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Inductive Teaching and Learning

Paul Grobstein's picture

This is a place for conversation about projects in the Grobstein lab during the summer of 2007. Others are welcome to look in, and to leave comments on these conversations.

Thoughts on "The Many Faces of Inductive Teaching and Learning" by Michael Prince and Richard Felder, Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April 2007, pp 14-20?  

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Adding to Our Discussion

This interview with Harvard professor, Eric Mazur, titled "Using the 'Beauties of Physics' to Conquer Science Illiteracy seemed very relevant to our discussion of teaching methods.
Some important excerpts:
  • "I used to get in front of my students and do all the science for them. I should have been showing them how to do it themselves."
  • "Today, by having the students work out the physics problems with each other, the learning gets done. I’ve moved from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.”
I'm not sure what model he uses, but whatever it is, it's inductive teaching.
Ashley Dawkins's picture

experiences in following directions

My 6th grade science teacher always stressed the importance of making observations and following procedures.  For instance, her classroom was empty of all decorations at the beginning of the school year and everyday she would add new things in the classroom.  We have a journal where we would describe the additions to the classroom.   Then one day she gave us a quiz to take warning us to read through the entire quiz (like the directions said) before we started the quiz.  The questions seemed to be a bit complicated, but as a little 6th grader I did exactly what I was told and just continued to read.  The very last line of the quiz said something like, “ put your name on the paper and hand it in”. We were not supposed to do ANY of the quiz.  I think she didn’t end up counting the quiz, but it was a lesson in how important it can be to follow procedure.


I have another example of a teacher’s attempts to show their students that they should listen to what they say.  My 10th grade World History teacher was very good; in fact his history class that I still remember things from.  With all of this said, he also believed following rules was important.  One day he gave us an opportunity to work on something in class. Some students decided to take this as an opportunity to talk with friend instead.  I, on the other hand, was taught to follow rules so that’s what I did.  He let the class talk and not do their work but I could tell by the look on his face he was not happy.  The next day he decided that we were going to have a pop quiz on the material should have been working on the previous day.  He passed around the usual quiz paper except written at the top of my paper was “act like you’re taking the quiz”.  I did my work and I would never have been answer the questions he was asking for this quiz, it was VERY difficult.  It turns out that he noted who was doing work the previous day and they had what was written at the top of my paper.  Unfortunately, I think he did count their grades-many of which were failing.


So where does this leave me? I guess I can follow directions, mostly because I was afraid not to. 

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Some more thoughts on Pedagogy

Yesterday, during our group discussion, I protested against Paul’s comment, “Do we really want to encourage student achievement at a "low cognitive level" for any students in any contexts?” There are very valuable skills that can be taught in a classroom that, when taught, aren’t particularly creative in nature. Furthermore, I don’t think that skills such as reading directions, following the rules, and obedience are mutually exclusive to creativity. The trick, it seems to me, is to help students distinguish between the benefits of applying those skills in the classroom versus in the workplace, at home, etc. This idea extends from the notion that a classroom has cultural elements of its own. On closer thought, the evaluation of how beneficial applying such skills to a given scenario is sounds similar to the revised scientific method…. I’d like to share an experience where a teacher has successfully incorporated deductive and inductive methods in the classroom.

In the seventh grade, I had Mrs. Butler for pre-algebra. She had taught in the public school system as well as at my private middle school for many years, and was widely regarded as an extremely competent, valued teacher. I’ve tried reflecting on the curriculum as a whole to figure out if her methods were mostly deductive or mostly inductive, and unfortunately I can’t remember them well enough to tell anymore. As far as I can recall, she blended both methods by sprinkling the traditional lecture style classes (deductive) with exploratory assignments and group projects (inductive). Of all our assignments, one in particular stands out in my mind.

Mrs. Butler noticed that seventh graders in general had a hard time following directions, and would consequently get points taken off our national standardized tests, our in-class exams, and our group projects. To address this problem, she devised a project that would teach us how to follow directions. She provided us with materials to make a “project” on a folder in which we made various measurements to create a picture. She then measured these creations looking for close adherence to the directions provided. If the project strayed from the bounds she set for us, points were deducted. By all counts, this is the ultimate deductive project. While I get what Prince and Felder meant by “low cognitive level”, a project that relies very little on creativity or spontaneity, I think that the word itself is loaded and could perhaps be replaced to avoid a reaction such as Paul’s.

