Active courses may be more beneficial to students, study says

(MCT Campus Photo) A study shows that college classes which allow students to be more active, tend to help the learning environment develop better.

A recent study found that college courses with higher student involvement and participation improved academic achievement in science courses, especially among African-American and first-generation college students.

The study was conducted by Kelly Hogan at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Sarah Eddy at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was published in a CBE-Life Sciences Education journal.

In the study, the majority of students enrolled in an introductory biology course were freshmen, but it was open to all students. The class size averaged about 400 students.

The study was split into two terms: low-structure terms and reformed terms. Both terms were studied for three semesters each. In the low-structure terms, the instructor taught the course in traditional lecture format. According to the study, students participated very little, and only three homework assignments were given outside of class.

In the reformed terms, the instructor used “a moderate-structure format,” and added both in-class and out of class activities. The instructor added guided-reading questions, preparatory homework and online assignments.

In both sets of terms, there were three semester exams and one cumulative final that the students had to prepare for.

With the active learning techniques in place, the average test scores raised by over 3 percent and the number of students who failed exams reduced significantly. For African-Americans and first-generation students, the test scores doubled and rankings increased by more than 6 percent.

Anne Marie D'Elia, a professor of the general education course Human Biology at Illinois State University, tries to incorporate active learning techniques in her lectures.

In one of her classes, she had students pair up and think of two questions related to the course material and answer them. At the end of class, she read some of the questions to the whole class.

“When they can formulate their own questions and problem-solve with the person sitting next to them, they realize ‘oh I can do this,’” D’Elia said.

Part of the reason she does activities like this is because a lot of students say they never know what is going to be on the test, and this way, it puts the learning process on the student.

She also asks questions during the lecture and rewards students with candy when they answer correctly.

“It’s hard to try and make the material active, so I do it by inciting students with treats,” she said.

In addition, students are asked to complete LearnSmart activities online that go along with the book material. She said she thinks the LearnSmart activities help students significantly, especially in regard to their grade.

For example, she said, if someone failed the first exam, but they did all the online activities, they still have a C in the class, rather than an F.

In contrast, Professor Margaret Nauta, teaches many psychology classes at ISU, including a general education course: Fundamentals in Psychcology. This class is in a large lecture hall, and has a more structured approach to learning.

“It’s a large course, so we are limited in the kinds of active learning opportunities we can provide,” Nauta said.

Since it is a foundations course, where there are many terms students are asked to learn, Nauta said the lack of active learning is not necessarily a bad thing.

“When people need to learn factual information or definitions, sometimes hearing a clear explanation is enough,” she said.

She added that when students need to understand things in more depth, she thinks that’s where active learning is more critical.

In that case, “sometimes it’s the trying and experimenting with things themselves that helps them really understand something,” Nauta said.

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