A Brief Introduction to College Lesson Study

Bill Cerbin, Ph.D. & Bryan Kopp, Ph.D
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

As much as they might benefit from the knowledge of their colleagues, most teachers have not accessed what others know and must start over, creating this knowledge anew. (Hiebert, Gallimore & Stigler, A Knowledge Base for the Teaching Profession, 2002)

Lesson study is a simple idea. If you want to improve instruction, what could be more obvious than collaborating with fellow teachers to plan, observe, and reflect on lessons? While it may be a simple idea, lesson study is a complex process, supported by collaborative goal setting, careful data collection on student learning, and protocols that enable productive discussion of difficult issues. (Catherine Lewis, Lesson Study: A Handbook Teacher-Led Instructional Change, 2002)

Lesson study is a process in which a small group of teachers collaboratively plans, teaches, observes, revises and reports results on a single class lesson.

"The pervasive concern with student learning throughout lesson study distinguishes it from other types of teaching improvement activities."A "lesson" is a teaching and learning episode that usually takes place in a single class period. A lesson is carefully planned to address one or more student learning goals. The lesson plan describes not only what the teacher might say or do, but also how students are likely to respond to the lesson activities. As an object of study, a lesson offers a manageable "unit of analysis," one that reveals the richness and complexity of actual classroom practice.

There are four major purposes that motivate lesson study:

Teachers work through the steps listed below. (To learn more about the process, please visit our online guide.)

  1. Form a Team: 3-6 people with similar teaching interests are identified.
  2. Develop Student Learning Goals: Team members discuss what they would like students to learn as a result of the lesson.
  3. Plan the Research Lesson: Teachers design a lesson to achieve the learning goals, anticipating how students will respond.
  4. Gather Evidence of Student Learning: One team member teaches the lesson while others observe, collecting evidence of student learning.
  5. Analyze Evidence of Learning: The team discusses the results and assesses progress made toward learning goals.
  6. Repeat the Process: The group revises the lesson, repeating steps 2-5 as necessary, and shares findings.

Recommended Viewing: If you have not already seen it — and even if you have — we recommend viewing "Can You Lift 100kg?" by Catherine Lewis (available from http://www.lessonresearch.net/). This video walks you through the Lesson Study process as it occurs in an elementary science class in Japan. Even though the contexts of American colleges and universities differ, we have found this video both inspiring and illuminating.Lesson Study involves backward design which starts with the clarification of the goal or endpoint of the learning process and then the design of instructional experiences that lead to the goal. During the lesson design phase teachers talk about how students are likely to respond to each element of the lesson.

Teachers try to anticipate how students will interpret the subject matter, what kinds of difficulties they may experience and what kinds of experiences are likely to support their learning. The pervasive concern with student learning throughout lesson study distinguishes it from other types of teaching improvement activities. In lesson study, teachers:

Why should busy college and university teachers take the time to work with colleagues on single class lessons? There are four main reasons that lesson study is worth the time and effort in higher education.

Teaching Improvement: It is an ideal venue for teaching improvement. In contrast to workshops and seminars that discuss general teaching strategies, lesson study looks directly at one's classroom. Teachers focus their activities on student learning, how to design more effective teaching activities, and how to assess student progress toward important goals. By focusing on one lesson, instructors can make improvements without undertaking extensive course revision.

Field Tested Lessons: Lesson Study results in a carefully designed and field tested lesson that can be used and adapted by other instructors. The systematic, evidence-based approach used makes it possible for teachers to build on one another's work. By the end of the Lesson Study process, discipline-based teams produce usable knowledge of lesson designs and their effectiveness, yielding valuable information about how students learn.

Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has said that the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) ultimately improves student learning and occurs when "our work as teachers becomes public, peer-reviewed and critiqued, and exchanged with other members of our professional communities so they, in turn, can build on our work. These are the qualities of all scholarship.” Lesson Study is a form of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Read more...Scholarly Inquiry: Lesson Study is a form of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning—the final products are suitable for professional presentations and publication. Lesson Study integrates teaching and research, theory and practice. Read more about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Communities of Practice: The Lesson Study process helps build communities of practice around teaching. Faculty report that lesson study cultivates mutual understanding of goals, teaching practices and student learning among teachers.


Brief Project History

In the 2003-2004 academic year, faculty at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse piloted Lesson Study, exploring challenges of and strategies for doing Lesson Study at the college level. Faculty members from biology, economics, English and psychology made the following statements about Lesson Study:

"In three years [I’ve been teaching here] I don't think we've sat down and had much discussion of student learning outside the lesson study project." ~ A Psychology Professor
"[H]alf of the value in this is in are you understanding student learning better. You can always use that - so [with] the actual mechanics of the lesson, there's also useful things there in watching the details of how students operate in groups or whatever… I ended up using the experiment for a very different reason…. [Lesson Study] pushed my understanding of that particular topic further so it gave me a deeper understanding of it.... and then [it gave me an opportunity] to try to think about how students think about this particular topic." ~An Economics Professor
"[We] had already been working on modules where a person would kind of develop something with input from other faculty people and then we would share it.... but I think what [Lesson Study] really added that was good was the initial meetings were really helpful where we talked as a group about a specific problem.... When I was involved in the other modules, my whole focus was on developing the module...and then when we started this process, it shifted to how do we get the students, you see what I'm saying, to learn the material instead of how do I get a module out there.... This process did help to shift that focus in a really important direction." ~A Biology Professor
"One good thing that came out of the process of sitting around with five or six ideas and bouncing them around until four or five of them died was that a lot of times we do that on our own in the classroom so it takes you about four lectures before you get it right... [With Lesson Study] you can cut through a lot of that pretty quickly.... It was worth the extra hour or two to discuss it or whatever it took because you probably got to a better lecture quicker than if we all tried it individually, tweak them, you know, the next year and the next year. It might be four years before you got it right, if ever." ~A Biology Professor
"A lot of it [what happens in department meetings] is information conveyance.... it's a more effective use of our time to get together and talk about something that's going to affect student learning. I mean that's really what our jobs are about rather than committee meetings.... I don't see 15 hours a semester as a lot of time.... and if it is, then cut something else out...." ~An Economics Professor

An Invitation

Participation in the Lesson Study Project (LSP) offers many benefits, including free consultation and support. In addition, you will have opportunities to

  1. document your work in progress,
  2. get feedback from other members of the lesson study community, and
  3. publish and disseminate your final product.
Learn More...

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