Research on Active Learning at Duke

Posted on

Our paper is out!  “Cooperative learning in organic chemistry increases student assessment of learning gains in key transferable skills” by Dorian A. Canelas, Jennifer L. Hill and Andrea Novicki (me!) has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice.

What does it say?

We compare student survey responses from four sections of organic chemistry – two sections were lecture-based and two were taught using active learning. All sections contained more than 100 students and were held in a theater-style classroom. All students had access to the same online and tutoring resources. Students in the active learning sections were given structured,  cooperative small-group learning exercises and worked in assigned teams of four to six. I observed class sessions for all sections to measure the amount of time spent in active learning. The lecture-based sections spent 18% of class time in active learning, and the active learning sections spent 66 % of class time in active learning.

Compared with students in the lecture course, students in the active learning courses reported significant learning gains in these skills that are valued by employers:

  • interacting productively to solve problems with a diverse group of classmates
  • behaving as an effective leader
  • behaving as an effective teammate
  • working with complex ideas

These measures of workplace skills are significant, as illustrated by a report detailing employer’s requirements:

When hiring recent graduates, employers place the greatest priority on a demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across majors. Of 17 outcome areas tested, written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings are the most highly valued by employers.

Hart Research Associates, (2015), Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success, Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

For another example of the importance of these skills in the workplace, see Google’s study of their own managers.

There have been many other reports on the benefits of active learning for students. The definitive meta analysis is here:  Freeman S., Eddy S. L., McDonough M., Smith M. K., Okoroafor N., Jordt H. and Wenderoth M. P., (2014), Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 111(23), 8410–8415.

More on Professor Canelas’ research about teaching at Duke

Professor Canelas has published frequently about her educational research at Duke, in addition to authoring research papers in chemistry. She has implemented carefully designed active learning course activities and researched and published on the effectiveness of her implementations:

Goldwasser, M, Mosley, PL, and Canelas, DA. “Implementation of Online Lecture Videos in Introductory Chemistry.” January 1, 2016. Full Text (reviewed book chapter)

She has also researched how to increase student learning in chemistry for students who arrive at college with less experience in science than their peers:

Hall, DM, Curtin-Soydan, AJ, and Canelas, DA. “The Science Advancement through Group Engagement Program: Leveling the Playing Field and Increasing Retention in Science.”Journal of Chemical Education 91.1 (January 14, 2014): 37-47. Full Text

Conference presentation: Canelas, DA. “Teaching college chemistry to the edges rather than to the average: Implications for less experienced science students.” January 1, 2015.

In addition, she has investigated the student experience in MOOCs:

Comer, DK, Clark, CR, and Canelas, DA. “Writing to learn and learning to write across the disciplines: Peer-to-peer writing in introductory-level MOOCs.”International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 15.5 (January 1, 2014): 26-82. Open Access Copy

Shapiro, HB, Lee, CH, Wyman Roth, NE, Li, K, Çetinkaya-Rundel, M, and Canelas, DA. “Understanding the massive open online course (MOOC) student experience: An examination of attitudes, motivations, and barriers .”Computers & Education 110 (July 2017): 35-50. Full Text


Andrea Novicki

Author: Andrea Novicki

Andrea helps faculty use technology effectively and efficiently in their teaching. She works primarily with scientists, using her biology background, love of science and teaching experience. Her current enthusiasms include online science education, active learning (especially team-based learning) and assessment.