Exploratory Learning Activities in Undergraduate STEM Courses

Marci DeCaro
Associate Professor
University of Louisville

Need: Exploratory learning is an active-learning technique that has been shown to improve students’ conceptual understanding. Exploratory learning reverses the typical order of instruction, by having students explore a novel activity prior to instruction. This project tests the causal effectiveness of exploratory learning in five first- and second-year undergraduate STEM courses (biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, and engineering) taught by 11 faculty over 3 years. This project also examines learning mechanisms supporting exploratory learning, and the impact of using this active-learning method on underrepresented students’ learning and motivation. In addition to measuring student outcomes, this project uses qualitative methods to study how instructors’ professional identities and perspectives on teaching and learning evolve as they use exploratory learning.Guiding Questions: This research is guided by two primary questions: (1) Does exploratory learning improve conceptual understanding on learning assessments, compared to instruct-then-practice conditions, in undergraduate STEM courses? (2) How does a faculty learning community support professional development and use of exploratory learning methods? This presentation will focus on the first objective.Outcomes: This year, we tested exploratory learning with two different topics in all 11 faculty classrooms, some across two semesters (22+ experiments). Students were randomly assigned to explore-first or instruct-first conditions, and completed surveys and learning assessments. The next two years, we will refine or replicate each study, depending on results from Year 1. For this presentation, learning and survey data will be presented from two activities designed for one course (Chemistry). Significant learning and motivation benefits of exploring first were found in one experiment but not the other. Broader Impacts: Over 3000 students will participate in two exploratory learning activities in a STEM course. Our studies will demonstrate the importance of developing instructional interventions to both target and assess conceptual understanding. By improving conceptual understanding, students may better integrate content across a course and build an important foundation for future learning and the workplace. Thus, exploratory learning offers an important potential method to improve knowledge, participation, and persistence in STEM fields. Evidence from these studies will be used to build a theoretical framework including characteristics needed to design exploration activities. This framework, and the exploration activities and assessments developed, will be available on a project website. By examining the qualitative aspects that lead faculty to endorse adopting evidence-based strategies, the project’s results will improve understanding of how to make professional development activities more impactful.


Marci S. DeCaro, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY; Jeffrey L. Hieb, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY; Linda Fuselier, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY; Raymond J. Chastain, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY