What does the research tell us?
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So what does the research tell us? Well, maybe not surprisingly structuring practice into a course can help all students achieve and importantly, it can reduce or narrow educational opportunity gaps between different student groups. And in my own biology 101 class my own research and evidence has shown me similar ideas.
What I’ve seen in my own biology 101 class is that as I added more structured practice through active learning and my curriculum, is that all students on average achieved more. But importantly, I saw a closing and a narrowing of educational opportunity gaps between student groups. And many of those groups are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. So one study is great, but it’s sure is nice when that one study is corroborated by many more.
And that leads us to Theobald et al study, which is a metadata study examining 50,000 undergraduate students at a variety of institutions. In this study, they measured structured practice into a variety of courses. So they examined class time that was used for say class discussion, problem solving, having students think out loud and so on. By examining many studies together what they found was that at least two thirds of class time needed to have the structured practice to reduce the inequities that we just previously thought about across different student demographics.
While there are many components to an inclusive course, the research tells us that a sink or swim kind of policy is not the way for all students to succeed. We must introduce structured practice for all students. Not just the ones that will choose to do it, but for all students and when we do this, we know we can reduce inequities. From my own research with my colleague Sarah Eddy, we have come up with a framework that you can see in this lesson. And in this framework, you can get an idea of the percent of class time that we think would provide low structure, medium structure or high structure. And you might want to use this to think about your own course.
An intentional course design with high structure is vital to inclusive teaching. Being transparent with students about your rationale for your design decisions and how learning works can be crucial to its success. Let’s look at some of the research that helps you reflect on the evidence that you might want to share with your students.
While high structure includes active learning, they are not the same thing. We have much evidence that active learning improves learning, retention, and success for more students (i.e., is more inclusive), yet not all implementations result in positive outcomes compared to lecturing. Why? The difference may be the amount of structure and practice.
Let’s look at a framework for structure adapted from a study by Eddy and Hogan (2014):
|Required pre-class assignment (example: Reading quiz)||Active learning, I.e., students doing rather than instructor lecturing (example: Clicked questions, worksheets, case studies)||Required post-class assignment (example: Practice exam problems)|
|Low||None or < 1 per week||< 15% of class time||None or < 1 per week|
|Moderate||Optional*. 1 per week||15-40% of class time||Optional*. 1 per week|
|High||>/= 1 per week||> 40% of class time||>/= 1 per week|
Can moving a course from low structure to high structure improve student outcomes? This was the question asked by Freeman, Haak, and Wenderoth in 2011. To increase structure, they examined a course that implemented reading quizzes and/or extensive in-class active-learning activities and weekly practice exams (high structure) and compared it with lecturing and a few high-risk assessments (low structure). By controlling the difficulty of exams across six semesters with the same instructor, the researchers found failure rates dropped from 18.2 to 6.3% by increasing structure. If one definition of inclusive is to help more people stay in a discipline, then this study surely provides evidence that high structure is inclusive.
But how does structure affect certain groups of students? Eddy and Hogan (2014) followed up on Freeman et al. and asked this question across six semesters comparing low structure to moderate structure (Eddy and Hogan 2014). Performance improved for all students, but a disproportionate benefit was seen for some student groups. Gaps in performance closed for first-generation college students compared to their non-first-generation peers. Differences that existed between black and white students were halved. Data collected through student surveys suggested some possible answers to why performance increased. Students were more likely to do the pre-class work when it was required instead of recommended. In other words, students don’t do optional, do you? All students felt a greater sense of community under moderate structure. Additionally, there was an “in-class participation gap” for Black students that disappeared under the moderate structure because all students were required to have discussions with peers. Thus, while structure benefits all students, some groups of students can benefit even more.
Lastly, a metadata study led by Theobald et al included data from more than 50,000 undergraduate students and reinforced the idea that active learning alone won’t produce outcomes that disproportionately help underrepresented student groups (Theobald et al. 2020). They found that 67-100% of total class time was needed to be spent on active learning before disparities in performance narrowed for certain student groups. They found that inequities in achievement were reduced when there was structured, deliberate practice paired with a culture of inclusion. They defined deliberate practice to include focused effort toward improving performance, scaffolded exercises aimed specifically towards deficits in understanding and skills, immediate feedback, and a recurring cycle of these activities. A culture of inclusion centres on a genuine interest and care for a student’s success, confidence in their ability to do so, and treating all students with dignity and respect.
Thus, a take home from the research suggests that it is not only our skill in evidence-based teaching but also our commitment to structuring required practice inside and outside the classroom that may yield the most promising results in terms of equitable teaching.
Eddy, S., and Hogan, K. (2014). Getting under the Hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453–68.
Freeman, S., Haak. D, and Wenderoth, M. P. (2011). Increased course structure improves performance in introductory biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education 10(2), 175–86.
Theobald, E. J., Hill. M., Tran, E., Agrawal. S., Arroyo. E. N., Behling. S., Chambwe. N., et al. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–83.