The example above applies to current test taking strategies. It’s hard to get around standardized tests when trying to get into college and graduate school. Sure, some schools have begun to rely less on scores and supplement applications with more creative demonstrations of aptitude and knowledge, but it’s still hard to get around them. They’re effective ways to limit the number of incoming applications for a school, but what do they really measure? Mrs. Butler’s assignment, as well as an SAT prep course I took in high school helped me see tests for what they really are: a game. As I said earlier, I think that these skills can be valuable for successfully moving up a highly credential-dependent educational system. However, it needs to be distinguished somehow in a student’s mind that deductive and inductive teaching are two different ways of seeing the story of education and they both have useful applications.

A concern that Ian and Ashley have voiced often in our meetings, and one that I’ve come across during the few Sociology courses I’ve taken has to do with potential social justices issues that relate to this use of deductive methods in the classroom. This concern is that in some school systems that aim to produce students who assume higher level jobs, creativity of thought is stressed, while in other school systems that aim to produce lower level workers, strict adherence to rules is stressed. These different emphases create a deeply stratified workforce along not only educational, but racial and socioeconomic lines. This problem is ever-present and extraordinarily complex as it deals with problems in the foundation on which education and workforces are based. I don’t propose to fix the problem by the above suggestion, but rather to reflect on my personal experiences in education and apply what I know

biophile's picture

Changing the system

When reading this, I vividly remembered the introduction to the first class I had with Paul. From what I recall, he surprised some of the students by saying that this course would be different from others in the approach used, that we would be working together as a group to learn new things and that the grade we received would not be at all as important as what we actually learned while there. That probably was not the full scope of the message from that first day, but it’s the general impression I walked away with when the class was over. Although I’ve had a hard time envisioning how to conduct an upper level or intro class intended for majors in a similar manner, I would like to see it done.

I agree with what Rebecca said in her post… In a class with many people taking the course to complete a requirement for medical or graduate school (or just about any intro-level class needed in order to take more interesting ones) there is a strong emphasis on test scores, memorization and overloading on practice problems. These things are more of a hurdle to get over rather than a chance to learn something new and interesting. I came to dislike these classes because the implied point of them wasn’t to have fun or to learn through one’s mistakes; the point was always to get as many questions right as possible and jump through this hoop in order to jump through the next hoop.

Classes like these are more of a weeding process than anything else, a sort of elimination round to determine if one deserves to major in a certain field. Perhaps I’m getting off topic but this brings up my concern that so many intro classes, even outside of the sciences, seem to be designed to entail more work than necessary in order to scare off potential majors so that only the best stay. I very much disapprove of this approach. I think that intro classes should be especially interesting and engaging instead of being a long torture session of “spit back the information we want if you hope to pass.” I think that having a more hands-on approach would attract students best suited to the subject in question, as it would give them a more realistic understanding of how problem-solving in that field usually plays out and would let students see that an active role in learning better prepares one for the real world than test taking does. If the subject doesn’t suit the student, he or she will drop it at his or her own discretion. Students should not be shoehorned out so early on, though.

All of this talk of college courses doesn’t indicate that I think the methods mentioned in the article should not be implemented in elementary and secondary schools. In fact, I think that children and pre-teens would get the most out of such an arrangement. I do think that a lot of people, especially girls, are turned off to math and science because of the detached and mechanistic way in which they are presented. Even though the alternative methods and others like them require more effort on the part of the instructor and there is a chance that the students will react badly, the rewards seem worth it. I just think that it is important to use a variety of methods, since it is almost guaranteed that one kid in a class will dislike a particular approach.

Personally, I am a bit wary of the project-based learning method. My own experiences with them have been quite messy and I loathed them as a kid, as even then I was more theoretically than practically inclined. Also, I think that asking children to solve a problem without any guidance is a horrible idea. Some of my teachers used this approach and it did not work in our classroom. At least half of the kids grew frustrated and gave up, letting the other children do the work for them. I think that many kids need a word of advice or some constructive criticism to keep them going on the right track.

The just-in-time teaching method stood out to me as a very good concept. Unless a teacher asks her students what they think about a certain topic before dumping a ton of new material on them she will not know on which parts to focus and how to best help the students understand the material. I also think the questioning serves as a good introduction and makes the students think and become interested in learning more. Also, I think that many students pass their classes because they can give acceptable answers to specific questions, not because they have a decent general understanding or a good grounding in the subject. Many of them pass even though they have huge misconceptions in certain areas, especially with how certain parts of the material relate to other parts in the bigger picture.

Which brings me to my next point… The article did not address this but I think that a general background to the field being studied and an explanation as to why the students are going to study certain aspects of it and how those parts relate to other parts should be given at the start of every course, if not every lesson. What I found most confusing and frustrating in school was the lack of explanation as to why certain things that we spent so much time on were important and many students expressed the same feeling. It wasn’t until I started to take more advanced courses and read about certain things on my own that I started to make connections and saw why some seemingly stupid concepts were pounded into our brains early on. Pre-calculus or trigonometry students will not see why triangles or graphing functions are so important until they take a calculus course or learn more about the subject on their own… But not every pre-calculus student goes on to learn more. Many, if not most, avoid taking calculus in and after high school because they thought the subject seemed so pointless and difficult to understand. This can easily be said of other subjects and the message is still the same: unless the teacher gives the subject real meaning and shows why this subject is worthwhile students will probably miss the point of it all and give up on the subject after they have fulfilled their requirements. Perhaps that last part is the greatest hurdle we have in making the education system more effective: taking the focus off of grades and requirements and putting it on the subject material and the problem-solving/analyzing processes themselves.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Open-ended education: setting a context

Lots of useful thoughts here from your own experiences. I was particularly struck by your addition of the point that students need a sense of why something is important, how it relates to other things. Some students (though not all) will "wait it out" to make connections later, but there should indeed be a better way, whether one is using a more traditional or a more open-ended teaching styles.
Ron C. de Weijze's picture

making connections

Not everybody enjoys the comforts of having had an education and upbringing that tought him or her the 'scientific method' of learning. Rather, he or she would have it that any spontaneous connection between objects that may or may not have found a stronghold in the mind, would inductively emerge. Learning is viewed this way as a spontaneous build-up of connections, pretty much the same as neuroscience has shown it to work naturally (vs culturally). Favorite connections that are not mediated by spontaneous natural selection/conditioning, must have come from social interactions with peers, parents and teachers/professors. In a way that is injustice, but who cares if that is how science started anyway, when Plato forbade anyone to enter his premises if he did not know about mathematics (ref P.Sloterdijk). However, we are blessed with a passion for justice anyway and should enable those students who will 'wait it out' with the means to do what their brains will do anyway, as all brains do in the beginning (and probably always, but denied by favoritism). Why not, for we have the means as the Internet and Google supercomputing query algorithms prove. Memory is inexhaustible, visualisation is booming from the factories of Steven Spielberg (ref 'Shreck'). Let's leave elitism behind and apart from being politically correct across our borders, care for our own leftbehinds a little more..

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Parenting, Learning, and the Brain

Ron, I agree with you that issues of social justice permeate education, and that inequality is present on all levels of society (at home, in the classroom, in larger communities, etc). Thank you for your input.

In the past, I’ve found it to be very useful to compare and contrast the educational systems within a single country as well as between different countries. I think our group would benefit from hearing more about your experiences in the Netherlands, especially regarding open-ended transactional learning styles.

On another note, though it was a small part of his post (really just one word, in fact), Ron touched on a very important piece of the education pie that we haven't discussed much. That piece is, of course, parenting. After reading Ron's thoughts, I remembered Unequal Childhoods, a book by Annette Lareau that I read in a Social Inequality in the United States course. In her book, Lareau argues that the very language used at home with children and the questions parents ask (or do not ask) alter a child's self-perception.

Our focus this summer tends towards education as understood within the realm of schools and classrooms, but education certainly occurs at home. If we accept that we're all scientists and that the revised scientific method is a useful way of treating all observations (be they inside or outside the classroom) parents should be just as important as teachers in cultivating these ways of viewing the world.
Ron C. de Weijze's picture

open-ended transactional learning styles in Holland

R.Woodruf, "I think our group would benefit from hearing more about your experiences in the Netherlands, especially regarding open-ended transactional learning styles."

Not being a teacher but a psychologist, my humble opinion is that we are not there yet. I've always been learning myself how to learn. Here's my personal story.

Ian Morton's picture

Inductive Teaching and Learning

In their paper, The Many Faces of Inductive Teaching and Learning, Michael Prince and Richard Felder describe the benefits and various forms of inductive teaching. This paper offered valuable information for teachers who are interested in implementing these teaching strategies, giving general overviews of each, comparing the pros and cons of each, discussing the student and teacher demands required for each method, and supplying the locations of additional resources. This would certainly be a good resource for those who are interested in examining new and perhaps more effective methods for teaching.

