Active Learning 2.0: Making it Inclusive

I’ve written several posts (1, 2, 3) about why active learning is a good thing. There is even growing evidence that some forms of active learning seem to raise student learning outcomes and make those outcomes more equitable at the same time.

All of that is great, but I believe strongly that active learning is not a magic bullet and can be implemented well or poorly. It can sometimes alienate students. A few years ago, I asked students to work in groups on a set of problems in complex analysis. I didn’t give any instructions on how to work well with each other and the problems were rather routine ones. That created a situation in which a student felt left behind in her group and she got discouraged. I tried to talk to her after class but it didn’t help and she dropped the class shortly after.  She said that she dropped the class because it didn’t fit into her schedule, but I still suspect that the group work experience had something to do with it.

In this post, I would like to argue that just using active learning is not enough. Because active learning requires students to be more engaged in their own learning and often involves more human-to-human interactions, we must pay attention to how those experiences support or diminish students’ sense of competence and belonging. I believe that in most cases, what’s needed is a little more care and planning in the use of active learning. I’ll try to illustrate that through some examples.

Example #1: Think-Pair-Share

A common active learning strategy is “think-pair-share“. Unfortunately, I often find that instructors skip the “think” step and skip to “pair and share.” And more generally, I find that most speakers/facilitators/instructors don’t give any (or sufficient) independent think time before asking participants/students to talk with one another.

In many situations, independent think time is so important because it gives time for people who process information in different ways to put together their thoughts before talking. Some people are great at “talking while thinking”: putting together their ideas while talking it out. It can work out well if you’re like this and you’re around other people who are similar–the process of building off of each others’ ideas mid-sentence is fun to watch. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. I prefer to have some time to think before I just start talking and I don’t like it when other people interrupt me when I’m talking.

By giving students independent think time before asking them to discuss, instructors can give students more equitable access to the opportunity to think. Students with learning differences, students whose first language is not English, students who are introverted will appreciate having more time to think before speaking. Even those students who like to “talk while thinking” will probably have more refined ideas to share before they start talking. Therefore, the independent think time makes discussions far more productive and less awkward.  I dislike those moments when I’m in a room of people and the speaker/instructor asks us to talk to each other and there’s this awkward period when people are trying to figure out what to say and who should start, etc.

Example #2: Open-Ended Projects

Do you assign open-ended projects in your classes? For example, in our introductory differential equations course, we often ask students create a model involving differential equations for some phenomena in their lives, then give a short presentation on it. It’s an assignment that spans several weeks and involves teams of three students working together.

These kinds of open-ended projects have all sorts of wonderful benefits: increased agency allows students to take more ownership over their learning; the open-ended nature of the task allow them to connect the course content with their own lived experiences; the chance to be creative makes the learning more memorable, fun, and motivating.

However, it is important to look at how these open-ended projects are structured for students. In particular, I am thinking of the work by Mary-Ann Winkelmes and others on the Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) Project. If our instructions for these kinds of assignments don’t clearly convey to students why they should be personally invested, how to carry out the work, and how the work will be evaluated, we run the risk of making students bewildered and discouraged. That’s where it becomes helpful to be transparent about the purpose, tasks, and criteria for these open-ended projects. Of course, the tricky part is to balance being clear about processes and criteria while still maintaining high cognitive demand and room for creativity.

The reason this issue connects with equity is that not all students have had the benefit of having similar kinds of experiences in their previous education. Those that have often run with these kinds of open-ended tasks. Those that haven’t are likely to find the task so open-ended to be unsettling.

Here’s a nice way to see if your open-ended projects are written up in a way that students might find confusing: show your project instructions to a colleague in a different content area. Ask them what questions they might have as they read the instructions for your open-ended project. That will help to reveal some of the hidden assumptions that you might be making about what students know about these kinds of tasks. Being more transparent helps to put students on a more level playing field.

Example #3: Group Work

I saved this topic for last because I think it’s tricky to do well. The rewards and risks that accompany it are great.

