Tips for creating an active learning environment for STEM disciplines

Male college student working in a laboratory pushing buttons on a machine

October 25 is National Active Learning Day, and around the country a coordinated effort is underway to boost the understanding and use of this learning method, especially in STEM courses. In honor of this nationwide effort, I chatted with Dr. Nivaldo Tro, professor of Chemistry at Westmont College, about his use of active learning to glean from his expertise. In the following interview he talks about some of the research supporting it, how he uses it in his classroom, and tips for other educators. Dr. Tro goes into even more detail about active learning in this recorded webinar, Active Learning in General Chemistry.


Q: What are some key research studies that have shaped your view of active learning?

Tro: The first is a paper by Freeman et al on the effect of active learning in STEM disciplines [1]. This paper is a meta-analysis of 225 studies on the effect of active learning on student exam scores and failure rates in STEM disciplines. The authors found that active learning increased exam scores and lowered failure rates. The second paper by Pyburn et al looks at the effects of pretesting on exam performance in General Chemistry [2]. The authors show that a multiple choice pretest with immediate feedback significantly improves exam performance in General Chemistry.

Q: You developed a system you call BDA. Will you explain this and how you use it to create an active learning environment?

Tro: As a result of these studies and others, I set out to develop a system to help me, as well as other professors, implement more active learning in General Chemistry. My system is divided into three categories: Before Class, During Class, and After Class (which is why I use the acronym BDA). The goal of this system is to make all parts of learning active, and to make active learning a seamless experience for students. The system includes a library of 150 interactive videos, active reading questions, questions for group work, and self-assessment quizzes. I assign some of these activities before class, which creates space during class time for active learning. Then I follow up after class with another short assignment that rounds out the experience.

Q: What are some of the key components to keep in mind as you develop exercises for students?

Tro: All of learning should be active. For example, students should not just passively listen to me lecture. Instead, I lecture for a few minutes and then pose a question or have a small group activity. Similarly, reading assignments should be active. I have embedded questions in my reading assignments that students answer online while they read. Even online videos should be interactive. The videos I have created have embedded questions within them that students have to answer to continue watching the video.

Q: What insights from your experience will you share?

Tro: I assign a multiple choice pretest for students before each exam. The pretest contains about 30 questions which are answered online. As the student answers each question, she immediately finds out if she answered it correctly. This kind of feedback helps students discover what they know and what they don’t, which then helps them better prepare for exams.

Q: Will you give some tips for other instructors?

Tro: Based on the data that has shown the superiority of active learning over lecturing, some instructors have quit lecturing altogether. I don’t think you have to go this far to realize the benefits of active learning. Lecturing by itself in a large classroom where students simply passively listen is what we have to avoid. But if we can deliver some content out of the classroom in an active way, and then keep the classroom experience active by having several questions or small group activities interspersed with our lecturing, then we can create an active learning environment in which students can flourish. My goal is make that path a little easier by providing some of the tools professors need to make that happen.


About Nivaldo Tro
Nivaldo Tro

Nivaldo Tro, PhD

Nivaldo Tro is a professor of chemistry at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he has been a faculty member since 1990. He received his PhD in chemistry from Stanford University for work on developing and using optical techniques to study the adsorption and desorption of molecules to and from surfaces in ultrahigh vacuum. He then went on to the University of California at Berkeley, where he did postdoctoral research on ultrafast reaction dynamics in solution. Since coming to Westmont, Professor Tro has been awarded grants from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, from Research Corporation, and from the National Science Foundation to study the dynamics of various processes occurring in thin adlayer films adsorbed on dielectric surfaces. He has been honored as Westmont’s outstanding teacher of the year three times and has also received the college’s outstanding researcher of the year award. Professor Tro lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Ann, and their four children, Michael, Ali, Kyle, and Kaden. In his leisure time, Professor Tro enjoys surfing, mountain biking, being outdoors with his family, and reading good books to his children.


Works Cited

1. Freeman S, et al. (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 111:8410–8415

2. Pyburn D. et al (2014) The Testing Effect: An Intervention on Behalf of Low-Skilled Comprehenders in General Chemistry.  J. Chem. Educ. 91 (12), pp 2045–2057