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Lesson Study Could Transform Community College Math Instruction

One aspect of completion rates at community colleges that doesn't get much attention is the professional development of the instructors. A recent research project suggested that better support for faculty could eventually make a difference in student outcomes, even though the students who were part of the study did no better in the courses than their peers who weren't part of the project.

Participants included the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and Education Northwest (EdNW) as well as three community colleges in Oregon, Clackamas Community College, Lane Community College and Portland Community College.

The subject of the research was a concept called "lesson study," which has gained a foothold in K-12 among math teachers but has not been tried much in higher education. In K-12, the use of lesson study was found to be one of just two approaches in a review of 643 studies of math-related PD that showed "rigorous evidence of effectiveness in improving student outcomes."

Yet lesson study relies on a practice that isn't common in higher ed: collaborative PD. Developmental math faculty at the colleges told the researchers they traditionally have access to two forms of PD: funding to go to conferences or cover specialized classes; and attending workshops, speakers and events hosted by their colleges. As a report on the study noted, "Most on-campus [PD] offerings are relatively low intensity, in the form of a one-hour workshop or one in-service day. And most professional learning experiences are pursued by individual faculty members rather than by groups of faculty together."

In contrast, lesson study is a form of PD that is both "intensive and collaborative." The objective is to improve instruction. There are four stages:

  • Stage 1: Study and plan, in which a team of instructors identify the goals for students, investigate the curricula to support their instruction, examine research on classroom practice and student learning and then work together to develop a "detailed lesson plan" with "tasks, anticipated responses, instructor moves and evaluation questions."

  • Stage 2: Teach, observe and debrief, in which one of the team members teaches the lesson while the others "observe and record evidence of student learning." The team members share their observations, discuss their evidence and explore whether the students achieved the goals.

  • Stage 3: Revise and reteach, in which the team uses its observations to revise the lesson to be more effective. One of the team members reteaches the lesson while the rest of the team observes and collects evidence of student learning. Then the group debriefs again and reflects on how the changes may have influenced the learning outcomes.

  • Stage 4: Reflect and report, in which the team reflects on the entire cycle and documents what it has learned in a report. The team also puts together a plan for how to share the new professional knowledge with peers and others.

During a pilot study in fall 2019, 22 instructors at the three colleges adopted the model in their courses.

Based on observation and interviews, the researchers concluded that the faculty who participated "were overwhelmingly satisfied with their lesson study experiences. For three-quarters of the instructors, their teaching practices resulted in lessons that "included more open-ended, cognitively demanding tasks and new strategies to increase mathematical communication among students."

However, the researchers reported that they found "no positive relationship between lesson study and students' course grades or progression into college level math." For example, in one course, fewer students taught by lesson study instructors passed than their peers in non-lesson study sections. There were two possible reasons offered for that: First, since the study covered only one cycle of lesson study, "it may not be reasonable to expect substantial differences in student learning or academic outcomes"; second, the researchers didn't have baseline data on students' prior academic achievement.

Even so, the report advised, if colleges are serious about redesigning their courses to address the needs of students coming into college-level classes, they should also consider supporting their faculty in applying evidence-based practice, considering how students learn best and trying new instructional approaches. Lesson study is one route for achieving that.

The full report and a webcast on lesson study are openly available on the Community College Research Center website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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