Adding More Active Learning Spaces Can Increase Retention of Women in Undergraduate STEM Programs

A recent trend in higher education has seen universities install more active learning spaces, in which students can move their seats, collaborate and interact with one another, as opposed to more traditional lecture halls. A new study led by Michael C. Ralph, a doctoral candidate in educational psychology at the University of Kansas, finds that students initially choose who to learn with based on their social networks. That self-sorting, however, has the potential to push some students, most often women, from undergraduate programs.

Researchers observed students taking part in an organic chemistry course over the course of an academic year. Classes were offered in both an active learning space and a traditional, larger lecture hall. “The vast majority of students who wanted to take classes in active learning spaces were women,” said Ralph. “Many were also honors students. These students prioritized learning about chemistry both in and outside the classroom. This became even more apparent by mid-semester, as more women wanted to transfer to the active learning rooms but couldn’t because of limited space.”

The data showing that students who preferred active learning spaces were those who tended to think about the sciences outside of class suggested students who were beginning to think like expert chemists preferred the active spaces, Ralph said. That, combined with data that shows women and honor students prefer the spaces as well, suggests active learning spaces are valued by the students most likely to continue into graduate programs in the sciences and with potential for high achievement. Better understanding why students choose the active learning spaces, and why women were showing such a strong preference for them, can help reduce barriers to success for women in physical science and STEM more broadly, according to the study.

The full study, “Separated by Spaces: Undergraduate Students Re-Sort Along Attitude Divides When Choosing Whether to Learn in Spaces Designed for Active Learning,” was published on the website of the journal Active Learning in Higher Education. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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