Instructional Techniques at Post-Secondary Institutions – A Battle Between Cost Effectiveness and Student Success


By Chloe Hanson, Brock University 

How many of us can relate to the feeling of discouragement when receiving your first assignment back in post-secondary education? According to an article posted in Maclean’s, numerous first year students are emotionally and academically defeated when they receive a grade that is not equivalent to their standards set in high school Maclean’s, 2010). In severe cases, feelings of defeat can lead to the desirability of dropping out of one’s program Maclean’s, 2010). Although retention rates in post-secondary institutions are high and increasing, there are still a small number of students who slip through the cracks. Specifically, dropout rates in first year can be due to crises occurring at home, poor academic performance, financial struggles, and program appeal Maclean’s, 2010). However, a survey conducted for the St. George campus at the University of Toronto demonstrates that “the primary barrier to success for our first-year students is not financial, it’s their own academic performance” (Maclean’s, 2010). According to Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada, academic performance is dependent on persistence (Parkin & Baldwin, 2009). Low levels of persistence, and consequently drop out and failure rates, can be attributed to poor performance in terms of teaching (Parkin & Baldwin, 2009). Therefore, post-secondary institutions need to examine instructional techniques and strategies if a decrease in first-year dropout rates is desired.

Due to a neoliberal and corporatized model of higher education in Canada, the budgets for undergraduate funding are increasingly being cut, resulting in the diminishment of teaching resources (Quinlan & Fogel, 2014). Consequently, lecture based instructional approaches are adopted as the most cost effective, as with an increasing demographic of students entering post-secondary institutions, mass numbers can be accommodated for in a lecture hall (Quinlan & Fogel, 2014). Despite the cost effectiveness of utilizing lecture halls, a study conducted by Freeman et al. (2014) found that undergraduate students in classes with traditional lecture based techniques are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students who are engaged in a more stimulating and interactive learning environment.

In addition to the influence lecture based learning may have on one’s academic performance, there is a lack of skills obtained in lecture based learning environments that correlate with academic success. Lecture based learning turns students into passive beings who are expected to regurgitate the content taught on midterm assignments or examinations (Quinlan & Fogel, 2014). However, according to Shahzadi and Ahmad (2011), one of the skills that lead to academic performance in post-secondary environments is the ability to apply the knowledge learned to relevant concepts. If this is the case, the most effective learning environment would be grounded in problem based learning (PBL) techniques. PBL is an instructional method that involves presenting students with relevant/realistic scenarios or problems that are to be solved using the knowledge and content taught in class (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). However, implementing PBL environments in post-secondary institutions can be a challenge as it often requires collaboration, group work, and intimate settings that simply cannot be accommodated in a massive lecture hall (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Therefore, although it can be suggested that PBL may have a positive effect on academic performance, post-secondary institutions may be restricted as the most cost-effective instructional technique is lecture based learning.

Despite the disconnect between post-secondary budgets and effective instructional techniques for increased academic performance, there are suggestions to be acknowledged to create a more stimulating and interactive learning environment in post-secondary classrooms. Specifically, offering students the choice between PBL versus lecture based learning could be a potential solution, as students can choose their learning preferences, thus increasing student satisfaction and accountability for academic performance (Opdecam, Everaert, Keer, & Buysschaert, 2014). However, this would require an increase in teaching resources and cost factors. Consequently, this leaves post-secondary institutions at a difficult crossroad – cost effectiveness or student success?


Freeman, S., Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410-8415

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.

Maclean’s (2010). Students who dropout over grades. Maclean’s Canada Press. Retrieved from

Opdecam, E. E., Everaert, P., Keer, H., & Buysschaert, F. (2014). Preference for team learning and lecture-based learning among first-year undergraduate accounting students. Research in Higher Education, 55(4), 400-432.

Parkin, A., & Baldwin, N. (2009). Persistence in post-secondary education in Canada: The latest research. Millennium Research Note #8. Montreal, PQ: Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. 1-14.

