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Active Learning and Student Success

January 2013, Volume 16, Number 1

By Velislava Karaivanova and Tammy Atchison

A feature of today’s students is their strong educational orientation and desire to learn (Barnes, Marateo, & Ferris, 2007). As active seekers of information, they use a variety of sources to learn, such as interactive media, traditional and online lecture notes, and cooperative learning (Carlson, S., 2005). To be effective and to promote better learning, teaching should include exposing students to various teaching techniques and methods. Struyven, Dochy, and Janssens (2010) suggest that traditional lectures should fade into the background, and active teaching methods should play a leading role in the teaching and learning process. Academic teaching should also employ innovative practices that help students acquire employable skills (Dickie & Jay, 2010). In this article, the authors investigate the effect of active student engagement in the teaching process on course success in biology and chemistry.

Designing the Experiment

The authors designed an experiment for general biology and introductory chemistry classes in which one chapter from the textbook was assigned to teams of students to teach before the instructor presented the information. The textbook and Internet were intended as the main research tools to be used by students. Each group member was assigned a topic to research and present to the class. Each group had a team leader who would announce the topic and presenter and keep the group organized. During group presentations, each student was to present his or her material and receive an individual rather than group grade. As an incentive to participants of this students-teaching-students exercise, each group was to present possible test questions to the class for discussion; questions determined acceptable by the instructor could be used on the upcoming test. In the chemistry class, each student was also to present a short summary discussing the specific application of chemistry in real life.

Assessing the Results

The success of the experiment was measured by results of the test that covered material presented by students. Results from the test covering the same chapter by conventional lecture-centered method were used as a baseline for comparison. In addition, class discussion, class participation, and consensus were observed at the time of the presentation. Individual and group work, as well as the student learning experience, were assessed by survey and formative evaluation.

The correlation between the teaching method and test average grade is presented in Figure 1. One chapter of the textbook material was taught by traditional lecture style during one semester and by students teaching students during another semester. On the chapter exam, the class average in the student-presentation course was 5% higher than it was in the traditional lecture course.

Figure 1

Average Test Scores by Teaching Style

Course success was calculated as the number of students who achieved a passing grade. Course success of the traditionally instructed class and the class with enhanced student engagement were similar. Grade distribution in introductory chemistry and general biology courses with traditional lecture instruction and those with the students-teaching-students exercise were similar. Even though it was clear that student-presented chapter material produced better learning, the impact of one chapter of the class material was not enough to enhance total course success and average grade distribution.

Student Perceptions of Open Lesson—Students Teaching Students Experiment

Subjective perception of the students-teaching-students experiment was evaluated through a questionnaire to which each participantwas required to respond. Findings indicate that the students-teaching-students method of presenting material helped the vast majority of students (81 percent) to better understand and learn. Seventy-one percent of students were able to focus on other students’ presentations; 65 percent of students liked the students-teaching-students exercise as a beneficial experience and suggested it be done more than once throughout the course (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Student Opinion of Students-Teaching-Students Experiment

It is important in higher education that students have an active role in the learning process. It is necessary to acknowledge student perception and experience regarding student involvement as an active force in teaching and learning. At the end of the semester, all students were required to submit their evaluations of the class and teaching methods used. Special attention was focused on whether students felt encouraged to participate in class, ask questions, and think for themselves; whether practical applications of chemistry in life were outlined; and whether the course material was presented in different ways helped students better learn and understand the material (Figure 3). 

Figure 3

Student Evaluation of Lecture-Centered Teaching and
Enhanced Student Engagement (Active Learning) Method


Data presented in Figure 3 show clearly that promoting enhanced student engagement, presentations, and participation in class resulted in a two- to five-fold increase in the four parameters being evaluated.


The active learning students–teaching-students experiment was successful in multiple respects. It enhanced student success on the test covering the material presented by the students, which is in harmony with the primary goal of academia. The benefits of this type of active learning, however, go beyond producing better test results. Requiring students to have individual presentations stimulated their ability to comprehend and explain the material in the language of science, think independently, evaluate the facts, and verbally present the material in a professional scientific manner. The ability to make formal scientific presentations is an important part of training that cannot be achieved or assessed through traditional lecture-based courses and written examinations. Grouping students in teams gave them additional opportunities for teamwork, peer learning, and scientific communication, similar to real job situations. The classroom atmosphere was one of collective creativity, and students highly valued this opportunity for active learning.


Barnes, K., R. Marateo, & S. Ferris. (2007). Teaching and learning with the net generation. Innovate 3(4). Retrieved from http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=382  

Carlson, S. (2005). Chronicle of Higher Education: The Net Generation Goes to College. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i07/07a03401.htm

Dickie, C., & Jay, L. (2010).  Innovation in postgraduate teaching: Mixed methods to enhance learning and learning about learning. Higher Education Research and Development, 2010, 29(1), 29–43.

Struyven, K., Dochy, F., & Janssens, S. (2010). ‘Teach as you preach’: the effects of student–centered versus lecture–based teaching on student teachers’ approaches to teaching. European Journal Teachers Education, 2010, 33(1), 43–63.

Velislava Karaivanova and Tammy Atchison are faculty in the Science Department at Pitt Community College in Greenville, North Carolina. The authors appreciate the technical advice of Andrew Walker.


Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 01/01/2013 at 12:00 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -