Discourse Practices in Secondary and Tertiary STEM Learning Environments

Investigating Conceptual Change in Active Learning Environments for Large Enrollment Chemistry Courses

Active Group Members: Lisa Shah, Monica Bartoli, John Sleckman

Collaborators: Dr. Renee Cole

A significant focus of chemistry education is to help students develop a better understanding of the concepts, practices, and ways of thinking in the chemical sciences. Several recent reports have highlighted the advantages of active learning strategies in supporting students in these domains, where students move away from passively listening to didactic lectures and toward small-group discussion about course content with their peers. In a National Research Council report, the use of activities in which students collaborate with each other is supported with a summary of the research that has shown that they can be more effective than traditional instruction. However, they caution that “results depend greatly on the care with which these activities are implemented. Collaborative approaches are not inherently effective and can be poorly implemented. The evidence is not conclusive about the conditions under which these strategies work.” 


In many introductory science courses, like those at land grant and private research institutions, the prospective STEM majors matriculate into large enrollment sections where they are at risk of performing poorly and reducing the pool of qualified undergraduates in our nation’s most needed degree fields. Most of the work in chemistry education research to date has focused on a) identifying the types of preconceptions and alternate conceptions students have at various stages of cognitive development that may inhibit their growth in chemical literacy, b) developing instructional materials that are designed to promote conceptual change,  and c) studying changes in course outcomes when instructors emphasize collaborative or cooperative learning experiences. While there are many studies that highlight the difficulty in overcoming student misconceptions, there is significantly less work describing how pedagogical approaches can overcome these ideas and support conceptual change. One area that is missing from the research base are investigations of pedagogical approaches that facilitate conceptual change and evidence that change has occurred, as well as their impact on different student populations.


To address questions related to how collaborative learning environments such as POGIL (Process-oriented Guided-inquiry Learning), PLTL (Peer-led Team Learning), and other active learning environments support student development of conceptual understanding, we propose the following project goals:

• To characterize the nature of classroom discourse that leads to conceptual change in undergraduate chemistry active learning environments
• To characterize instructional materials that lead to productive student discourse and conceptual change
• To develop and disseminate improved curricular resources, including recommendations for creating materials and implementation strategies that facilitate consistently positive changes in student conceptions across diverse instructional settings and student populations

This project will collect and interpret data about student reasoning that will inform the STEM education community about student learning. This work has important implications for active learning communities that support faculty in developing materials and implementing research-based teaching strategies, as well as the broader community of chemistry instructors. Insights into which facilitation strategies are more likely to promote desired learning outcomes will assist instructors in their adoption (and ongoing modification) of the use of active learning pedagogies.