Quinlan, A., & Fogel, C. A. (2014). Transcending convention and space: Strategies for fostering active learning in large post-secondary classes. Higher Education Studies, 4(6), 43-48.

Shahzadi, E., & Ahmad, Z. (2011). Academic performance of university students. International Conference on Recent Advances in Statistics, 255-268.




2 thoughts on “Instructional Techniques at Post-Secondary Institutions – A Battle Between Cost Effectiveness and Student Success

  1. Hey Chloe,

    I can relate well to your topic and my past the struggles as an undergraduate student. I put the blame on my high-school students for my unreadiness of the expectations of post-secondary (always have to blame someone but ourselves). Even though I never felt the need to drop out, I did experience the lack of support due to the fact of a massive student population.

    Your topic relates a lot to the issues we are speaking about this week. You state that student’s academic performance is lacking due to teaching styles by professors. Therefore, the discussion begins around the teacher’s motivation to teach and also the student’s desire to learn. Your connection to PBL is very well-organized. Do you think Social Learning Theory could also connect to post-secondary students? Including problem-solving, real-life situations and self-reflection are some ways to create an effective learning environment. To create an effective learning environment, professors should be free to research multiple styles of learning. Using research in a positive manner can only benefit a student’s experience. Thus, exploring these options may limit the typical lecture and increase the number of seminar/tutorials institutions are offering. Bajak (2014) also students that engaging students with questions or group activities are more effective.
    In the link above, it speaks about the benefits of having student-to-student and student-to-learning material to foster social interactions to higher education learning. Also including resources for you to complete your next assignment!

    Awesome work!


    Bajak, A. (2014). Lectures aren’t just boring, they’re ineffective, too, study finds. Science Magazine. Retrieved from

    Wang, A. X. & Schrager, A. (2017). The college lecture is dying. Good riddance. The Quartz. Retrieved from

    Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


  2. Hi Chloe,
    Interesting topic and boy do I remember the experience of receiving my first grade in undergrad! It was the lowest mark I had ever received in school up to that point, so I totally know the feeling of discouragement. In my experience, the professors did a lot at the time to help us through this and I give them credit for helping many students bounce back.

    Your post speaks about the responsibility of the institution to decrease drop out rates and I agree that lecture-based learning can be a shock for first-year students (my lecture classes at UofT had hundreds of people in them). A possible question might be: is there a time during a degree/diploma program that you feel might be better for lecture learning or none at all? Would having lecture classes only in years 3/4 be better? For first year students that perhaps might need to be in large groups due to cost or space, Scoboria and Pascual-Leone (2009) investigate the success of “interteaching: a method that shifts student responsibility for learning from one of passive reception to active engagement, and shifts the instructor’s role from imparting knowledge to structuring and guiding learning” (Saville, 2006), which I found interesting as a possible solution as well.

    Scoboria, A., Sirois, F. M., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2009). Using “Interteaching” to Enhance Student Engagement and Learning. Collected Essays On Learning And Teaching, 283-88.

    Saville, B. K., Zinn, T. E., Neef, N. A., Van Norman, R., & Ferreri, S. J. (2006). A Comparison of Interteaching and Lecture in the College Classroom. Journal Of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(1), 49?61.

    Your post also brings to mind the term “resilience”. Working on this skill throughout childhood could mitigate some of the shocks of postsecondary education. Not to say the institutions shouldn’t change their teaching styles, but personal resilience is also important in school and life. The research is still new it seems in the area of resilience and college students but some recent research by Houston et al (2017) shows promise of how resiliency training can improve student experience.

    Houston, J. B., First, J., Spialek, M. L., Sorenson, M. E., Mills-Sandoval, T., Lockett, M., First, N.L., Nietema, P, Allan, S., Pfefferbaum, B. (2017). Randomized controlled trial of the resilience and coping intervention (RCI) with undergraduate university students. Journal of American College Health, 65(1), 1-9. doi:10.1080/07448481.2016.1227826

    Great blog!

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