Developmental Mathematics Reforms Can Be Enhanced by Improved Teaching: A New Study Shows How Lesson Study Can Help

By Susan Bickerstaff

Teacher helping student at school

Research on mathematics teaching at all education levels shows that student-centered approaches that emphasize conceptual learning are associated with improved outcomes. Studies of developmental mathematics reforms have found that curricula that focus on big ideas and pedagogy that encourages student discussion can lead to greater student success. Yet in typical postsecondary mathematics courses, instructors spend most of their time lecturing and emphasize memorization of formulas and procedures.

This is not entirely surprising given that most higher education faculty teach the way they were taught and have limited pre-service training in teaching. And there are few professional development models in higher education shown to support faculty to meaningfully change their teaching practice. Workshops, webinars, and conferences are unlikely to provide the type of support faculty need to adopt, troubleshoot, and then sustain significantly different approaches to teaching mathematics.

At the same time, the need to support faculty to improve instruction has never been more urgent. In response to growing evidence, institutions are changing developmental placement policies and redesigning course structures and pathways. Within these new courses, with potentially more diverse students, faculty have questions about the best way to meet students’ learning needs. And as Maxine Roberts argued in a recent CAPR blog, to address the barriers facing Black and Brown students and students with low incomes, institutions should pair structural reforms with classroom practices that increase engagement between students and faculty.

To fill this gap, the Community College Research Center, Education Northwest, and mathematics faculty at three community colleges in Oregon collaborated on a project to adapt lesson study, a professional development approach used in K-12 mathematics, for use in developmental mathematics in college. A new report shares findings from a mixed-method study of lesson study’s implementation and outcomes.

What is Lesson Study?

Lesson study is a structured, collaborative approach to teacher inquiry that examines how lesson design and instructional choices influence student thinking and learning. By digging deep into one lesson, instructors develop strategies they can use across their courses.

Lesson study teams work in cycles consisting of four stages:

  1. Studying and planning a lesson
  2. Teaching, observing, and debriefing the lesson
  3. Revising and reteaching the lesson
  4. Reflecting and reporting on the results

Each of these stages is guided by a set of protocols that invite faculty members to investigate evidence-based practices, look closely at how students engage with lesson content, and consider what students do and do not understand. During the cycle, faculty engage in a series of meetings, classroom observations, and preparatory work that takes up to 20 hours and may be completed over the course of several months.The goal of the process is to learn about practices that can lead to improved teaching and student learning more broadly.

Drawing on survey, observation, and interview data, we found that lesson study is different from typical professional development opportunities available to community college math faculty. Unlike most professional development opportunities, lesson study is intensive, collaborative, and provides a highly structured approach to improve disciplinary teaching practices embedded in a specific course.

Comparing Lesson Study to typical community college faculty professional development

Supporting Faculty to Adopt New Teaching Practices

Faculty who participated in the lesson study project adopted new teaching practices. Analysis of observation notes and lesson plans shows that revised lessons included more open-ended, complex tasks and new strategies to increase mathematical communication among students.

Before lesson study, the curricular materials faculty used contained many problems that were contextualized in real-world scenarios; yet the materials tended to guide student thinking through a series of fixed tasks that emphasized procedures. In classroom activities, students rarely discussed how or why they arrived at their answers.

By contrast, lessons designed through lesson study provided less prescription and frequently included problems that had several possible approaches to the solution. Faculty also used new strategies to facilitate mathematical conversations among students and to prompt students to explain their thinking verbally and in writing.

In a survey, 95% of the 22 participating faculty indicated they were likely to participate in lesson study again if given the opportunity. Most survey respondents indicated that lesson study had a positive impact on their instruction.

The developmental mathematics landscape is changing. As mathematics faculty are faced with new challenges and as they strive to support their students, they may need support to adopt teaching strategies that are more effective. This research shows that lesson study is a promising model for postsecondary professional development. Other professional development approaches that share lesson study’s distinguishing features—models that are intensive, collaborative, and offer faculty guidance to examine pedagogy within a discipline—may also be effective.

Check out Education Northwest’s lesson study page for lesson study implementation resources, including materials for facilitators and video testimonials from community college mathematics faculty.

Susan Bickerstaff is a senior research associate and program lead at the Community College Research Center.