Investigating Student Discourse in Large Enrollment Chemistry Course Active Learning Environments

Renee Cole
Professor of Chemistry/Associate Chair
University of Iowa

Need: In the past decade there has been increased emphasis on research-based instructional practices in the STEM fields, specifically in terms of student-centered active learning approaches. While there are numerous publications on the positive impact active learning environments have on student outcomes, less research has been done on how students engage in these learning environments. The nature of the learning environment and the cognitive level of in-class tasks can affect different dimensions of student engagement such as the nature of social processing in student groups, how knowledge is used and elaborated upon by students during in-class tasks, and the amount of student participation in group activities. Guiding Questions: Our group is working to characterize the essential features of effective task design and implementation that foster productive engagement of diverse students in discourse practices known to promote meaningful learning in different active learning environments. Outcomes: We have explored the association between different dimensions of student engagement (social processing, knowledge dynamics, amount of participation) and the cognitive level of in-class tasks in five distinct general chemistry learning environments where students were engaged in group activity in diverse ways. Our analysis revealed a significant association between task level and student engagement. Retrieval tasks often led to a significantly higher number of instances of no interaction between students and individualistic work, and a lower number of knowledge construction and collaborative episodes with full student participation. Analysis tasks, on the other hand, were significantly linked to more instances of knowledge construction and collaboration with full group participation. Tasks at the comprehension level were distinctive in their association with more instances of knowledge application and multiple types of social processing. Broader Impacts: Results of this initial analysis suggest features of effective task design, but also indicate that effective design is not enough to foster students’ construction of scientific knowledge and meaningful learning, and that instructor facilitation and group dynamics play a major role. These results suggest that other factors such as the nature of the curriculum, task timing, and class setting may also affect student engagement during group work.


Vicente Talanquer, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; Gregory Rushton, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN; Lisa Shah, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY