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CBE—Life Sciences Education

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Active learning -- Evaluation, Chemistry -- Study and teaching (Higher), Biology -- Study and teaching (Higher), Minority college students -- United States


Embedding active learning is a common mechanism for meeting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education reform goals. Researchers have identified student benefits from such strategies, yet these benefits may not be universal for all students. We sought to identify how students at a nontraditional university perceive introductory biology and chemistry courses, and whether perceptions relate to course type, performance, or student status. We surveyed students (n = 601) using open-ended prompts regarding their perceptions of factors that impact their learning and interest, and about specific learning strategies. Generally, students did not differ in what influenced their learning or interest in course content, and students mostly perceived active learning positively. Attitudes toward active learning did not correlate to final course scores. Despite similar perceptions and attitudes, performance differed significantly among student groups—postbaccalaureates outperformed all others, and traditional-age students outperformed non-traditional-age students. We found that, even with active learning, underrepresented minority students underperformed compared to their peers, yet differentially benefited from nonsummative course factors. Although students generally perceive classroom environments similarly, undetected factors are influencing performance among student groups. Gaining a better understanding of how classroom efforts impact all of our students will be key to moving beyond supposing that active learning simply “works.”


© 2019 E. E. Shortlidge et al. CBE—Life Sciences Education © 2019 The American Society for Cell Biology. This article is distributed by The American Society for Cell Biology under license from the author(s). It is available to the public under an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License (



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