‘I think I can’

Students in lab.

As undergraduates, underrepresented minority students face challenges that can discourage them from pursuing biology-related careers.

Research now shows that active learning—things like working in groups and participating in classroom discussions—can help close the achievement gap. A new study by Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral associate in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, and colleagues at Cornell and Stanford universities, offers clues to designing better classroom experiences.

The researchers used an introductory biology course taught in two settings—traditional lecture and active learning. In each setting, they evaluated the performances of two groups of undergraduates—those well represented in biological sciences and those traditionally underrepresented. Finally, the researchers compared the students for three traits—self-confidence, sense of social belonging, and academic performance.

They found that active learning boosted self-confidence in all students. Among students well represented in biological sciences, there was also an enhanced sense of social belonging but no improved academic performance. With the traditionally underrepresented students, however, active learning also improved academic performance—closing the achievement gap between the two groups.

Ballen says the findings provide valuable guidance for those designing undergraduate STEM courses.

“[Our results] indicate active learning helps remove social-psychological barriers that limit achievement among underrepresented minority students,” she says.

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities