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. Much of this drive for pedagogical change has come from the numerous publications on the positive impact active learning environments have on student populations in large introductory courses as well as on students who are underrepresented in the STEM fields. However, less research has been done on how students engage in these learning environments. 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. Initial analysis has been done on the nature of interactions occurring between students in small group discussion formatted courses along with an analysis of the activities worked on by students as well as the facilitation of activities by instructors and graduate teaching assistants. 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.
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