If you assign students to work in heterogeneous ability groups (i.e., creating groups in which struggling students work with “more capable” students), there is always the risk of the groupings themselves to discourage students. Students aren’t dumb–they know that we sometimes group them in this way. If you are struggling in the class and you see that you’re always the one in the group that is struggling, and you’re not really getting the support you need from your peers, you might begin to wonder whether you really belong in the group and the class.  Students also don’t know how to help each other, especially in math classes–their understanding of what it means to help someone else usually involves telling someone a procedure or answer without providing any of the rationale.

But even if you group students in other ways, because you can’t be in all places at all times in the classroom, there is always the risk that one of your groups has negative interactions that spoil the learning for the group, or worse, cause some students to feel marginalized or excluded.

The example that I mentioned at the top of the post suggests a second reason why group work can go badly. When you ask students to work together on a task that really doesn’t require multiple brains, then you’re setting students up for to compare themselves with each other to see who can do it faster/better, or to zone out and copy the work of the “smart” student. If you’re going to have groups of students work together, then the task should really take advantage of the fact that multiple brains working together can accomplish more than those brains working in parallel but separately. In other words, you should use group worthy tasks.

Third, group work can go awry because we all have biases. The small groups in the classroom become microcosms of inequities that exist in the broader society. For example, if you have a group of three men and one woman working together, you might find that the three men ignore the contributions of the woman. Students need to learn how to work well with each other. Scan the classroom frequently for status issues (for example, by looking at each student’s body language and how much they are talking/contributing).

Finally, there is the challenge of establish and maintaining norms and expectations for group work (you have them, right?). If students aren’t familiar with your norms and expectations, you might want to find ways for students to practice working in groups before doing it in class on course content.

What other strategies do you use to ensure that active learning in your classroom supports the learning for all students? Please add your comments below.

Building Evidence Connecting Teaching Practices and More Equitable Student Outcomes

In their 2014 paper “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” Freeman, et al., suggest that we are seeing a new wave of “second-generation research” in the education literature that explores “which aspects of instructor behavior are most important for achieving the greatest gains with active learning, and elaborate on recent work indicating that underprepared and underrepresented students may benefit most from active [learning instructional] methods.”

Indeed, a growing body of research shows that there are specific teaching strategies that (on average) improve learning outcomes for all students and also (on average) improve learning outcomes disproportionately for students who have been historically excluded from STEM: women, African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, first-generation, low-income students.

For several years, I tried to maintain an annotated bibliography of such research. My goal was to provide higher education faculty and faculty developers with evidence to support teaching strategies that produce more equitable learning outcomes for all students, but particularly those who have been historically left out of STEM fields.

It must noted, however, that these learning gains from active learning pedagogies are not automatic. Much more research is needed to tease apart the nuances and conditions under which students who have been historically underrepresented in STEM benefit from active learning pedagogies. And in fact, please read this other post about research that provides more nuance on how active learning pedagogies don’t always lead to more equitable outcomes.

(Papers are listed in chronological order.)

Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C.H. and Mazur, E., 2006. Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics, 74(2), pp.118-122.

Multiple versions of an introductory calculus-based physics course for non-majors at Harvard were compared over a period of 8 years: (1) traditional lecture and recitation sections, (2) Peer Instruction with traditional recitation sections, and (3) Peer Instruction with cooperative problem solving activities during recitation sections. (It seems that there was continuous evolution of instructional practices throughout those 8 years, but the researchers groups students in these three buckets.) In Peer Instruction, the instructor alternates between giving short mini-lectures and facilitating small group student discussions on conceptual questions. Student learning gains were measured using the Force Concept Inventory. Learning gains increased with the uptake of more active learning pedagogies. In addition, performance differences between men and women decreased with the uptake of more active learning pedagogies. In version 3 of the course, there was no statistically significant difference in normalized learning gains between men and women, despite there being a difference in pre-test knowledge between men and women.

Beichner, R.J., Saul, J.M., Abbott, D.S., Morse, J.J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R.J., Bonham, S.W., Dancy, M.H. and Risley, J.S., 2007. The student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs (SCALE-UP) project. Research-Based Reform of University Physics, 1(1), pp.2-39.

