A rising need for workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has fueled interest in improving teaching within STEM disciplines. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of active learning approaches on student learning outcomes. However, many of these studies have been conducted in experimental, rather than real-life class, settings. In addition, most of these studies have focused on in-class active learning exercises. This study tested the effects of answering questions outside of class on exam performance for General Biology students at the University of Minnesota. An online database of 1,020 multiple-choice questions covering material from the first half of the course was generated. Students in seven course sections (with an average of ∼265 students per section) were given unlimited access to the online study questions. These students made extensive use of the online questions, with students answering an average of 1,323 questions covering material from the half of the semester for which the questions were available. After students answered a set of questions, they were shown the correct answers for those questions. More specific feedback describing how to arrive at the correct answer was provided for the 73% of the questions for which the correct answers were not deemed to be self-explanatory. The extent to which access to the online study questions improved student learning outcomes was assessed by comparing the performance on exam questions of students in the seven course sections with access to the online study questions with the performance of students in course sections without access to the online study questions. Student performance was analyzed for a total of 89 different exams questions that were not included in the study questions, but that covered the same material covered by the study questions. Each of these 89 questions was used on one to five exams given to students in course sections that had access to the online study questions and on three to 77 exams given to students in sections that lacked such access. Data from over 1,800 students in sections with access to the online study questions show that those students scored a statistically significant average of 6.6% points higher on the exam questions analyzed than students in sections without access to the study questions. This difference was greater than the average amount necessary to raise students’ exam grades by one grade (e.g., from a “B-” to a “B”). In addition, there was a higher correlation between number of questions answered and success on exam questions on material related to the study questions than between number of questions answered and success on exam questions on material unrelated to the study questions. The online study question system required substantial effort to set up, but required minimal effort to maintain and was effective in significantly raising average exam scores for even very large course sections.
Gibson, S. I. (2015). Promoting an active form of learning out-of-class via answering online “study questions” leads to higher than expected exam scores in General Biology. PeerJ, 3, e1322. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1322