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Active Learning Experiment Challenges Students

Learning Abstract

April 2014, Volume 17, Number 4

By Velislava Karaivanova and Tammy Atchison

Active learning, as opposed to traditional lecture-style teaching, has captured the attention of more educators as it challenges students to think independently, thus producing improved learning outcomes. Learning comes from various sources, including lectures, interactive media, cooperative learning, and kinesthetic learning. Cooperative learning is a powerful tool yielding better results (Karaivanova & Atchison, 2013). However, when a peer-teaching approach is applied, in which students present lecture material before the class, the challenge becomes how to motivate students. Offering extra credit is not always appropriate, as it may lead to grade inflation. Here, the authors employed an alternate approach to motivate students without offering extra credit.

Designing the Experiment

In fall 2013, the instructors devised an experiment to test the hypothesis that peer teaching activities without the benefit of extra credit points yield improved learning. Taking advantage of the small class sizes of chemistry and biology laboratories in a community college setting, the instructors were able to get to know students personally and to work with them individually. Students were guided in a manner that helped them to learn where to look, but not what to see. When necessary, instructors observed and directed students’ work immediately, asked them to demonstrate how they conducted experiments, made corrections, and provided individualized advisement. In doing so, successful professional relationships were built.

The assistance and personal attention each student received helped to form the perception that students’ learning and success were very important to the instructors. Halfway through the semester, students were given confidential in-person progress reports in which their academic standing in the class was discussed and they were told precisely what grades they needed to earn through the end of the semester in order to achieve their grade goal in the class. Individual advice was given and strategy techniques were suggested to improve grade performance. The students perceived instructors as allies in their success.

The successful professional relationships which were established created an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. The academic foundation was ready for the next step: Students were asked to present a textbook chapter before the class. Each student received an individual part of the chapter to present. Students were encouraged to ask the class for help if they were unclear about a specific concept. Faculty explained to students that they would receive no extra credit for their presentation. It was stressed that the goal of the assignment was for the instructor to have the opportunity to witness the products of their learning and to make corrections if needed, thus ensuring that the material was understood and learned correctly. The objective was that each student would earn a higher grade on the upcoming test (Test 5) and meet his or her desired grade goal. The students’ chief motivation was the possibility of successfully learning the material and achieving their grade goal in the class.

Assessing the Results

The class consisted of forty students and a ten-point grading scale was used. Figure 1 shows the average class grade on Test 5 when the material was presented by the instructor (74 percent, bar A, baseline) compared to the average class grade as a result of student-presented material (78.6 percent, bar B). These baseline results were calculated for five academic years, from 2008 to 2012, and included a total of 186 students. These data indicate that the results on Test 5 were 6.2 percent higher when peer teaching was used as the method of instruction. Test 5 belonged to the group of more challenging chapter tests; to be successful, students needed advanced algebra skills. Student growth was obvious because their presentations demonstrated a logical flow, ordered ideas, and important concepts. When some students asked for clarification concerning a challenging concept, other students were able to respond and adequately explain it. Student confidence in their mastery of the topic was demonstrated in their presentation as well as test grades, with a few students earning the highest possible grade.

Figure 1

Table 1 analyzes the academic programs of the students included in this experiment. The participants came from diverse academic pathways: associate of general education, associate of arts, associate of science, and special credit.

Table 1
Analysis of student population by academic major

Academic Program


Special credit


Associate of General Education


Associate of Arts


Associate of  Science


The presented experimental data show that members of an academically diverse student population can be challenged to think for themselves by engaging in a peer-teaching experiment without the incentive of any quantifiable grade rewards. Thinking independently and learning from one another through student-led activities are powerful tools which can produce significantly better learning outcomes and academic success than traditional faculty-led instruction. This is in agreement with the reported finding that the learning retention in peer teaching is the highest among the participatory teaching methods (National Training Laboratories Learning Pyramid). In addition to improved learning outcomes, learning from one another provides a possibility, to some extent, to cross over the gap between the grades students want and those they earn in class.


Karaivanova, V., & Atchison, T. (2013). Active learning and student success. Learning Abstracts, 16(1). Phoenix, AZ: League for Innovation in the Community College. Retrieved from http://www.league.org/blog/post.cfm/active-learning-and-student-success

National Training Laboratories. (n.d.). Learning Pyramid. Retrieved from http://fitnyc.edu/files/pdfs/CET_TL_LearningPyramid.pdf

Velislava Karaivanova and Tammy Atchison are faculty in the Science Department at Pitt Community College in Greenville, North Carolina. The authors appreciate the valuable suggestions of Fanette Entzminger.

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 04/02/2014 at 10:28 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -