The Challenge of Continuing Active Learning in STEM in an Online Classroom

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Photo of a student at home in front of a computer, wearing safety googles and examining a piece of computer hardware.

In an effort to protect the health of students and faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities and colleges have moved a substantial portion, if not all, of their classes to remote-only instruction. While there are benefits to online courses, one major concern for instructors is maintaining active learning in a virtual setting.

The term “active learning” was coined in 1991 by professors Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. They describe active learning strategies as “instructional activities involving students doing things and thinking about what they are doing.” The term has since been refined and expanded, but the basic component remains the same: Students are active participants in the learning process, which in turn builds a deeper understanding of the material and increases critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Because of the participation aspect, active learning is seen as the opposite of the standard lecture format found in most higher education settings. Research has shown that the more involved students are, the better their learning outcomes tend to be. One such study found that failure rates increase 55 percent using the standard format as compared with active learning. Furthermore, active learning has been proven to reduce achievement gaps among STEM majors.

Eliminating these gaps is critical to ensuring diversity in STEM fields. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Educational Researcher, Black and Latinx students enter into STEM majors at the same rate as White students, but they are significantly more likely to change majors or drop out of college entirely. While further investigation is necessary to determine the cause behind these statistics, researchers involved in the study believe that underrepresented students’ feelings of exclusion play a substantial role.

These findings could provide an explanation as to why active learning makes a difference in academic performance for students of color — it encourages group work and interaction between the student and their instructor and peers.

Implementing this collaborative element of active learning in the virtual classroom can be difficult. Group work between students in online classes is possible, but it takes additional effort and resources on the part of the instructor. Some educators have turned to online tools, such as Google Docs and Slides, which allow multiple students to comment and work on the same file. Zoom, the popular video communications software, also has breakout rooms that facilitate discussion between small groups of students.

These tools, however, require consistent monitoring from the instructor to ensure the discourse stays on topic. In addition, there is insufficient data to show whether or not active learning provides the same positive outcomes when used in online classes as it does in seated courses.

Another critical issue surrounding virtual active learning is the digital divide. According to a report released last year by the Federal Communications Commission, 21.3 million people lack access to high-speed broadband internet. Low-income students often rely on older, less dependable computers and electronic devices for their classwork. These barriers could possibly impede underrepresented students’ level of engagement and performance, even if instructors are using active learning strategies.

As with other COVID-19 issues colleges are facing in the months to come, there are obstacles to overcome in creating active learning online curricula. However, as the study on achievement gaps shows, creating a welcoming and interactive environment is one of the most effective steps to ensuring underrepresented STEM students succeed in this difficult period.●

Lisa O’Malley is the assistant editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our September 2020 issue.