How Course Structure Promotes Learning

It is time to get beyond asking whether active learning works. We know it does, most of us have seen it firsthand, and those who haven’t would be hard-pressed to argue against the still accumulating mountain of evidence. What we need now are answers to more focused questions, a more nuanced understanding of how and for whom particular strategies work. We also need to know the extent to which active learning strategies are transferrable. Biology faculty researchers Sarah Eddy and Kelly Hogan conducted this kind of exploration. They were interested in finding out whether earlier findings supportive of increasing course structure garnered the same results when the intervention was used by a different instructor at a different institution with a different student population. They also wondered whether increasing course structure affected different student populations to different degrees and whether those different student groups changed their course behaviors and perceptions in the same or different ways.

Based on earlier research, here’s how this team defined and implemented course structure in the six terms of a large (almost 400 students) general introduction to biology course taken by a mixed majors population. The same instructor taught all six sections. The low-structure courses were basically traditional lectures with a minimal amount of student interaction. Students had three homework assignments that helped them prepare for three exams and one final. In the three moderate-structure courses, students were given sets of ungraded, instructor-prepared questions they used to guide their textbook reading before class. They also completed online graded homework associated with the reading, and about one-third of class time was devoted to activities, including group work and answering exam-type questions. Answers to these questions were not graded, but students could earn one to two percentage points for completing a specified number of them.

And what did they learn about the impact of these interventions on students’ academic achievement? “We found that transforming a classroom from low to moderate structure increased the exam performance of all students by 3.2%, and black students experienced an additional 3.1% increase, and first generation students experienced an addition 2.5% relative to continuing generation students.” (p. 463) And failure rates also decreased. In the moderate-structure sections, they dropped from 26.6 percent to 15.6 percent, a 4l.3 percent reduction. In the earlier study using the same structural interventions, a similar decline in failure rates was also reported. Of this finding the researchers write, “Students come from a range of different educational, cultural, and historical backgrounds and face different challenges in the classroom. It is not surprising that in the face of this diversity, one intervention type does not fit all students equally.” (p. 463)

In an effort to better understand why and how this intervention works, researchers surveyed students, asking them for information about their course-related behaviors and perceptions. The researchers predicted that more course structure would increase the amount of time students devoted to study during the week. They also thought that more structure would change the culture of the classroom, evidenced by more participation, increased study with others outside class, and a greater sense among students that they knew others in the class. And finally they anticipated that these assignments and activities would increase how much value students placed on the course and the skills (such as higher-order thinking) it purported to develop.

The results related to students’ behaviors, and perceptions were mixed. In the low-structure sections, students reported studying on average between one and three hours a week. The amount of study time reported by students in the moderate-structure sections jumped to an average of between four and seven hours. Those in the moderate-structure sections were twice as likely to come to class having done the assigned reading, and they saw those preparatory assignments as equally important as the lectures to their learning.

Some evidence that greater course structure increased the sense of community in the course was also found. In the moderate-structure sections, students were two times more likely to view the class as a community and 2.4 times more likely to say students in the class knew each other. However, students did not collaborate more with each other outside class, nor did they participate more at statistically significant levels in the moderate-structure sections.

And finally, students in the moderate-structure sections did not find the course to be more valuable than students in the low-structure sections. They didn’t value the skills they were learning more, they reported memorizing about the same amount of material, and attendance in the moderate-structure sections was not significantly higher than in the low-structure sections. “The attendance result was surprising to us, because increased attendance has been shown to be a common result of making a classroom more active.” (p. 465) However, in some of these previous studies, points were awarded for attendance, but they were not in this course.

The questions about active learning asked in this study are focused, and the answers do deepen our understanding of one set of interventions designed to make students’ learning more active. This is the kind of research that moves us from a more generic to a specific understanding of how active learning works.

Reference: Eddy, S. L., and Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 13 (Fall), 453-468.

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