Theobald and colleagues (including BRC postdoc Jared Grummer) showed that active learning decreases achievement gaps in exam scores and passing rates for traditionally underrepresented groups as compared to traditional instruction (e.g., scripted lecture). Check out the results in their PNAS paper:
Elli J. Theobald, Mariah J. Hill, Elisa Tran, Sweta Agrawal, E. Nicole Arroyo, Shawn Behling, Nyasha Chambwe, Dianne Laboy Cintrón, Jacob D. Cooper, Gideon Dunster, Jared A. Grummer, Kelly Hennessey, Jennifer Hsiao, Nicole Iranon, Leonard Jones II, View ORCID ProfileHannah Jordt, Marlowe Keller, Melissa E. Lacey, Caitlin E. Littlefield, Alexander Lowe, Shannon Newman, Vera Okolo, Savannah Olroyd, Brandon R. Peecook, Sarah B. Pickett, David L. Slager, Itzue W. Caviedes-Solis, Kathryn E. Stanchak, Vasudha Sundaravardan, Camila Valdebenito, Claire R. Williams, Kaitlin Zinsli, and Scott Freeman. 2020. Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. PNAS
Underrepresented college students benefit more from ‘active learning’ techniques in STEM courses, extracts from James Urton, University of Washington
A new study by researchers at the University of Washington shows that teaching techniques in undergraduate STEM courses can significantly narrow gaps in course performance between students who are overrepresented and underrepresented in STEM. The team reports that switching from passive techniques, such as traditional lectures, to inquiry-based “active learning” methods has a disproportionate benefit for underrepresented students, a term that encompasses low-income students and Latinx, African American, Native American, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.
The researchers used a meta-analysis approach, which combined student-level data from dozens of individual studies, to investigate how student performance changed when instructors incorporated more active learning methods into undergraduate STEM courses. They found that the achievement gap between overrepresented and underrepresented students narrowed on exam scores by 33% and course passing rates by 45%. For “high-intensity” active learning courses, in which students spent at least two-thirds of total class time engaged in active learning, the gap for exam scores shrank by 42% and 76%, respectively, for passing rates.
Research has shown that the achievement gaps in college STEM degree programs occur in part because students from underrepresented backgrounds tend to score lower on exams and have lower passing rates in entry-level undergraduate STEM courses. As a result, more underrepresented students switch majors or drop out of college. Six years after starting a STEM degree, 43% of white students and 52% of Asian American students have finished it. But completion rates drop to between 20 and 30% for Latinx, African American and Native American students, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
On average, the team saw that active learning methods narrowed the achievement gaps significantly in both exam scores and passing rates between overrepresented and underrepresented student groups. Future research is needed to understand why active learning disproportionately benefits students from underrepresented backgrounds. These learning techniques could create a more welcoming and inclusive environment, which may be especially important for students who often feel as if they don’t belong in STEM, or “feel excluded,” said Theobald. Active learning may also help students comprehend material better by taking them through complex concepts step by step, with regular check-in moments. This targeted, intensive practice may disproportionally help students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, by ensuring they understand the material and don’t fall behind.
The increasingly clear benefits of active learning may mean that colleges and universities, as well as professional societies, could provide incentives and assistance to professors and instructors who want to take the plunge, added Freeman. “It’s time to reward people for getting good results in the classroom, because now we see that the benefits are even greater than we thought,” said Freeman.