Study: active learning can narrow achievement gaps for underrepresented students

Underrepresentation in STEM disciplines, an area typically overrepresented by male white and Asian students both in university and professionally, remains an ongoing issue in academia. Students of underrepresented backgrounds (URB), specifically Black and Latinx students, have a much smaller rate of achieving degrees in STEM, corresponding to less diversity and representation in professional careers. For example, while around 52% of Asian Americans and 43% of White Americans complete a declared degree in STEM, this falls to 22% of African Americans, 29% of Latinx students, and 25% of Native Americans, despite latter demographics expressing a similar level of interest at the beginning of their undergraduate studies.

A large cause of this is in the disproportionate rate of undergraduate course failure or switching majors away from STEM amongst students of underrepresented backgrounds, largely due to poor performance in initial introductory courses, resulting in less URB students completing undergraduate degrees. However, a new study points to how active learning methods may help close that gap during the critical undergraduate period necessary to foster new and diverse STEM talent.

The study found that, among classrooms that participated in active learning methods, the “achievement gap” between students of underrepresented backgrounds and other students fell on average by around 33%, corresponding not only to lower test failure rates but also higher retention rates of URB students in STEM majors. The studies states that integrating active teaching methods into classrooms helps students of underrepresented backgrounds, who typically score 2.0 to 2.4 below other students, avoid the “danger zone” of D and F scores, which are more likely to result in students failing or dropping out of courses.

While active learning methods can serve an important part of helping increase retention rates of URB students in STEM, the authors of the study cautioned that in some cases, active learning actually increased achievement gaps instead of reducing them. Active-learning course designs are therefore more likely to be more successful when combined with deliberate practice that seeks to consciously improve the success of URB students, and a culture of inclusion that emphasizes a sense of belonging for students of underrepresented backgrounds within STEM.

Read more from the study here.