How Effective are Traditional Instruction Methods?

By Peter Connor

Dysfunctional Illusion of Academic Rigor #2:

"Traditional methods of instruction offer effective ways of teaching content to undergraduates. Modes that pamper students teach less"

—Craig E. Nelson

The second dysfunctional illusion in Tomorrow's Professor Msg. #1058 is tightly interwoven with the first. Traditional lectures work just fine (Nelson, 2010). It was the pedagogy used most often by the professors in his undergraduate days, wasn't it? He'd made it through the rigors of academia all right, hadn't he? And didn't his currrent professional colleagues adhere to similar practices?

In "Living with Myths: Undergraduate Education in America," Terenzini and Pacarella (1994) offer a new perspective: though traditional lecture methods are clearly "not ineffective…it is equally clear that these conventional methods are not as effective as some other far less frequently used methods" (pg.29).

As persuasive evidence, Nelson (2010) cites the introductory physics classes taught both traditionally and with alternative, student-to-student interactive models in which Hake (1998) showed, through pretesting and posttesting, that knowledge gained by students in traditional lectures measured out at 23 percent; those in classes incoporating alternative methods measured out at 48 percent, roughly twice that much.

The following tips explore two more basic dysfunctional illusions of rigor and the alternative views that Nelson suggests might be more realistic.


Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64-74.

Nelson, C. E. (2010). Dysfunctional illusions of rigor: Part 1 - basic illusions. In R. Reis (Ed.), Tomorrow's Professor: Msg. #1058. Retrieved from

Terenzini, P.T., & Pascarella, E. T. (1994). Living with myths: Undergraduate education in America. Change, 26(1), 28-32.


Thanks to Dr. Erica Suchman, Assoc. Prof. in the Dept. of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and Master Teacher Initiative (MTI) Coordinator for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University for this Teaching Tip suggestion.