Breaking the Mold: An Active-Learning Model Used in Classroom Settings Reduces the Achievement Gap between Certain Subgroups

By Cooper, Kenneth J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, May 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Mold: An Active-Learning Model Used in Classroom Settings Reduces the Achievement Gap between Certain Subgroups


Cooper, Kenneth J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Dr. Kelly Hogan teaches a new-style course in introductory biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill). She does not lecture; instead, her talking is reserved to either set up an activity or to clarify and explain as an expert after students complete an activity. In her classroom, students work together in groups to answer exam-type questions on electronic devices.

Before each class, Hogan's students receive questions to guide their assigned reading and then log in online to complete graded homework that is designed to prepare them for the next lesson.

The more structured, active-learning model Hogan uses has borne precious academic fruit. A study she co-authored last year found that all of her students achieved at higher levels. But some subgroups benefited even more.

Black students cut their achievement gap with Whites in half. It disappeared totally for first-generation students, compared to those whose parents had gone to college

"The only way to cut an achievement gap is to have a disproportionate benefit for the groups that there is already a gap for. I think that's significant," says Hogan, director of instructional innovation in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Those results, published in the CBE-Life Sciences Journal, hold the promise of making progress--at least for Black students at research universities like UNC-Chapel Hill--on the stubborn problem of the achievement gap in STEM courses. Could the teaching style also help increase their retention through graduation with degrees in those fields?

"We have a glimpse of it, and I think the answer is yes. We need to follow students longitudinally," Hogan says.

The numbers, too, only reinforce the achievement gap. A 2012 report from the American Council on Education (ACE) found that, within five years of enrolling in college, 74 percent of Asian Americans and 70 percent of Whites earn an academic credential, while only 49 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of African-Americans do.

Trial and error

Across the varied landscape of higher education, colleges and universities have used many methods to enroll and retain more underrepresented minorities, with some degrees of success. What schools have done depends on the type of institution, its mission and student population, and the commitment of its leadership and faculty, observes Kim Bobby, director of the inclusive excellence group at ACE.

"You are going to find a variety of different types of ways to approach this," Bobby says.

Those efforts, besides active-learning classes such as Hogan's, include college-readiness programs for K-12 students, targeted tutoring-mentoring programs, mandatory student orientations, voluntary instructional sessions to supplement college courses and learning communities of students with the same majors.

Hogan says active learning in her biology classes required students to work on their skills and knowledge multiple times before taking an exam. It also made them feel like a community of learners

"The students are held accountable to practice before they get to class," Hogan explains. "They are practicing in class with technology and group activities, problem solving. Then they're asked to practice again after class."

Not only did Black students make up half the gap in total exam points, but student surveys after the class found that they benefited in other ways.

"In the traditional setting, we found our Black students had what we call a 'participation gap,'" Hogan says. "They were less likely to participate in classroom discussions, and that gap seems to have completely disappeared with the more structured, interactive classes."

Hogan adds that Black students were more likely "to say homework was of higher importance" and "report that the skills they learned in the higher-structure course were useful. …

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