This report details the efforts of several groups of faculty to show that active learning pedagogies can be used in introductory physics classes with up to 100 students. The SCALE-UP approach involves using the bulk of class time for students in groups of 3-4 to work cooperatively on rich, computer-based activities and class discussions. Lecture is limited to 10-15 minute segments, mostly to introduce course material. Learning gains were measured using the Force Concept Inventory and Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation. Student groups were regularly rearranged so that each group had students “from the top, middle, and bottom thirds of the class ranking” and that any women and minority students were not the only ones in their group. They found that when compared to traditional versions of introductory physics, SCALE-UP versions led to greater conceptual understanding, improved attitudes, drastically reduced course failure rates “especially for women and minorities” (pg 37), performance in second semester physics improved.

Huber, Bettina J., 2010. “Does Participation in Multiple High Impact Practices Affect Student Success at Cal State Northridge? Some Preliminary Insights” Northridge, CA: California State University-Northridge Office of Institutional Research.

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) results from 863 graduating seniors at CSUN showed a correlation between HIP participation and higher GPA at exit and increased likelihood of graduating on time. Low-income students (Pell Grant recipients) and Latinx students had even higher GPA bump. Exit GPAs of Latinx and Pell students who didn’t participate in HIPs were lower than those of other students but if they participated in three or more HIPs their GPAs slightly exceeded other students.

Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E. and Freeman, S., 2011. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biologyScience, 332(6034), pp.1213-1216.

“Highly structured” (daily and weekly practice with problem-solving, data analysis, higher-order cognitive skills) large-enrollment intro biology course for undergraduate majors at University of Washington improved learning for all students compared to low-structure (lecture intensive) version. There were disproportionately large benefits for students in their Educational Opportunity Program (many of whom are first-gen and from minority groups historically underrepresented in STEM).

Eddy, S.L. and Hogan, K.A., 2014. Getting under the hood: how and for whom does increasing course structure work?CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), pp.453-468.

Essentially a replication of the 2011 study above except that the researchers studied differences between a “low structure” (lecture intensive), “moderate structure” (weekly ungraded preparatory assignments, 15-40% of each class for in-class activities on questions that were similar to previous exam problems) and “high structure” (even more prep assignments and in-class activities) for at the University of North Carolina. The same instructor taught all of the different versions of this course. Total of about 2400 students over 4 years of the study. Failure rate went down for all students in the more structured courses compared to lecture intensive version. Students also reported a greater sense of classroom community. Black students participated in the lecture intensive class far less than other students did, but in the more structured course, they spoke in class as much as other students. Exam grades improved for everyone in the moderate structure course, but it increased even more for Black students. In fact, Black students in the structured course outperformed the majority students in the lecture version of the course. And, a similar thing was observed for first-generation students.

Laursen, S.L., Hassi, M.L., Kogan, M. and Weston, T.J., 2014. Benefits for women and men of inquiry-based learning in college mathematics: A multi-institution studyJournal for Research in Mathematics Education, 45(4), pp.406-418.

Over 3000 students across 100 different course sections in four colleges and universities were included in this study of “inquiry-based learning” (IBL) in mathematics classrooms. The students were all in a math or science major, excluding students who were preservice elementary or secondary teachers. Even though there was a range of different implementations of IBL, researchers found that students in IBL courses on average performed as well as or better than their non-IBL peers. IBL students also took as many or more math courses than non-IBL students, which seems to indicate that their interest in mathematics increased as well. Pre- and post-surveys of cognitive skills in mathematics, attitudes toward mathematics, and attitudes about collaboration in a math class. Women in non-IBL courses reported significant decreases in their confidence to pursue higher mathematics, whereas men in non-IBL courses reported an increase in their confidence. In contrast, women in IBL courses reported an increase in their confidence similar to that of men in non-IBL courses.

Winkelmes, M.A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J. and Weavil, K.H., 2016. A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ SuccessPeer Review18(1/2).

These researchers set out to measure the effect of teachers providing two transparently designed, problem-based take-home assignments (as compared to their original versions) on first-year college students. (“Transparently designed” here means something specific to the training that the faculty received. They were trained to revise their assignments to be clearer about the purpose, tasks, and criteria for the assignments.) About 1,180 students taught by 35 faculty, 61 courses, 7 institutions were involved in the study. Because the courses spanned many different disciplines, the researchers relied mostly on self-report data from the students. “Students who received more transparency reported gains in three areas that are important predictors of students’ success: academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of the skills that employers value most when hiring.” And what’s more, for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students, those reported benefits were larger.

Ballen, C.J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J.B. and Zamudio, K.R., 2017. Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(4), 6 pages.

One of the first papers I’ve read that attempts to uncover why students historically underrepresented in STEM seem to benefit disproportionately from active learning pedagogies. Instructors compared traditional lecture and active learning versions of introductory evolutionary biology and biodiversity course by measured learning gains on course content, and students’ self-report of science self-efficacy and sense of social belonging. Historical performance differences between groups of students was erased in the active learning version of the course. All treatment students reported higher science self-efficacy, but structural equation modeling revealed that the increase in self-efficacy mediated the effect of active learning pedagogies on learning outcomes for underrepresented students only. In other words, one mechanism by which active learning pedagogies might help to produce more equitable outcomes is by helping historically underrepresented students experience more self-efficacy for learning STEM content.

Lape, N.K., Clark, C., Bassman, L., Spencer, M., Lee, A., Spjut, E. R., Dato, A. M., Palucki Blake, L., and Tsai, T. J., 2018. Erasing a Gender Gap in Performance in a Multidisciplinary Introductory Engineering Course. ASEE Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference, Paper ID #24241.

The Department of Engineering at Harvey Mudd College transformed an introductory engineering course from a lecture-based format to one incorporating best practices in engineering education: integration of theory and hands-on practice around a theme of underwater robotics, small-group in-class activities, content delivery via videos (flipped instruction). Mastery of course content was measured in both the original lecture-based course and the revised course via a pre/post content test; student attitudes were also measured using pre/post instruments. The results show a significant increase in learning and affective gains for all students. Furthermore, a gender disparity in final course grades disappeared in the revised course.

Casper, A.M., Eddy, S.L. and Freeman, S., 2019. True Grit: Passion and persistence make an innovative course design work. PLoS Biology, 17(7), p.e3000359.

This paper is a replication of the 2011 and 2014 studies above involving a “high-structure” course model in an introductory biology course. This time, the study was conducted at an open-access institution: Eastern Michigan University, a regional, public university that “admits almost all applicants to its undergraduate program.” After several course iterations, the researchers found a course structure that significantly lowered DFW rates from 48% to 25% and had a disproportionately beneficial impact on historically marginalized students–in this case, 85% of the students in the class self-identify as African American. This paper also demonstrates how important educational context is in this kind of research and that details really do matter.

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, Hannah 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, Scott Freeman, 2020. Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1916903117.

AFAIK, this is the first meta-analysis of the effect of active learning pedagogies on existing achievement gaps between over-represented and under-represented students. This paper includes 41 separate studies involving 53,844 students. To achieve greater statistical power, they combined students with underrepresented racial or ethnic identities in STEM with low-income students into one group they call “minoritized groups in STEM” (MGS). On average, compared to traditional lecture courses, active learning pedagogies reduced achievement gaps between MGS and non-MGS students in examination scores by 33% and narrowed gaps in passing rates by 45%. Class size, course level, and discipline did not appear to be important factors. However, there were some variations among the studies: in some cases, active learning pedagogies exacerbated achievement gaps–the amount of active learning in STEM classes seems to be positively correlated with narrower achievement gaps. Additionally, the authors begin to theorize for why certain teaching practices seem to disproportionately benefit students from MGS. This is likely to be a paper that many of us will refer to for years to come, in addition to the previous 2014 meta-analysis led by Freeman. (Focus on achievement gaps is still a bit problematic, but I totally understand the need to do something within the current paradigm of STEM education.)

Please let me know if you encounter other research articles that provide evidence for specific teaching strategies having disproportionately positive outcomes for women and/or students historically exclude from STEM. I will add it to this list.