More Structured Classrooms and Supportive Instructors Lead to Better Student Experiences

Duke professors Minna Ng and Thomas Newpher conduct research on team-based learning (TBL). Throughout the 2020–2021 academic year, they were challenged to find ways to do TBL in online and hybrid classes. Their research in this area is being supported by the Carry the Innovation Forward program, an initiative launched by Duke Learning Innovation focused on sustaining and expanding the learning innovations that arose at Duke during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Minna Ng & Thomas Newpher

In the fall of 2019, we co-founded the Duke Team-Based Learning Lab. Our goal was to identify teaching practices that enhance learning for all students, focusing primarily on active learning strategies in STEM courses. Our initial research in undergraduate neuroscience courses found that students self-reported greater learning in highly structured team-based learning courses when compared to more lecture-based versions of the same course. In collaboration with Bass Connections, we expanded the scope of our work in early 2020 to look at the student experience across many STEM disciplines at Duke. Our preliminary findings demonstrated that more structured active learning STEM courses, when compared to lecture-based courses, were associated with many improvements in the classroom environment. Specifically, students reported a greater sense of belonging, higher levels of motivation and engagement, and feeling more supported by their instructor.

At the start of the pandemic, we shifted our attention toward teaching practices that improve student engagement in the virtual classroom. To better understand the remote learning experience at Duke, the TBL Lab released a survey to students in the fall of 2020 to collect data on their experiences with remote learning. This was an opportunity for us to study what factors contributed to students’ course experiences and explore whether the conditions that create engaging team-based learning experiences can be replicated in an online environment. We wanted to find out what team-based learning was like for students who were collaborating over Zoom, and for students who were in-person but socially-distanced and behind masks.

Not surprisingly, our preliminary analyses suggest that remote-taught courses (data from 2020) were associated with less student engagement when compared to non-pandemic years (data from 2019). Compared to in-person, the remote versions of several STEM courses showed decreased ratings in student engagement and belonging. However, remote courses with high instructor support had the highest student sense of belonging during the pandemic. This is a valuable observation since a student’s sense of belonging is associated with many important classroom experiences that could impact their academic performance. Tom recently gave a talk (video on YouTube) about this work at The Neuroscience Teaching Conference at Wake Forest.

Manuscripts about our work are in progress. We plan to continue analyzing our data to look for nuances and relationships among variables, including the type of STEM course, demographics, gender, and student class year. Our partnership with Learning Innovation is a valuable source of support for our research. We look forward to continuing our research in pedagogy in partnership with faculty, students and colleagues at Duke.