards increased use of activating methods in higher education would need to be accompanied by concrete recommendations concerning measures of quality assurance.