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Small changes, big gains: A curriculum-wide study of teaching practices and student learning in undergraduate biology.

  • Author(s): Weir, Laura K;
  • Barker, Megan K;
  • McDonnell, Lisa M;
  • Schimpf, Natalie G;
  • Rodela, Tamara M;
  • Schulte, Patricia M
  • et al.

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A growing body of evidence has shown that active learning has a considerable advantage over traditional lecture for student learning in undergraduate STEM classes, but there have been few large-scale studies to identify the specific types of activities that have the greatest impact on learning. We therefore undertook a large-scale, curriculum-wide study to investigate the effects of time spent on a variety of classroom activities on learning gains. We quantified classroom practices and related these to student learning, assessed using diagnostic tests written by over 3700 students, across 31 undergraduate biology classes at a research-intensive university in the Pacific Northwest. The most significant positive predictor of learning gains was the use of group work, supporting the findings of previous studies. Strikingly, we found that the addition of worksheets as an active learning tool for in-class group activities had the strongest impact on diagnostic test scores. This particular low-tech activity promotes student collaboration, develops problem solving skills, and can be used to inform the instructor about what students are struggling with, thus providing opportunities for valuable and timely feedback. Overall, our results indicate that group activities with low barriers to entry, such as worksheets, can result in significant learning gains in undergraduate science.

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