Dr. Xinnian Chen (CLAS, Physiology and Neurobiology)

Xinnian Chen: STEM students benefit from active learning

Sleeping in the back row of a big lecture course is a college cliché that does not apply to Xinnian Chen’s classes.

Chen, who teaches enhanced anatomy and physiology, which enrolls 350 to 400 students a semester, practices active learning – even in big lecture halls. Students are expected to form small groups and interact with others. Sitting solo is not an option. Rows may be blocked off at intervals, leaving space for teaching assistants and Chen to roam through, catch the conversations, and interact with students.

It’s part of her evidence-based approach to teaching science, a way to retain students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Research shows that engaged, active students earn better grades and are less likely to fail.

But research also shows that success with active, inquiry-based learning depends on students trusting that the teacher has faith in them and supports their efforts to change their behavior and take risks.

Building trust is key

“When you trust me, you’re more likely to buy into our teaching practice, and that correlates to a better grade,” Chen explains. Students who commit to active learning earn over a half grade better in a course, a meta-analysis of research has shown.

How does a teacher build trust? Chen, an associate professor-in-residence of physiology and neurobiology, co-authored a recent research article in Life Sciences Education that ticked off several strategies: refer to students by name, give them feedback, encourage a collaborative approach, and provide students with opportunities to work through problems without evaluating them.

It cited earlier research showing that a student develops an opinion about whether to trust a teacher in as little as six seconds. But there’s a spectrum of levels of trust, Chen noted – some students are more committed to active learning than others. She believes that building trust starts with the teacher being transparent about active learning goals and benefits at the start of a course and enlisting students’ cooperation.

National Academy institutes lead change

Chen, who earned her PhD in biomedical engineering at SUNY Stony Brook, came to UConn in 2008 as an assistant professor-in-residence, charged with training teaching assistants and upgrading the way labs were taught. Shortly after she arrived, she received support from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to attend the National Academy Summer Institutes on Scientific Teaching to improve biology education. It was a pioneering attempt to fix what was going wrong with STEM education, where student retention rates were poor.

“The intensive programing and evidence provided in the institute were overwhelming,” recalled Chen. The experience upended her approach to teaching. She came back to UConn and began implementing active, student-centered learning and mentoring other teachers.

The national summer institute that she attended in Madison, Wisc., has since evolved into four to seven regional institutes each year. UConn has hosted the Northeast institute for the past three years, and Chen directs it. For five days each summer, some 40 faculty members from a variety of STEM disciplines at colleges around the Northeast come here to learn the best practices of active learning. More faculty apply than can be accepted. Those who get in arrive “hungry for ways to engage their students and improve learning outcomes,” Chen said.

They develop and present their own “teaching tidbits,” which are engaging small lesson plans, to try out in their own classes. A teaching tidbit might be a game designed to introduce a concept or an assessment activity to reveal and correct misconceptions. The goal is to generate excitement and engage students in learning.

“Every year I’m blown away by what people make,” Chen said.

Assessment is also different in an active learning environment, emphasizing critical thinking in exams.

Adopting a growth mindset

Increasing the number of faculty who are trained in active learning is needed to make progress in how science is taught, Chen said. “I really believe if you want institutional change, you need a mass body who buy into it and implement it.”

Chen runs a workshop each year for teaching assistants at UConn, training them in new ways to teach science. They learn the psychology and strategies behind active learning.

Growing up near Shanghai, Chen’s own inspiration came from teachers who made an effort to connect with students. They had confidence in their students’ ability to excel, were supportive inside and outside the classroom, and were intent on “believing yourself.”

That growth mindset – the idea that you can master a subject and your brain can grow – is another key part of an active learning approach to science teaching, Chen noted. It counters the “I hate math” mantra with an encouraging push based on the idea that learning a subject depends not on innate ability but on willingness to learn.

Chen has seen it in her own change in attitude to embrace active learning.

“It has been a rewarding journey,” she said.

Learn more about Xinnian Chen

More on student trust in learning

Check out some “teaching tidbits” at the Course Source website.