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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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For years, politicians and policy makers have cried out for more students to complete STEM degrees to improve the nation's workforce. According to a Department of Education statistical analysis report (PDF, 1.6MB), nearly half (48 percent) of the undergraduates pursuing STEM degrees between 2003 and 2009 dropped that major -- and there are whole white papers trying to figure out why (PDF, 3.1MB). Some of the hypotheses proposed are an unwelcoming science culture and uninspired introductory classes. A recent study in the journal of CBE Life Sciences Education adds one more: lecture halls aren't the way to get minority students to keep taking science courses.

Lecture halls of hundreds of students are as much a feature of undergraduate education as an achievement gap between different races and socioeconomic backgrounds (PDF, 1.2MB). Interestingly, the new study, authored by two biologists, suggests that the former influences the latter. Changing the way lectures work -- providing more student interaction and feedback (something educators call active learning) -- could begin to chip away at the achievement gap.

The Power of Active Learning

This new study looked at an introductory biology class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that averaged nearly 400 students and was taught by one of the authors over six semesters -- three in a traditional lecture format and three through active learning. In the traditional lectures, black students and students whose parents did not attend college performed worse than white students on exams. But active learning made all students perform better than in lectures, halved the achievement gap for black students, and completely closed it for first-generation college goers. Specifically, white students increased by 3.2 percent, and black students increased by 6.3 percent in their exam performance. (The achievement gap between black and white students decreased from 5.6 percent in lecture classes to 2.5 percent when students played an active role [see Figure 1. (a)].)

Figure 1. (a) The STEM achievement gap between black and white students that is present in traditional lecture classes narrows with active learning.

The active learning biology class of this study consisted of guided reading and online exercises done before class, in-class assignments (often in student teams), and class discussions. The course demographics were 59 percent white, 13.9 percent black, 10.3 percent Latino, 7.4 percent Asian, 1.1 percent Native American, and 8 percent were undeclared, mixed race, or international students. Additionally, 24 percent were first-generation students (see Figure 1. (b)).

Figure 1. (b) The achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students completely closes in an active learning introductory biology class.

Dr. Sarah Eddy, a University of Washington biology postdoctoral fellow and an author of the paper, reports that these active learning methods can be used in large classrooms. She mentions that one large biology course at the University of Washington uses these methods with 700 students, and a separate study shows that scaling up is not costly or overly burdensome. In these courses, students get feedback about their work during class time. In essence, STEM class structure is adopting that of a liberal arts class. The use of an interactive style of teaching "is almost catching up for us in STEM," Eddy admits.

Interaction Closes the Gap

It could be that active learning breaks a cultural barrier. Student surveys showed that in a traditional lecture hall, black students "were very uncomfortable speaking up in class. And, under this reformed course, they were two times more likely to speak up in class," said Eddy. Part of the problem, Eddy argued, is that universities teach based on the culture of the populations they've historically served. "And those populations tended to be white and upper middle class," she said. This teaching style does not translate across cultures, according to Eddy, "since different populations bring different values sets into the classroom," as this study reports.

Admittedly, we still have much work to do toward understanding why this teaching method works. "Interaction is really what is important in this model for closing the gap," said Eddy. She hypothesized that learning methods that are based on "cooperation versus [competition] could be a very important component of the difference."

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Brian C's picture

Very interesting study. But I'm not sure the data support the conclusions.
1-The activities involved in "active learning" appear to be activities that one would reasonably expect students to engage in independently. Having students do these things in class seems to simply introduce a way to ensure that students are obliged to be engaged. From the details given, it doesn't seem like the study attempted to assess the degree to which students were engaged in the straight lecture classes. That might yield interesting results.

2-It would be interesting to repeat the study in a majority black setting to control for the race variable although I suspect that objection could also be raised that black students are reluctant to be engaged regardless of the racial makeup of the class and sometimes moreso in majority black classes.

Mr_deLarios's picture

Break down of STEAM degree % by pop
African American - 6%
Latin/Hispanic - 7%
Asian - 14%
Euro American - 9%

Doesn't really look like minority students are "turned off" by lecturing in STEM classes

Andrew Burning's picture

You have an interesting objection, Brian C. However when I read this:

"The active learning biology class of this study consisted of guided reading and online exercises done before class, in-class assignments (often in student teams), and class discussions. "

I see things that the students can only reasonably do in class.

Guided reading? Who creates the guides for guided reading when students do guided reading independently?

Online exercises? Again, who does this sort of thing independently?

In-class assignments in student teams? Do independent study groups create new assignments for themselves independently?

Class discussions? Students may have discussions independently, but that's very different from an in-class discussion for many obvious reasons.

I'm just trying to understand your point!

Suzanne Andrews's picture
Suzanne Andrews
high school and college biology teacher from Jeffersonville, NY

I would like to see specific examples of the active learning that was conducted and how it was carried out and monitored in these biology courses. What are the students responsible for outside of the class that they must bring to the table in order for the active learning to be successful for all students in the team?

Carol Matthews's picture

Unfortunately, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are significantly underrepresented in STEM professions. According to the National Academy of
Sciences, these groups comprised 28.5 percent of the U.S. population in 2006 but only 9.1 percent of college-educated individuals employed in science and engineering occupation. The proportion of underrepresented minorities in STEM careers will require the application of all educational opportunities that will allow them to enroll in and sustain the necessary degrees to compete for these competitive careers. In doing so, we increase employability of the underrepresented minorities in STEM careers.

Is has been established, the learning needs of minority students are different. Banks (2006) and Pewewardy (2008) emphasize that minority students differ in the ways they learn and communicate. Those differences result partly from what a given culture considers appropriate or normal. In history, minority students endure poor learning experiences because teachers failed to understand the ways people from different cultures communicate and learn.
To consider, and recognize the learning differences of minorities means applying an active learning methodology to improve all student's performance (whites by 3.2 percent, and black students increased by 6.3 percent in their exam performance) than, I see nothing wrong in changing the way we provide the information, as long as the students "get it"!

Mr_deLarios's picture

Your statement that African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are significantly underrepresented in STEM professions is false.
Break down of STEAM degree % by pop
African American - 6%
Latin/Hispanic - 7%
Asian - 14%
Euro American - 9%
That does not appear to be significant under representation in any sense of the phrase. Perhaps we should research what Asian communities are doing and then try and replicate that in other communities if we are looking to increase STEM careers and majors in non-Asian groups.

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