How active learning can improve inequities in STEM

How active learning can improve inequities in STEM

Educational inequities often exist in the classroom, particularly minoritized students in STEM who may not have had the opportunity to see someone like themselves succeed in the field. In the K-12 setting, studies have shown that a lower proportion of students from low-income backgrounds, meet or exceed standards compared to students from non-low-income backgrounds. Elli Theobald, an assistant teaching professor of biology at the University of Washington, presented her findings on these inequities between students in higher ed STEM classrooms in a talk on April 1, 2021 (Harris et al. 2020; Theobald et al 2020). Theobald focused primarily on the inequities and differences in classroom performance between minoritized students in STEM and overrepresented students in STEM, as well as active learning practices that can help mitigate such undesirable outcomes. Theobald’s conclusions are summarized below.

Is active learning effective across contexts?

In their 2014 paper, Freeman et al. conducted a meta analysis of 158 STEM active learning studies from June 1998 to January 2010 (Freeman et al. 2014). Theobald and colleagues extended this meta analysis by analyzing an additional 133 studies, including 232 case studies from January 2010 to June 2016, wanting to better understand what it is about active learning that is most effective for minoritized students in particular (Theobald et al. 2020). Similar to the Freeman et al. 2014 findings, they found that the effect of active learning is good for all students, and students scored about half a standard deviation higher on exams compared to students who had traditional lectures. To explore what is it about active learning that is most effective, Theobald and colleagues examined whether the effect size of learning outcomes differed across different types of active learning strategies, course-level, subjects, class size, and time spent doing active learning. Many different types of active learning strategies are effective, such as clickers, collaborative groups, flipped classrooms, and problem-based learning. Active learning is also effective across all subjects, class sizes, and course levels. High-intensity active learning classrooms, where students spend more than 2/3 of class time engaging in active learning activities, are also effective across the board; low-intensity active learning classrooms, where students spend 1/3 to none of the class time engaging in active learning activities, turn out to be not much better than straight lecturing. 

Can active learning promote equity?

To investigate this question, Theobald and her team conducted an individual participant data meta analysis, looking at passive learning classrooms compared to active learning classrooms. They contacted every author from all 291 active learning studies (all the studies used in both the Freeman et al. paper and Theobald’s update to that paper), in order to compile the authors’ raw, disaggregated data of individual student exam scores and passing rates. It was found that in passive learning classrooms, minoritized students in STEM earned about 0.6 standard deviations lower in exam scores than students who are overrepresented in STEM. However, in active learning classrooms, there was a decrease in both the difference in exam scores as well as the difference in probability of passing these STEM classes. In particular, in high-intensity active learning classrooms, the difference in exam scores between both groups was the lowest. In high-intensity classrooms, there was a 76% reduction in the inequity and probability of passing between minoritized and overrepresented students in STEM. This indicates that active learning, especially high-intensity active learning that engages students for more than 2/3 of class time, is indeed effective in reducing inequity in classrooms.

Classroom implications

Theobald talked about the heads and hearts hypothesis to explain why active learning has a disproportionate benefit for minoritized students in STEM. Active learning promotes inclusion as it provides a safe psychosocial comfort and sense of belonging (the heart part of the hypothesis). Instructors create a culture of inclusion through the usage of active learning by demonstrating clearly to their students that they are confident in their students’ abilities to succeed. It doesn’t mean that the learning process won’t be difficult at times, but that instructors believe in their students and will provide the support and practice students need along the way. High-intensity active learning works because it provides deliberate practice for all students; focusing on challenging tasks that require scaffolding, feedback, and intentional repetition (the head part of the hypothesis).

One could look at these conclusions and assume that this means that active learning is not worth doing in the classroom if it is not high intensity. However, this is not true: in order to get to a high-intensity classroom, it is often necessary to start with low-intensity active learning. Start by asking a couple of questions each class, and slowly build that up to transform the class into a higher intensity active learning environment. After that is successful, keep working on bringing that mindset beyond the classroom to help reduce inequities in STEM.

Guest speaker

Elli Theobald, PhD

Assistant Teaching Professor, Biology, University of Washington

Dr. Theobald is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington. Prior to her current position, she worked as a middle school and high school teacher, completed her PhD in ecology, and transitioned to discipline-based education research as a postdoc. Currently, the heart of Theobald’s research program revolves around how to be a better teacher, with particular emphasis on how to achieve equity in college-level STEM classes.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Harris, R. B., Mack, M. R., Bryant, J., Theobald, E. J., & Freeman, S. (2020). Reducing achievement gaps in undergraduate general chemistry could lift underrepresented students into a “hyperpersistent zone”. Science Advances, 6(24).

Theobald, Elli J, Mariah J Hill, Elisa Tran, Sweta Agrawal, E Nicole Arroyo, Shawn Behling, Nyasha Chambwe, et al. 2020. “Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps for Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 117 (12): 6476.

Written by Melissa Cao