Higher Learning Commission

Learning What “Works” in Transforming Pedagogy Within a STEM Curriculum

Joan Hawthorne, Anne Kelsch and Brett Goodwin

Promoting student success in gateway courses for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors is a long recognized challenge (Gainen 1995). Yet, enabling student success in those critical lower-division courses is essential for institutions seeking to prepare students for high-demand careers (President’s Council Advisors on Science and Technology 2012). Furthermore, it is commonly held that U.S. students graduate with unacceptable levels of quantitative and scientific literacy (Kuenzi 2008). Addressing the need for greater understanding requires strategies that enable students to achieve deeper learning, and greater success, in STEM courses taken within general education or their major.

The University of North Dakota (UND) Biology Department, acknowledging these problems, implemented a program-wide transition from a traditional lecture-based pedagogy to an evidence-based, active learning pedagogy. Given student numbers and a lack of funding for additional instructors, the department needed to make this pedagogical shift within the context of high enrollment classes. The construction of a 180-seat SCALE-UP classroom (Student Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs; https://www.ncsu.edu/per/scaleup.html), specifically constructed and equipped to facilitate deeper learning in large classes (Gaffney et al. 2008), allowed this. Designed to facilitate collaborative approaches to teaching and learning, the classroom is not conducive to traditional lecturing; therefore, faculty members had to commit to major changes in instructional design as a condition of being able to teach their entire core curriculum in the new classroom.   

SCALE-UP classrooms are increasingly common, and significant research establishes improved student learning outcomes in these spaces (see references at https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/learning-spaces-research/bibliography-1). The UND Biology Department’s implementation of SCALE-UP is unique in the simultaneous conversion of the entire core curriculum to this approach. In this study we sought to understand the impact of this shift both on faculty members and on student learning. Using faculty interviews and student focus groups, while also drawing on existing data (e.g., demographics, surveys, grades), we wanted to deepen our understanding of this coordinated, collaborative effort to improve learning. We also hoped to identify themes that could provide guidance for those considering similar projects.

Making the Transition

Predating the move to SCALE-UP, several Biology Department faculty members had implemented active learning strategies in fixed-seat lecture bowls and smaller upper-division courses. Committed to sound pedagogical approaches, they were often frustrated when space and numbers constrained best practices. This frustration occurred at a time of national calls for STEM faculty members to improve student learning and address equity (Handelsman, Miller and Pfund 2007). Three Biology Department faculty members attended a summer institute designed to address this need in undergraduate biology education, gaining a deeper grounding in course design and assessment of student learning. Successive departmental chairs advocated for active learning, providing support for pedagogical development, sharing data on student learning and national trends in teaching, pointing to successes at other institutions, and lobbying for the building of innovative learning spaces. Institutional encouragement came through faculty development, technology support and classroom funding.

With the space to be completed for fall 2012, preparation in spring 2012 centered on logistics and course conversion. Competitive course development grants offered through the teaching center gave summer funding to enable dedicated time for work. Grant recipients attended a required weeklong workshop to assist with the design of activities and assessments. The workshop also created a supportive cohort of those moving into the space. By the time students began their first SCALE-UP experiences, a great deal of behind-the-scenes work had occurred.

Learning from the Experiences of Faculty

By summer 2015, when faculty interviews took place, six semesters of SCALE-UP courses (representing thousands of enrollments) had been taught by 14 Biology Department faculty members. Despite tremendous work generating materials, activities and assessments, interviewees expressed overwhelmingly positive feelings about the move. Motivated by concern for disengaged or underperforming students, most embraced the opportunity to provide a better learning and teaching environment. A number valued the encouragement to be creative in their approach and to connect more meaningfully with large groups of students. Consistent with the national literature (Freeman et al. 2014), most observed a decline in withdrawal and failure rates, as well as in absenteeism. Faculty members noted improvements in student learning, both formally (in higher grades) and informally (in better questions, a higher quality of in-class work). Several faculty members mentioned needing to offer more challenging activities as they discovered that students were capable of more than they had realized. For some, teaching in SCALE-UP made apparent for the first time the extent to which they had not understood obstacles to student learning. Many faculty members utilized frequent formative assessments to gauge student learning and guide their pedagogical approach. They also recognized that existing assessments no longer served in some cases; that is, fixed-answer questions were not appropriate when coursework focused on critical thinking and communication skills. In the introductory courses, faculty members concluded that labs needed to be redesigned as the hands-on learning provided in class superseded what was occurring in the labs.

Although all faculty members now using SCALE-UP devote a significant proportion of courses to active and collaborative learning, they represent a wide range of approaches in regards to course structure and how active learning is implemented. At one end of the spectrum are faculty members who design exercises to be completed in a short time frame. In groups, students discuss and complete assigned work intended to contribute to their learning. Activity is largely faculty directed, with the instructor initiating a new exercise and giving student teams a set time before calling everyone into a centrally focused discussion. Faculty may aim to complete a topic or activity within a single class period. At the other extreme, faculty structure courses around larger projects, often in the form of “muddy, real world problems.” Such projects typically extend across multiple periods, with student teams defining the parameters of a problem and identifying and presenting a potential solution to the class. The instructor and assistants traverse the room, offering feedback and keeping tabs on the learning as it occurs.

