Active Learning Isn’t Enough: Cultivating Inclusive Learning Environments

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Active Learning Isn’t Enough: Cultivating Inclusive Learning Environments


Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Western Washington University and Jacquelyn J. Chini, Assistant Professor of Physics, University of Central Florida

Jackie Chini (second from left) and Learning Assistants at the University of Central Florida explore a favorite active learning demonstration on a spinning stool. Photo by Courtney Shapiro, courtesy of the APS PhysTEC program at UCF.We are physics instructors and education researchers who combine active learning and lecturing strategies in our courses. Active learning is the focus of many efforts to improve postsecondary instruction in physics and other STEM fields. The term refers to a wide range of teaching strategies1 such as Peer Instruction2 and SCALE-UP,3 but essentially, active learning strategies create more frequent and varied opportunities for students to interact with each other and with their instructors.

Overall, a preponderance of evidence demonstrates that active learning leads to certain improved student outcomes.4 However, when studying the impacts of active learning, researchers often focus on the aggregate performance of all students in a given course. This approach overlooks students’ individual experiences and obscures barriers to inclusivity that are unique to, or exacerbated by, active learning strategies.

Current STEM education research and our own experiences reveal that active learning strategies create new challenges for inclusion in the classroom. Increased in-class interactions provide increased opportunities for students to experience harm, especially those students who are targeted by racism, ableism, sexism, cissexism, or heterosexism. In this article, we describe some of the challenges that come along with active learning and suggest actions that students and faculty members can take to cultivate inclusive active learning environments.

Some researchers have demonstrated benefits to marginalized groups (e.g., students of color and white women) from specific active learning strategies (e.g., SCALE-UP5 and modeling instruction6). Based on these findings, instructors may decide to implement active learning as a step toward improving inclusion in their classrooms or departments. Such a goal is consistent with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) statement, Fostering Safe and Inclusive Learning Environments: “AAPT envisions schools and classrooms where students of all races, ethnicities, genders, religions and identities can realize their fullest potential in physics, free from bullying, harassment or hostilities.”7

However, few (if any) active learning strategies were developed specifically to reduce or eliminate bullying, harassment, or hostilities in the classroom. Moreover, the physics education research community has historically focused on students who “are better prepared mathematically and are less diverse than the overall physics student population.”8 Most previous studies treat gender as binary, a practice that erases nonbinary students, misgenders them, and misconstrues findings about the impacts of research-based curricula.9 In summer 2019, a group of physics education researchers of color wrote a reflection on their experiences in the physics education research community. One theme they shared was, “It is very hurtful to hear students being referred to using disparaging terms. Most notably, students have been labeled or categorized as ‘weaker,’ ‘lowest,’ ‘low-level,’ ‘low-income,’ ‘not as good,’ and other such terms that we have heard in presentations and seen printed in publications. The use of terms like these demonstrates a lack of understanding of the inequalities in our society and more egregiously, it attributes a student’s circumstances and performance, which is based on a variety of factors, to their identity.”10 In addition to these general trends, recent research challenges the idea that any active learning strategy is better than traditional lecture-based instruction for all students:

• Black women have been excluded from physics study groups by other students, leading to feelings of isolation and creating a barrier to learning physics and succeeding on exams.1

  • Introductory physics students who identify with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) reported that active learning strategies could increase barriers to their learning, as they have to develop new learning strategies to prepare for a class like SCALE-UP.12
  • For mixed-gender student groups working interactively on a mathematics task, social cohesion (i.e., the extent to which group members enjoy each other’s presence and feel like they belong) decreased in groups with more men.13
  • In introductory biology courses for majors, Asian American and international students were more likely than white American students to prefer the role of listener during group work and to report that someone else from their group dominated discussions.14
  • For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and asexual (LGBTQA) students in an active learning biology course, increased interactions with peers created increased opportunities to come out and connect with others similar to them but also increased chances of being outed or misgendered.15
  • Certain active learning strategies, such as cold calling (e.g., calling on nonvolunteering students), increased student anxiety in a large-enrollment biology course.16

It is also important to listen to student’s self-authored voices. For example, Anna Perry, a student at Gettysburg College, describes how problematic peer-to-peer dynamics in a flipped physics classroom contributed to her decision to change her major from physics to Africana studies.17

For these reasons, we caution against framing active learning strategies as inclusive on their own.

Working toward inclusion of all participants requires action from both physics instructors and students. Below we outline several steps that they can take to enhance the inclusivity of any learning environment in which learners regularly interact with one another. We emphasize that these recommendations should be viewed as one part of a comprehensive departmental strategy.

Prioritize ongoing self-education about bias. The ability to notice and address problematic behavior is a skill that must be continually practiced and relearned. To develop this skill, instructors and students should invest in ongoing self-education. This could include participating in training sessions at universities, in local communities, or during professional conferences. In addition to reaching out to the few physicists with the relevant expertise to provide this training, we must also turn to nonphysicist experts in race, disability, gender, and sexuality. For example, at recent AAPT conferences, Sherry Marts,18 Joseph Williams,19 and Simone Kolysh20 have each run multiple workshops on sexual harassment, racial microaggressions, and oppression, respectively.

Establish classroom norms in the first week of class. Explicit norms for behavior in and out of the classroom can reduce the likelihood of violating unarticulated expectations. There are multiple approaches to setting class norms. Instructors could incorporate pre-established norms, like those developed by STEP UP, a national organization focused on engaging young women in physics.21 Alternatively, instructors and students could cogenerate conditions for success using the appreciative interview technique.22,23 Once norms have been set, it is everyone’s responsibility to honor them. The process of creating, communicating, and upholding norms should be equitable and flexible; some norms might not make sense for some students.

Monitor, recognize, and address inappropriate behavior during class. Racist, ableist, sexist, cissexist, and heterosexist behaviors have no place in any physics learning environment. Such behaviors include microaggressions, harassment, slurs, misgendering, and other forms of marginalization. Identifying and disrupting these behaviors is the professional responsibility of all physics students, instructors, and researchers. For example, AAPT7 and the American Physical Society (APS)24 have called on physicists to address and overcome our own biases.

Foster inclusive learning environments outside of the classroom. Out-of-class interactions are just as important as those occurring in class. Research by Katemari Rosa and Felicia Moore Mensah demonstrates that exclusion from study groups is one factor contributing to the isolation of black women physics students.11 If a physics department maintains a student study space, the department should establish and uphold norms for this space. To monitor overall culture and climate of the department, department chairs can administer anonymous surveys or enlist external organizations for support, such as a site visit by the APS Committee on the Status of Women.25 To foster an inclusive environment beyond the classroom and throughout the department, students, faculty, and staff should consider working together; indeed, such partnerships are one of the principles for departmental change described by physics education researchers Gina Quan, Joel Corbo, and their colleagues in the Departmental Action Team project.26

Ensure that examples, stories, and jokes are appropriate. When providing real-life examples or telling stories, we often assume a certain level of cultural familiarity among listeners. Discussions about ethics carry a unique opportunity for centering examples that may threaten inclusion.27 Jokes further function to position certain behaviors as typical or absurd,28 and they may have an unintended impact on some listeners.29 Erroneous assumptions about which experiences are common knowledge or which behaviors are absurd alienate some physics learners, likely those from minoritized groups. To avoid this kind of alienation, it is important for everyone to think carefully about the assumptions and punchlines of their examples, stories, and jokes. Examples, stories, and jokes of a sexual nature (whether explicit or implicit) are never appropriate.

Acknowledge that bias informs students’ evaluation of instruction. Student evaluations have low correlation with student learning.30,31 Some instructors receive worse ratings when they augment lecturing with active learning strategies,32 and sexist biases in student evaluations are well documented.31,33,34 Both authors have received evaluations that focus on appearance rather than teaching practices. Nevertheless, at most institutions, student evaluations remain a factor in decisions about contract renewal, promotion, or tenure for adjunct faculty, long-term lecturers, and tenure-track faculty. Students therefore have a responsibility to consider their own biases when filling out evaluations and to provide thoughtful feedback about teaching practices. Comments about instructors’ perceived intelligence or attractiveness are never appropriate.

Be flexible. No active learning strategy works well for all students in all contexts at all times, and some strategies are counterproductive for some students. Moreover, what works for one student in the first few weeks of class might not work in the last few weeks; health issues, job requirements, and dependent care responsibilities fluctuate over time and can be unpredictable. When the format of the class doesn’t work for a student, the student and instructor should be open to discussing options that could help the student meet the learning objectives of the course within existing constraints. Because there are many barriers to receiving university-sanctioned accommodations,35 the absence of such accommodations should not prevent instructors from working with students to address individualized needs.

Getting started can feel overwhelming, but there are a variety of resources that you can (and should) build from. For instance, consider the following resources for supporting students of color: The Physics Teacher recently published a set of articles on race and physics teaching, edited by Geraldine Cochran and Gary White;36 Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has written a sequence of essays titled Surviving and Thriving as an Underrepresented Minority Astro/Physics Student;37 and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) TEAM-UP Task Force is working toward a report on strategies for recruiting and retaining black physics students.38 Further, to provide a truly equitable and inclusive learning environment for physics students, departments must also consider inclusive hiring and admissions practices, possibly including affirmative action practices.39–41

Active learning strategies do not necessarily imply equitable or inclusive learning environments on their own. Instructors and students must work together to ensure that interactions in and beyond the classroom are inclusive. These recommendations are meant to be a starting point for reflection and action, not an exhaustive list. We hope that the ideas presented here will inspire readers to continually and thoughtfully improve the learning environment in their own classrooms.

The authors acknowledge input from Daniel Oleynick, GIM McGrew, Jess Mollerup, Katemari Rosa, and Lisa Osadchuck.


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