Is that possible? At first pass, it doesn't seem likely, but the study referenced below contains 10 years' worth of data confirming that student learning increased with less content and more inquiry. Let's explore the context and detail the findings.
The research analyzed the experiences of students taking lab-based introductory biology courses at the University of Michigan. In the late 1990s the department taught labs using what's described as a “traditional format, with many weekly cookbook laboratories strung together, each focused on a different biological topic.” (p. 325) The department confronted evidence that the majority of students were learning little about the topics, lab techniques, or the research process by completing these cookbook labs. They decided to start using inquiry-driven lab formats. Working in groups, students completed two seven-week lab sequences. During these sequences, “student teams pose a scientific question, propose an experimental design, and perform multiweek investigations, and, along the way, present their research via posters, interviews, papers, and talks.” (p. 326) Faculty time in the lab focuses on mentoring these group research projects. Students still completed a couple of cookbook labs in order to learn lab techniques. The research team published data in 2004 that compared the traditional labs to the team inquiry approach and reported learning gains that favored the inquiry labs.
In 2007 the team opted for a 14-week inquiry lab where students spend the entire semester focused on one research project. This gives more time for repeating and revising the experiments. At the time this article was published, the research team had 10 years of data from these three different laboratory formats. To test learning outcomes, students completed a content posttest exam, the Medical Assessment Test, or MAT, with questions derived from the Medical College Admissions Test. Researchers also analyzed qualitative data collected on the end-of-course rating instrument. And, finally, they used past syllabi to conduct an analysis of content coverage in the labs and lectures.
Data collected justify this conclusion: “Students make significant learning gains when participating in inquiry laboratories.” (p. 332) “When we used students' prior performance on the ACT exam to normalize the MAT scores for each semester, the statistical significance of the increasing trend seen with the raw performance scores was maintained.” (p. 332) [MAT normalized scores: 64.73 percent for the one 14-week inquiry lab format, 61.97 percent for the two seven-week inquiry lab format, and 53.48 percent for the traditional cookbook lab format.]
Perhaps even more surprising, “From 2000 to 2011, the amount of overall class coverage declined by [about] 44%, whereas the averages on MAT exams increased by 13% over the same period.” (p. 332) “Our data suggest that a more efficient use of time is mastering fewer topics deeply while fostering the development of critical thinking skills that enable the student to apply known information (with greater confidence) to new topics.” (p. 333) In this case then, the claim that less teaching resulted in more learning stands. “We define our use of the term ‘less teaching' as moving the burden of active effort from the teacher to the student.” (p. 333)
And students responded positively to this change in lab format. An analysis of students' comments on course rating forms revealed that only 20 percent made positive comments regarding the cookbook lab format. As the lab format changed, the percentage of positive comments increased to 71 percent regarding the two seven-week inquiry format and to 96 percent for the one 14-week inquiry format.
“We believe that the quantitative and qualitative data support greater student-driven inquiry in the classroom laboratory, which leads to deeper learning in fewer topic areas (less teaching), and can reap gains in scientific thinking and fundamental understanding applicable to a broader range of topic areas (more learning) in introductory biology.” (p. 325)
Reference: Luckie, D.B., Aubry, J.R., Marengo, B.J., Rivkin, A.M., Foos, L.A., and Maleszewkie, J.J. (2012). Less teaching, more learning: 10-year study supports increasing student learning through less coverage and more inquiry. Advances in Physiology Education, 36 (3), 325-335.