My interest, however, did not lie in the general information provided by the paper. Rather, I would be more interested to see research on the factors underlying the success and failures of these different methods. For example, why are students more resistant to inductive teaching? Why do we, as students, prefer to turn to the teacher for ‘truth’ and a solid foundation for the future acquisition of more ‘facts’? (Is it purely due to cultural expectations we have developed? Is this preference affected by innate predispositions for how we acquire knowledge? As pointed out in Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, it seems we prefer to unquestionably accept information as fact when delivered by a source we deem trustworthy. Why would we rather assume our teachers are infallible sources of truth than explore the topics ourselves?)

Further, why is inductive teaching more ‘effective’? What is it about these different methods that improve “student retention” and “skill development?” I have always been taught that engaged learning is more effective, but never really taught why. I have a vague understanding that being engaged in the material of a subject will increase one’s interest in the subject, and therefore enhances one’s ability to commit relevant concepts to a working memory, but I do not really understand why this is the case beyond my own experience. From my experience I can tell that having a greater involvement and investment in learning feeds a desire to better understand the material, and I will therefore work harder to do so, but it seems this paper is suggesting more is at play than an increased desire/interest to learn. The authors of this paper argue that these methods are more effective at accomplishing specific tasks (e.g. teaching concepts of a high cognitive level, beyond pure memorization), which to me suggests that these methods do a better job of targeting the actual mechanisms of learning. If this is the case, I believe that further inspection of the subject of learning could benefit from examining these neural mechanisms involved in learning, and how each of these mechanisms are in turn affected by the different methods of teaching/learning.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Open-ended education: resistance by students and logic?

Both your questions are good ones. My own guess is that "active" learning is more effective because it more directly taps into the way the nervous system is "designed" by evolution to learn: by acting and observing the consequences of action, by acquiring experiences and then reflecting on the unconscious understandings resulting from experience to create stories to make sense of them (see Story Telling in Three Dimensions and Brain/Education Parallels). As for resistance, my own guess is that it has to do with the oft mentioned experiences people have already had with educational practices that involve evaluation by testing for context knowledge.
Paul Grobstein's picture

"Inductive Teaching" or "Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry"?

Prince and Infelder have done educators a valuable service by pulling together a large literature under the rubric of "inductive teaching and learning", pointing out similarities and differences between the multitude of teaching approaches that might fall under this rubric, and offering their own advice to educators interesting in exploring new ways of teaching.

Prince and Infelder characterize more traditional teaching practices as "deductive", meaning "first teaches students relevant theory and models, then moves on to textbook exercises, and eventually - maybe - gets to real world applications". Its not entirely clear exactly which of several aspects of the traditional methods "inductive" is intended to improve upon. Sometimes it seems that the delay in getting to "real world applications" is what needs fixing. Most of the time, though, the concern seems to be the need to engage students in activities that call forth some degree of individual thinking and creativity. I'm not sure that "inductive" is the best term for this, since deduction is also involved. Nonetheless, it is useful to have a set of references showing that teaching methods that encourage individual thinking and creativity can indeed be at least as effective as more traditional ones, and in some ways/cases more so.

At this point, though, one needs to read a bit between the lines of Prince and Infelder. For example, they say "the reported outcomes of the effectiveness of case studies versus traditional instruction depend strongly on the assessment tasks"; a similar point seems to hold for other forms of "inductive" teaching. And among their conclusions is "If instructional objectives are at a low cognitive level, requiring almost exclusively rote memorization of facts or mechanical substitution into formulas, there is no reason to use an objective method".

Its certainly worth pointing out that indeed performance evaluations depend critically on how performance is assessed, and that some educational objectives are better served by classrooms that encourage greater individual thinking and creativity than others. At the same time, I'd be more inclined than Prince and Infelder seem to be to use the studies they cite to argue for a substantial change in both objectives and forms of assessment across the educational system rather than as a rationale for caution. Do we really want to encourage student achievement at a "low cognitive level" for any students in any contexts?

On a related note, Prince and Infelder make a point of describing various "inductive" teaching methods with regard to "student resistance", and say "instructors with little or no experience are advised to avoid the more difficult ones". Anyone who has moved towards forms of teaching that involve more reliance on student thinking and creativity will be familiar with the "student resistance" issue. My own experience, though, has been that such resistance has primarily to do with students having poor expectations of the educational system due to prior experiences, and that student "resistance" is replaced with enthusiasm when one makes it clear that the encouragement for individual thinking and creativity is genuine rather than simply a pedagogical veneer for a course with more traditional objectives. Is it really only more experienced teachers who should aspire to something beyond a "low cognitive level" for their students?

Along these lines, it seems to me noteworthy that Prince and Infelder give no attention at all to what educators themselves have to gain from moving to teaching styles that involve greater encouragement for (and reliance on) individual thinking and creativity in their students. Yes, indeed, one has to become more "flexible" in one's approach to the classroom. But the return for that is an effective antidote to "burn out". Instead of living or dying on how successfully one transmits one's "expertise" to students, one can enjoy approaching a group of people to whom one can not only offer one's own understandings but from whom one can learn as well.

Helpful as the Prince and Felder review is, it would be unfortunate if educators took from it only its closing advice and narrower focus. "The many faces of inductive teaching and learning" are not just a new set of tools by which to pursue a traditional objective. They are a part of an ongoing effort to reconceive not only the methods of education but its objectives as well in a way that will encourage greater individual thought and creativity in all students, and teachers as well.


This Isn't Just My Problem, Friend: Some Thoughts on Science Education, Education, American Culture, and What to Do About It

Getting it Less Wrong: Some Thoughts on Introductory Science Teaching, 1993

Emergent Peagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable and Make it Productive

Exploring Science as Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry

Textbooks and Science Education

Mawrtyr2008's picture

The Many Faces of Inductive Teaching and Learning

I thought it was interesting that given all the years I've been a student, I don't know much at all about lesson planning, course structure, etc. While I might not be the best person to weigh the different lesson options, I certainly do have vivid memories of what worked for me in the classroom and what didn't.

While I really like it on paper, I do have some mixed feelings about inductive teaching strategies. First off, I think that these strategies should probably play a much larger role (if not an exclusive one!) in elementary school classrooms to actively foster an interest in the sciences. I was surprised when the authors said "Failure to connect course content to the real world has repeatedly been shown to contribute to students leaving the sciences" because of how rooted science is in the "real world." At this time in particular, before the overwhelming stress of SATs, SATIIs, MCATS, GREs, and the rest of the world of structured computerized tests, it seems imperative to teach this way as much as possible.

As for my problems with inductive teaching strategies, they're almost entirely my own personal experiences. It was very frustrating in many science courses when the test-driven pre-meds and post-baccs dominated the GenChem classroom, for example. They seemed to be more interested in deductive learning in the form of rote memorization as opposed to inductive learning based on exploration and trial and error. The only way that can stop, I suppose, is to do away with those awful tests as a measurement tool! These tests are a very sticky point in discussions of education in the US, and rightly so. There are many pros and cons associated with their use, and even though I can't propose a feasible alternative as of now, I don’t think they’re the right way to go about measuring intelligence or knowledge! In other words, while the structure of the national education system itself caters to deductive methods, students will continue to be motivated along a right/wrong way of thinking rather than a more exploratory way of thinking.

After reading the article, I started wondering how our summers have been structured. What do you all think? I say they’re most in keeping with the Discovery learning method…

I wonder if we were given this article as an entrée to discuss what's working for us under this line of teaching and what's not. After all, if our summer research does model one of these teaching methods, we would be a relative case study.


Ashley Dawkins's picture

inductive teaching and learning

More than anything I found this article to be informative.  Sometimes as an educator you can get caught in a rut or not realize how many ways there are to teach something.  I like this idea that teaching inductively will allow students to connect what they are learning in the classroom to the outside world.  In return I think this may spark some interest in the students, because they will feel there’s a reason why they are learning what they are learning.


When I first read this article for a conference I attended I was uncomfortable with all the different teaching styles because I didn’t know what they were all about.  I was and am all for trying new things in the classroom, but I feel it’s important to make sure that you (the educator) present the material in the appropriate manner or you may not achieve what you set out to achieve.  This is why I would want to find out as much as I can about a certain style before I actually implemented in my future classroom.


I was fortunate enough to sit in on a mock “case study” classroom.  I enjoyed it very much.  We used a previous study/experiment to question what we would do and how we would construct the study and then we would compare it to what was actually done.  In this setting we worked in groups and then a person would present the groups ideas.  It was important that the teacher made sure different people were speaking all the time and were heard.  It was also set up in a way that it wasn’t necessary to have prior knowledge of whatever you end up discussing.  I would actually argue that it’s best if you don’t have any prior knowledge.


I appreciate how the article is honest and addresses the fact that these different styles may be met with opposition.  And even though in the end it suggests that there are better results from inductive versus deductive teaching, it also states that some of these styles can be difficult to implement.


As a future educator I appreciated this article because I always want to know what’s out there for me to look into and perhaps adopt.  I also believe that the traditional ways of teaching are not as successful as some may think and do not plan on teaching in this way.  I would like to find more about these ways of teaching and other ways as well.