Faculty Focus


An Approach that Decreases Failure Rates in Introductory Courses

This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.” (p. 175) The question is whether there might be approaches to teaching these courses (and others at the introductory level) that reduce failure rates without decreasing course rigor.

That’s a question that has already been addressed in previous research, and this study builds on previously published work by this research team. They hypothesized that adding lots of active learning to the course and combining it with frequent formative assessment would reduce failure rates. They tested that hypothesis across six quarters, with 2,100 students enrolled in a three-quarter, introductory, biology sequence for majors and those in related fields. Their study design is robust and approachably described in the article.

Here’s a brief rundown of the active learning and formative assessment activities they included in the course.

  • Socratic lecturing, which meant frequent use of questions. Students volunteered answers and were called on. Sometimes the think/pair/share strategy was used.
  • Ungraded, active learning exercises including minute papers, case studies with question sets completed in groups, writing answers to exam-style questions followed by discussion, and in-class demonstrations that involved student participation.
  • Clicker questions that were multiple choice. Students first answered individually and then re-answered after discussing with others seated nearby.
  • Practice exams given weekly online and peer graded. Students were given 35 minutes to respond to five short-answer questions. Software then randomly and anonymously distributed the answers and grading rubrics to students. Points on these practice exams equaled about 8 percent of the total course grade.
  • Class notes summaries where, in a weekly assignment, students stated the three most important concepts introduced each day in lecture and raised a question about any of this material they did not understand well. This assignment counted for about 2 percent of the total course grade.
  • Reading quizzes, available online every afternoon after class until the morning of the next class session. They consisted of multiple-choice questions that were corrected electronically. Students could use their books and notes to find the answers and they could collaborate with others in the class. These quizzes counted for about 8 percent of the total course grade.
  • In-class group exercises involving exam-style questions on the topic currently being discussed. After group discussion, students were randomly called on and asked to share answers with the whole class.

These activities were added gradually across six quarters, which allowed for empirical assessment of three different conditions: one with low structure, meaning fewer activities, more lecture, and fewer high-stakes assessments; one with medium structure, which included more activities and formative assessments; and one with high structure, where all the activities and assessments listed above were used. The pragmatic question that comes to mind most immediately is how they managed to get all the content covered in the course. They answer, “Reading quizzes solve one of the standard objections to active learning—the content coverage has to be drastically reduced. Reading quizzes shift the burden of learning the ‘easy stuff’—the vocabulary and basic ideas—to the students. The premise is that this information can be acquired by reading and quizzing as well as it is by listening to a lecture.” (p. 184) It is also worth noting that these were large courses that were supported by graduate teaching assistants.

As for their hypothesis: Did failure rates in the course decline, and was course rigor maintained? In most courses, content rigor is assessed by using the same exams. For reasons of academic integrity, researchers decided they could not keep administering the same exams. However, they devised a robust system for ensuring that all exams included in the study were of equivalent difficulty. “When we controlled for variation in student ability, failure rates were lower in the moderately structured course design and dramatically lower in a highly structured course design.” (p. 175) The failure rate went from 18.2 percent in the low-structured version of the course to 6.3 percent in the highly structured course design.

Reference: Freeman, S., Hauk, D., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2011). Increased course structure improves performance in introductory biology. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 10 (Summer), 175-186.

Reprinted from “An Approach that Decreases Failure Rates in Introductory Courses” The Teaching Professor, 25.8 (2011): 4-5.