Often these questions are raised about courses using learner-centered approaches: What if this is the only learner-centered course taken by the student? Is one course enough to make a difference?
There is growing evidence that courses with learner-centered approaches—those approaches that use active learning strategies to engage students directly in learning processes—enhance academic achievement and promote the development of important learning skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to cooperatively work with others. But does the experience of being made responsible for learning transcend that individual course?
That’s not a question that has been answered empirically, at least not until recently. But it was the question that biologists Derting and Ebert-May aspired to answer. Specifically they wanted to know “Is the infusion of two new introductory courses early in a student’s curriculum, both based on learner-centered inquiry-based principles, associated with improved long-term understanding of biological concepts and biology as a process of inquiry?” (p. 463)
The curriculum revision involved two new courses that became “required core courses” for all biology majors. (p. 463) They replaced other course requirements. Both courses used pedagogical approaches that involved students in activities rather than passively listening to lectures. In one of the courses, students completed three inquiry-based research modules. They generated research questions and hypotheses, shared research proposals, critiqued those of their peers, collected and analyzed data, and presented their findings.
The researchers used two kinds of assessments to evaluate the impact of these courses during the remainder of students’ undergraduate education. To assess students’ understanding of biology as a process of inquiry, they used Views About Science Survey for Biology. It’s an instrument that explores what students believe about the nature and learning of science. To assess students’ knowledge of biological concepts at the end of their major, they used a version of the Major Field Test in Biology. These instruments were administered to cohorts of students who took the original curriculum and those who experienced it in its revised form.
The article explains how the data were analyzed—it is a robust empirical design that makes the findings all that more noteworthy. “Our results showed that exposure to two courses that use scientific teaching to enable students to inquire and think critically about science was associated with sustained improvement, at least when the exposure occurred early in the curriculum. … In subsequent lecture-based courses students were able to draw upon their ability to think critically about science and during the process learn concepts better.” (p. 471) “Our longitudinal data indicated that the benefits of learner-centered teaching may extend far beyond the class(es) in which such teaching occurs.” (p. 471)
This is one study—and with educational research, one study is never enough. However, this is a very important first study, documenting that a different kind of learning experience early on in a major can have impact in courses across the major.
Reference: Derting, T. L. and Ebert-May, D. (2010). Learner-centered inquiry in undergraduate biology: Positive relationships with long-term student achievement. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 9 (Winter), 462-472.
Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.7 (2011): 4.