“I think I can” is key to closing achievement gap in biology education

October 24, 2017
Students in lab

The limited racial and ethnic diversity among people in biology-related careers has long roots: As undergraduates, underrepresented minority students face challenges on campus and in the classroom, which in turn can discourage them from pursuing science careers. Research has shown that the use of active-learning techniques — things like working in groups and participating in classroom discussions — can help close the achievement gap among undergraduates. But why and how does active learning make a difference? The answer to that question can provide valuable clues to designing science classroom experiences to level the playing field for participants from different backgrounds, and ultimately to bring the talents of a more diverse workforce to bear on conducting the science that will shape the well-being of humans and our planet in the decades ahead.

A study published online October 20 in the journal CBE–Life Science Education by Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral associate in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, and colleagues at Cornell and Stanford universities sheds light on the picture of classroom success for underrepresented students.

To find out why active learning boosts performance of underrepresented minority students more than that of other students, the researchers compared three traits — academic performance, self-reported confidence in the ability to do science and sense of social belonging — in students who were taking an undergraduate introductory biology course in a traditional lecture setting with those of students taught using active learning, which includes pre-lecture assignments and quizzes, emphasis on group learning activities, checks on active in-class engagement, and less emphasis on exams in grades. They then evaluated the performance of students in two groups: Those with high representation in science (White and Asian-American) and those traditionally underrepresented (African American, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native American).

They found that active learning boosted science self-confidence in all students. Among students from groups well-represented in the sciences, that boost was accompanied by an enhanced sense of social belonging but not of improved academic performance. With underrepresented minority students, however, it drove the observed improved academic performance, closing the achievement gap between the two groups.

Ballen noted that the findings provide valuable guidance for those designing and developing undergraduate STEM courses.

“Our results show how similar changes in attitudes in different demographic groups can result in quite different impacts on learning and course performance between the groups,” she said. “They indicate active learning helps remove social-psychological barriers that limit achievement among underrepresented minority students.”

In their report, the researchers noted that active learning likely boosts traits like engagement, motivation, and interest as well as academic performance, providing yet more encouragement for continuing on in science courses and, ultimately, in science careers.

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