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Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques

Marcelo Vinces, October 25, 2015

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), founded in 1989, is a leading advocate for transforming undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching and learning in the United States. A project of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), PKAL is dedicated to empowering STEM faculty, including those from underrepresented groups, to graduate more students in STEM fields who are well trained and liberally educated.

I had the opportunity to attend PKAL’s Ohio conference last May. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington, opened his keynote by projecting an image by Laurentius de Voltolina taken from a 14th century manuscript, Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia.

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

That’s Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088. Besides the obvious differences in garb, student demographics, and technology, the scene is a familiar one to all of us. The lecturer stands at front, and his pupils are seated in rows facing him. Some scribble notes, some listen intently. In the back, two students have checked out altogether and are speaking to each other. And look: there are the students we’re all familiar with: one bent over in ecstasy or agony, but more likely just asleep, as is the one who sleeps through the lecture as well as the chatter of the two students behind her. Maybe it was a late night with some fine Italian wine. More likely, the result of a boring lecture. With that, Freeman asked the audience: How is it that we are still teaching science at universities much the same way it was done in the 1300s?

Two recent opinion pieces have expanded upon this very question, touching on the growing body of published research indicating not only that the venerable tradition of the lecture may be less effective for learning than “active learning” techniques, but that they may produce particularly negative results in the sciences for underrepresented groups: minorities, women, low-income and first-generation students.

In “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science,” Terrance F. Ross, writing in the Atlantic, focused on research carried out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington. The studies concluded that learning techniques that permitted students to become active participants in constructing their own learning rather remaining passive recipients as in traditional lecture courses, consistently resulted in better performance by students. The research, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work,” was conducted by Kelly Hogan, a professor of biology, at the University of North Carolina, and Sarah L. Eddy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington. In particular, the studies examined how differences in race, culture, and a family’s higher-education background can affect the methodologies by which students learn. Ultimately, it questioned whether college courses—specifically STEM-related ones—that use older teaching approaches are the best fit for colleges today, considering the increasingly diverse student populations we are educating.

Hogan and Eddy compared a traditional lecture approach and grading based solely on exams with a model that let the students mold how they learned and were assessed. These approaches included preparatory and review assignments, guided reading questions, and extensive student in-class engagement. As we can see in the graph below, while the new model was effective across the board, it worked particularly well for minorities. The gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts (the two highest performing demographics in the class) shrunk from 5.5 percent under traditional lecture structure, to an average of 2.6 percent in the new setting.

Average Grades by Race

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times (“Are College Lectures Unfair”) Annie Murphy Paul reviewed several studies, including those mentioned in the Atlantic, all of which suggested that the traditional lecture format is “not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.” Paul suggests that there are several possible reasons to explain the difference. One, she notes, is that “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates.” This is not just a problem in the way we might easily imagine but more so since research “has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess. The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.”

Active learning approaches are able to overcome these deficits, according to the research, disproportionately improving the performance of historically underrepresented students in STEM areas. Why? The research suggests that active learning helps limit students’ sense of isolation while fostering communal feeling among classmates. Other research has shown the detrimental effect on learning of being a “solo” in a class context and points out that active learning can be especially effective at reducing the achievement gap of women, low-income, and first-generation students by creating more collaborative, lower-pressure environments that increase a sense of belonging for everyone.

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

So why, given the growing body of data and the demographic trends in the United States, aren’t these approaches embraced more widely? Scott Freeman, the PKAL keynote speaker, went even further, asking us to consider whether not using active learning techniques in STEM courses could even be considered unethical. In his talk, he presented results of a meta-analysis of 642 papers examining the effects of active learning. These broadly demonstrated benefits across disciplines, class size, course level and major or non-major courses. His own studies in an introductory biology course showed enhanced performance in active learning versions of the course, with benefits particularly pronounced among underprepared students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, what are your thoughts on active learning? Why do we tend to stick to the traditional lecture format? What are the real barriers that keep us from using innovative pedagogies and how can we lower them? What have your experiences been with active learning approaches in the classroom?