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Blending it up: active learning in a STEM classroom through the use of online materials

L to R Kathy Friedman, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences; Mark Woelfle, Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences; Tessy Sebastian, Biological Sciences, and Mary Keithly, Chemistry

This project has been incorporated into the Department of Biological Sciences course Principles of Genetics (BSCI 2210). Initial work was done by BOLD Fellow Tessy Sebastian and Kathy Friedman in 2013-2014; the final results shown below were obtained by Mary Keithly, Kathy Friedman, and Mark Woelfle in 2014-2015.


Problem: Can we improve student understanding of difficult genetics concepts using active learning techniques?

Approach: A blended classroom approach combines online and classroom tools for teaching.  We created four online learning modules to replace/supplement passive textbook reading with active learning activities to introduce and solidify genetics concepts prior to class time.

These modules were hosted on Blackboard.  Each module consisted of a series of 3-5 short online video lectures.  Each lecture is followed by a multiple choice formative assessment question associated with the information presented in the videos.




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The students were given two attempts to answer each multiple choice question.  If they answered incorrectly the first time, feedback was provided to guide them prior to their second attempt.  The answer key for the formative assessment questions was also provided to the students the morning of class.

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Finally, students were asked to attempt a more difficult genetics problem prior to class time.  They were not expected to complete the problem.  The problem was addressed during class time to promote a more active learning environment and to engage the students in higher levels of metacognitive understanding.

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Module Assessment Methods

We used three different types of assessment to evaluate the efficacy of the online modules.

  1. Students were asked to complete a post-module satisfaction survey.  The questions were designed to assess the student’s perceptions on the modules’ efficacy, feelings on the use of modules, and perceptions on the modules’ quality.
  2. We administered pre-/post-testing in a control (traditional lecture) semester and an experimental (modules implemented).
  3. We performed observations of the classroom in both the control and experimental semesters for a topic covered by a module and a topic not covered by a module.  These observations included the following information:
    1. Tracked student and instructor activity
    2. Captured details of student-instructor interactions


The results of the satisfaction survey revealed student perceptions about the modules.  As you can see from these data, 91% of the students liked the modules even if they did not feel they were more effective than a traditional lecture.  Regardless of their feelings about the modules, 68% of students found them more effective than traditional lectures.  A second related question on the survey had similar results, which reveal that 78% of students believe that the online modules enhance their understanding of the concepts when compared to traditional lectures.

We also found that 58% of students found the pre-class problem helpful.  When analyzing student comments, we found that some students found it useful to work through problems in class, but they felt like too much time was spent going through the problem during class and that it might be more beneficial to have additional group work.

Furthermore only 42% of students believed that the modules helped better prepare for the test when compared to in class lectures.  However, 71% of students reported that they reviewed the modules when studying for the exam.

We also saw that 84% of students feel that additional modules would be helpful.  This was further reinforced by comments we received in response to open ended questions on the survey.

We used a modified form of the genetics concept test developed by Jenny Knight at the University of Colorado Boulder, which was administered in both a control and experimental semester.  When analyzing the data we asked:  Of the improvement that each student could make based on their pre-test performance, what fraction did each student actually make?  The bars show the average fraction potential gain for each semester with standard deviation error bars.  The points are individual student scores.  As you can see, we compared total score, module questions score, and non-module questions score for the each semester. These data revealed no significant difference in learning gains.

Classroom observations to track student and instructor activity reveal no significant difference between activity type in the two semesters.  You can see that for this instructor lecture and real-time writing go hand-in-hand.  You also see that the amount of questions asked and answered stays stable between semesters.

We also kept a detailed transcript of teacher/student question/answer interactions.  This was categorized according to Bloom’s Taxonomy (shown below). Bloom categorizes student cognition using a hierarchical system into 6 categories, with higher cognitive activity shown at the top of the pyramid.  Observed interactions were most commonly found in 3 categories (Remembering, Understanding, and Applying).

These data reveal that there was no significant difference between the experimental and control semester for a topic using no module.  There was however a significant difference when looking at a topic that utilized the module.  When the module was used, we saw a significant increase in the Apply category, which is higher cognitive activity according to Bloom.


In conclusion, we learned that the use of online modules to supplement a traditional classroom lecture was well accepted by both the students and the faculty.  We were unable to demonstrate specific learning gains with the assessment tools we used during this project.  However, we saw some evidence that addition of the online module promoted higher-level cognitive activity during class time when categorizing according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.