PS 12-63 - Comparison of peer- versus instructor-driven activities on undergraduate student engagement in a large introductory biology class

Tuesday, August 9, 2016
ESA Exhibit Hall, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center
Melissa Chipman, Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL and Benjamin F. Clegg, School of Integrative Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL

The effectiveness of active learning on student engagement and achievement has motivated the academic community to rethink traditional lecture-based approaches. Active learning is especially relevant in large-classroom settings, where students are at higher risk of disengaging during traditional instruction. Implementing activities that engage students in large classrooms is challenging, and it is unclear how different types of activities impact student engagement in this environment. We examined the relative success of peer-driven versus instructor-driven activities in facilitating student engagement in a large introductory biology course (631 students). The goal of both activities was to teach students the steps of photosynthesis. For the peer-driven activity, students were divided into small groups (3-4 students) and each group received a packet of paper slips (manipulables) to organize into a photosynthesis flow-chart. For the instructor-driven activity, students had the option to work in groups to complete individual worksheets, and then presented their answers in an instructor-led discussion. Trained observers scored in-class student engagement during the two activities using the Behavioral Engagement Related to Instruction (BERI) protocol.


We found a significant difference between overall student engagement by activity type (X2=20.14, 1 df, p<0.005, N=395), although the effect size was small (φ=0.23). Specifically, the proportion of disengaged student behaviors was much higher during the instructor-driven activity (32% of observations) compared to the peer-driven activity (3% of observations). This suggests that peer-driven activities with manipulables enhance student engagement compared to worksheets with instructor debriefing. Surprisingly, observations of engaged peer interactions compared to non-peer behaviors such as reading and writing, did not significantly differ between the worksheet component of the instructor-driven activity and the peer-driven activity (X2=1.31, 1 df, N=185). However, overall student engagement was higher during the worksheet component compared to the discussion component of the instructor-driven activity (X2=9.07, 1 df, p<0.005, N=337, φ=0.16), implying that whole-class instructor interaction during active-learning activities may decrease student engagement in large classrooms, likely because only a small proportion of the students are actually participating in the discussion. Our findings indicate that in-class activities that encourage peer interactions over instructor-driven discussions are more successful in facilitating student engagement in large classroom settings.