Advocating for Active Learning

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Institutions and organizations advocate for active learning practices to create more inclusive classrooms and improve retention in STEM

Students who earn a degree in STEM disciplines enjoy a wide range of benefits. These fields offer the opportunity to participate in innovative, exciting learning and research experiences as well as exceptional employment prospects and earnings potential. Diversity in STEM disciplines is especially important for improving the lives of underrepresented and disadvantaged students — and in helping meet growing workforce demands. Yet only 40 percent of students who enter college as STEM majors actually go on to earn a degree in those fields.

The majority of first-time, full-time students who enroll in STEM degree programs switch to a non-STEM major within their first two years of college, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The most common reason given for changing majors is negative experiences in introductory courses, such as freshman-level biology, calculus, and chemistry. 

According to a 2016 NASEM report, these individuals tend to “abandon their goal of earning a STEM degree due to the way that STEM is taught and the difficulty in obtaining support.” Thus, the report contends, students are “dissuaded from studying STEM rather than being drawn into studying a different discipline.”

Marilyne Stains
Marilyne Stains

Researchers Marilyne Stains, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Michelle Smith, PhD, an associate professor at Cornell University, recently conducted a study to assess the classroom environments of prerequisite STEM courses in an attempt to identify the root causes of students’ dissatisfaction. With their team, they observed 2,000 class sessions at 11 colleges and universities, paying special attention to the instructional practices employed by the 500 professors who participated. They discovered that the vast majority of these classes were lecture-intensive, requiring little to no participation from students or personal interaction with instructors, classmates, or course content. 

Stains and Smith argue that the result of such a course structure is that students become discouraged over their ability to learn the subject matter and shun the idea of continuing a major that requires classes that are so difficult and disengaging.

Organizations such as the National Science Foundation have invested considerably in improving college-level STEM education in order to increase retention. However, Stains believes that her and Smith’s study reveals that much more work is needed to help professors become more effective in the classroom. Stains and Smith are working to address this issue by raising awareness among faculty members of the struggles underclassmen face in STEM degree programs and introducing faculty to methods for easing new students’ transition to college-level math and science courses.

One significant way to accomplish this end is implementing active learning strategies, such as group discussions. These practices require students to participate in class and interact with the instructor and their classmates. 

“There’s extensive literature demonstrating that lecturing is not the most effective [teaching] practice,” says Stains, who became interested in STEM retention after struggling to engage students in her own introductory chemistry courses. “There are all these other active learning strategies … that have been proven much more effective in helping students understand content and in changing attitudes toward the subjects being studied so that students actually become more interested in the discipline.”

According to Smith, students in STEM classes that employ these techniques often earn higher grades and give more positive course reviews. Underrepresented, female, and first-generation students have the most to gain from a more interactive class structure. “There have been various studies at Minority-Serving Institutions showing that these shifts lead to higher academic performance and higher retention rates among underrepresented students,” Smith says. 

Shared desks and multiple screens for displaying course content help facilitate active learning in a STEM classroom at the University of Arizona, an AAU member school.
Shared desks and multiple screens for displaying course content help facilitate active learning in a STEM classroom at the University of Arizona, an AAU member school.

She adds that for groups historically underrepresented in STEM, feeling as if they are part of a team can lead them to contribute more to class discussions. When students are more engaged, they achieve higher grades, which Smith says gives them the confidence to continue in a STEM major or to enroll in a STEM program if they previously hadn’t considered doing so.

Initiating Improvements

The Association of American Universities (AAU) has been working to address STEM retention since 2011, when it launched the Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. With a membership comprising 62 prominent research universities, AAU created the initiative to address the fact that many freshmen entered these institutions “with aspirations to study the STEM fields, but their pathways showed that they weren’t being retained in those disciplines,” says Emily Miller, PhD, associate vice president for policy at AAU. 

The association also identified negative first- and second-year classroom experiences as a leading cause of attrition.

The goal of the AAU initiative is not only to help professors learn more effective and active teaching techniques, but to also address and change the broader culture in STEM departments, says Miller. These departments tend to place more value on research than on teaching, so there often aren’t incentives or support systems in place for STEM professors who wish to devote time and resources to improving instructional practices.  

Emily Miller
Emily Miller

“[Our member campuses] are large, very productive, excellent research institutions where faculty members are highly rewarded for their contributions to science and scholarship,” Miller says. “So, we want to show the value [of] faculty members’ contributions around improving education, particularly for teaching undergraduates.”

The Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative began with eight project sites, which AAU worked with “to improve the quality and effectiveness of undergraduate teaching and learning in [STEM] fields,” according to the AAU website. Such improvements included developing and implementing best practices for department-wide efforts, such as curriculum redesign and faculty training workshops. The association then expanded the initiative to support STEM reform at 55 of its member institutions by facilitating cross-institutional collaboration, advocating for support from institutional leaders, and obtaining millions of dollars in grant funding to help departments revitalize their approach to teaching core classes in these disciplines. 

The current phase of the initiative focuses on sharing best practices and obtaining funding to ensure that introductory STEM classes at large universities — which often take place in lecture halls with hundreds of students — are favorable to active learning. For example, AAU helps colleges hire and train undergraduate and graduate assistants to facilitate in-class exercises and small-group discussions for such courses. 

Some AAU members have even redesigned classrooms to make them more conducive to group work. 

“[Schools] can redesign learning spaces so that students are no longer sitting in large lectures but at round tables. They’re using out-of-class time to consume content, such as video clips, so that in class, they are working together on problem sets and learning how to actually apply knowledge with the guidance of faculty members and learning assistants,” Miller explains. 

At AAU member campuses that have implemented some of these reforms, feedback from students as well as faculty has been overwhelmingly positive. Miller says STEM majors “are persisting and performing highly in subsequent courses” and that achievement gaps for underrepresented students have greatly decreased.

“We have seen learning gains for all students, but we also see that for those from diverse backgrounds, these gains are particularly great,” Miller says. “A lot of [these techniques], when done well, are creating inclusive classroom environments. We have very strong examples on our campuses of how disparities can really be addressed by improving the effectiveness of instruction within the classroom.”

For researchers at the Charles A. Dana Center in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, efforts to improve STEM education and retention focus on the fundamental discipline of mathematics. Rather than changing introductory STEM courses across the board, the Dana Center’s Mathematics Pathways (DCMP) program offers training and support to help faculty create engaging classrooms and to ensure that first- and second-year students are enrolled in the appropriate math courses to help them reach graduation. 

“Basically, all students have to take math, and many times it is … a student’s first math course that determines whether or not they leave a STEM field,” says Martha Ellis, PhD, director of higher education strategy, policies, and services for the center. Math courses, particularly those required of STEM majors, are very focused on rote memorization and basic assessments; students who don’t excel in this difficult learning format are essentially weeded out. 

“You have to sit in your seat and listen to the instructor, … then take a midterm and a final, and if you don’t do well on those, then you’re out,” Ellis explains. 

Like AAU, DCMP emphasizes the use of active learning techniques and the development of inclusive classrooms. These improvements can be pivotal for first- and second-year STEM majors, almost all of whom are required to complete several lower-level calculus courses in order to advance in their degree programs. Ellis says many students struggle with these classes because professors fail to help them make connections between the course content and their own STEM interests and future careers.

“We do two things in particular to create content and pedagogy that help students [see the purpose behind] the math they are learning,” says Rebecca Hartzler, manager of advocacy and professional learning for higher education at the Dana Center. “The way we teach [calculus] now is that every single thing that students learn is connected to some sort of real-world application, [such as] … learning how to measure the strength of earthquakes.” 

A faculty member at AAU member school University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill uses interactive learning techniques to engage with students in a STEM lecture hall.
A faculty member at AAU member school University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill uses interactive learning techniques to engage with students in a STEM lecture hall.

This approach helps students relate to the curriculum as well as improve their academic performance. “Not only are you an active member [of class], but you’re a contributor,” Hartzler says. This also builds confidence for students who may otherwise assume they are not smart enough to understand calculus and thus not capable of succeeding in upper-level STEM courses, she adds. 

“We strive to undo a lot of the myth that you are either born a ‘math person’ or you’re not,” Hartzler says. “This helps students stay in STEM pathways because it makes them feel like they belong.” 

Recognizing that a sense of belonging is necessary for retaining underrepresented STEM majors, the Dana Center recently developed a video series, called Mathematics Pathways Stories, that features STEM leaders and innovators from underrepresented groups. Through these videos, in which these professionals discuss their own struggles learning math and explain its application to their current occupations, STEM students are introduced to successful role models from backgrounds similar to their own. 

While researchers, institutions, and organizations are making progress toward improving the retention of underrepresented groups in STEM, Ellis acknowledges that this work will continue to require further study and collaboration among institutions, individuals, and departments. 

“We’re in this together, even if we don’t have all the answers yet,” says Ellis. “We want to work with people in the field so that we can address these issues as quickly as possible, so that students can be successful and more of them can [enter] these important … fields.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.