Considerable diversity remains among the various biology core classes, despite the (at least superficially) common pedagogy. That diversity can be viewed as both a challenge and a strength: although consistency in approach across faculty members may be more conducive to student learning, it is clear that a strategy that works well in the hands of one faculty member for whom it is a “good fit” can be an unmitigated disaster in the hands of another. A number of faculty members described their pedagogical approach as an extension of their personality and philosophy, noting that a decentralized classroom, in the words of one teacher, “may not be for everyone, but it is for me.”

If pedagogy still varies, a more universal change is evident in perspectives on teaching. As one faculty member commented, “coverage” is better defined in relation to what students have learned than what the teacher has presented. Virtually everyone who transitioned to SCALE-UP went through a parallel transition, including a reshaped understanding of what teaching means and a deep consideration of how much content coverage is “enough.” Faculty members expressed a belief that although specific disciplinary content is essential, skills and competencies should be prioritized. Many faculty members have also made a transition in their understanding of students and their learning. A number of faculty members perceived students being able to “do more,” observing that SCALE-UP courses allowed students to learn in different ways, often unrelated to content knowledge, but ways that are equally (if not more) valuable. Students gain a greater ability to “do science” and a better skill set in terms of scientific professions (e.g., collaboration, critical analysis, information literacy). Furthermore, faculty members claim their relationships with students are quantitatively and qualitatively different: they know more students on an individual level and engage more frequently in genuine conversations about science. Students are more likely to interact directly with faculty members with a number of positive results. For example, they are more likely to be aware of research and teaching assistant opportunities, to ask for letters of recommendation or to seek career advice.

While the focus of this study was the impact of converting core biology courses (freshman and sophomore courses required for all biology majors), there have been a number of broader programmatic impacts. With the success of the active learning pedagogy in SCALE-UP, faculty members—both those who teach in the core courses and some who do not—have increasingly incorporated active learning pedagogies into upper-level and elective courses. Recently the department developed a 42-seat SCALE-UP–style room, which is now in high demand for upper-level courses. The initial common effort to convert courses to SCALE-UP has fed a shared interest in pedagogy and curriculum. The result is more discussion among faculty members about their courses and increased instructional development work to more carefully integrate courses. Finally, improvements in teaching and learning have not gone unnoticed at the institutional level, with Biology Department faculty members providing numerous demonstrations and workshops for campus-wide constituencies and winning institutional teaching awards.

Learning from the Experiences of Students

As faculty members wisely anticipated, many students reacted negatively to finding they would learn differently than they had in previous courses. Many STEM students at UND, particularly those in the major, achieved high grades in high school courses through diligence in mastering content “covered” on tests. That success was often attained by listening to lectures and taking notes. As these strategies are not sufficient for active learning, students were dealing with the likelihood of more and different work and greater uncertainty about course outcome (defined as a letter grade). With large numbers in or seeking entry to highly competitive programs, these challenges were unwelcome. Surprisingly, by the time the first cohorts had passed through the revised core curriculum, almost all participants in focus groups cited the importance of the SCALE-UP room in enabling their learning. Faculty members noted this pattern as well: students who enrolled in biology courses during the first year of the transition (presumably not the most successful time in terms of faculty’s work) had demonstrated significant resistance but that resistance had almost entirely dissipated by years two and three. As one student noted, it was difficult at first because what happened in class did not feel like what they had previously experienced, so they were unsure if they were learning. However, once students took tests, they found more was “sticking” than they had realized. Many students recognized the value of the SCALE-UP approach and thought it made “a huge difference.” Another student described active learning as “more work but better learning.” Students noted that by the time they had experienced six SCALE-UP courses, they were more confident, more willing to talk and better able to work together.

Students also noted the quality of relationships they developed with faculty members. Remarking on the importance of faculty investment in student learning, one student’s comment that “Biology faculty are the best for that” was unanimously supported within that focus group. Even in 180-student classes, students observed that faculty members knew students by name (a task made much easier by the seating arrangements in the room). In response to an open query regarding departmental strengths, students cited the accessibility and approachability of the faculty as key.

Finally, in a discussion about where “deep learning” had occurred, students spoke specifically about research projects, particularly those in which students developed their own research question. These experiences were not common in large lecture courses but are much more manageable in SCALE-UP classes, where faculty members can more effectively guide large numbers of students in doing research collaboratively. One concrete example was a “lab yourself” exercise in which each student asked questions about his or her body, testing to find answers and writing up conclusions. Students characterized this experience of collecting one’s own data and forming one’s own theory as “the best.” Given successes of these kinds, students largely agreed with faculty members that SCALE-UP has been a valuable program-wide transformation.


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

Gaffney, J. D. H., E. Richards, M. B. Kustusch, L. Ding, and R. Beichner, 2008. Scaling up educational reform. Journal of College Science Teaching 37 (5): 48–53.

Gainen, J. 1995. Barriers to success in quantitative gatekeeper courses. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 61: 5–14.

Handelsman, J., S. Miller, and C. Pfund, 2007. Scientific teaching. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Kuenzi, J. J. 2008. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education: Background, federal policy, and legislative action. Congressional Research Service Reports. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/crsdocs/35.

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. 2012. Report to the president: Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_feb.pdf.


About the Authors

Joan Hawthorne is Director of Assessment and Regional Accreditation, Anne Kelsch is Director of Instructional Development, and Brett Goodwin is Chair and Associate Professor at University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

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