Unexpected consequences of ‘active learning classrooms’: they can create an unaccepting atmosphere for LGBTQIA students

This study is something quite interesting as it describes a possible unexpected consequence of the didactical approach one chooses. Researchers from Arizona State University found that active learning classrooms, which require more group work than traditional lecture courses, may create an unaccepting atmosphere for LGBTQIA students. They study has important limitations (e.g. regional differences, difficult to generalize,…) but the results do suggest further research is a very good idea, imho.

Extra note: I always think the word ‘active’ can also be a bit of an issue as you still can be very passive in e.g. group work and you can also be very active in ‘traditional’ lectures.

From the press release:

…for undergraduate students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA), or who may be struggling with their identity, the biology classroom may not necessarily be a welcoming place.

In a first-of-its kind study published in the latest issue of CBE-Life Sciences Education, researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences found that active learning classrooms, which require more group work than traditional lecture courses, may create an unaccepting atmosphere for LGBTQIA students.

“In an active learning classroom, students are asked to interact a lot with each other and the instructor,” said Katelyn Cooper, doctoral student and lead author of the study. “The students’ LGBTQIA identities are more relevant in an active learning course, particularly for transgender students who may be transitioning during the semester.”

In the U.S., 3.6 percent of people identify as LGBTQIA. For this study, seven students from a 180-person classroom were interviewed, which is similar to the national average.

“Our goal in classrooms at Arizona State University is to be inclusive to every student, regardless of their LGBTQIA identity or any other social identity,” said Sara Brownell, assistant professor with the School of Life Sciences and senior author of the study. “The national conversation right now is to move more science classrooms into the active learning model. But as we do this, we need to be cautious how these student interactions are playing out in class. These interactions among students may impact how well these LGBTQIA students are doing in the class. This study is the first to illuminate potential challenges for these students in active learning spaces.”

The researchers found that all of the students who identified as LGBTQIA struggled in some way with group work. While the students faced more opportunities to interact more closely with others, this presented more opportunities for them to have to self-identify. The researchers say this is important because often times, students come out during college years, but are hesitant to do so before they’re fully ready to announce their LGBTQIA identity to the outside world.

“In a traditional lecture course, students can sit in the back of the group and be somewhat invisible,” shared Brownell. “But in the interactive class, we ask them to engage with others. This is extending into conversations they don’t want to have. They have to decide, ‘Do I come out to this person I don’t know? Do I lie? Do I change the conversation?'”

Brownell’s lab studies how students learn biology in the classroom. In particular, she and her research team investigate the experiences of students with potentially underrepresented or stigmatized social identities in the classroom, including gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and LGBTQIA identity.

“It has been shown that more diverse groups of people lead to better science. It’s important to make sure that our next generation of scientists is diverse and this starts in the undergraduate classroom. Students with LGBTQIA identities can offer unique and important perspectives,” added Cooper.

The researchers do not recommend moving away from the active learning classroom. In fact, they support the active learning model as an effective way to help retain students in STEM fields and keep them engaged in challenging topics. However, they do recommend that instructors think carefully about how they structure group work and that instructors can work toward creating safe spaces for students to feel comfortable sharing their identities.

The next step for the researchers is exploring this topic at a national level and in different geographic locations to see whether students in other parts of the country have similar experiences in the active learning setting.

Abstract of the study:

As we transition our undergraduate biology classrooms from traditional lectures to active learning, the dynamics among students become more important. These dynamics can be influenced by student social identities. One social identity that has been unexamined in the context of undergraduate biology is the spectrum of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) identities. In this exploratory interview study, we probed the experiences and perceptions of seven students who identify as part of the LGBTQIA community. We found that students do not always experience the undergraduate biology classroom to be a welcoming or accepting place for their identities. In contrast to traditional lectures, active-learning classes increase the relevance of their LGBTQIA identities due to the increased interactions among students during group work. Finally, working with other students in active-learning classrooms can present challenges and opportunities for students considering their LGBTQIA identity. These findings indicate that these students’ LGBTQIA identities are affecting their experience in the classroom and that there may be specific instructional practices that can mitigate some of the possible obstacles. We hope that this work can stimulate discussions about how to broadly make our active-learning biology classes more inclusive of this specific population of students.


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