The Biology Education Research Lab’s Eye on Equity

Active learning is being adopted across undergraduate biology classrooms, but not all students may equally reap the benefits of these practices.  Multiple barriers may prevent students from fully engaging in active learning.

How comfortable are students in active learning undergraduate biology classrooms?  Are certain groups of students more comfortable than other students?  What can we as instructors do to make all students more comfortable?

The Biology Education Research (BER) Lab at ASU, led by Biology and Society Assistant Professor Sara Brownell, is exploring these questions.  Current studies in the BER lab are focused on the experiences of students in active learning classrooms based on gender identity, LGBTQIA identity, and religious identity.

Women experience active learning differently than men

In a new publication led by Sara and collaborator Sarah Eddy of UT Austin, they found a gender difference in student comfort in active learning classrooms.  When asked about their comfort participating in active learning, women were much less comfortable than men in participating in whole class discussions, which may help explain why female voices are not heard as often as males in these classes.  In contrast, women and men are equally comfortable during small group discussions.  Despite equal comfort, their experiences in these small groups discussions were different. Women were more likely to prefer to collaborate with other group members, while men were more likely to take on the role of the leader.  Further, women valued peer discussions much more when they had a friend in the group – which didn’t seem to matter to men. 

Taken together, these experiences indicate that active learning is not the same for all students.  It also means that perhaps to allow women and men to have the same opportunities in active learning classrooms, we need to incorporate more small groupwork, structure that small groupwork so students can participate more equally, and perhaps give students the chance to work with friends.

Ongoing studies

Members of the Biology Education Research Lab are in the process of extending this study to examine the experiences of other groups of students in undergraduate biology classrooms.  SOLS Biology and Society Ph.D. student Liz Barnes and Biology and Society undergraduate Jasmine Truong are investigating the experiences of religious students in biology classrooms.  SOLS Biology Ph.D. student Katey Cooper is heading up a study on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) students in active learning biology classrooms.  These studies are starting to show really interesting patterns, so stay tuned for the official results and upcoming publications!

The bigger picture

These studies indicate that we need to be thoughtful when converting our classrooms into active learning spaces and conscious of how different groups of students are participating in both whole class and small group discussions.  Bringing awareness to possible inequities in the classroom is a major goal of our research and we are trying to find ways to diminish these gaps. Check out the lab website for more information about the other equity-related research happening in the Biology Education Research Lab!


Eddy SL, Brownell SE, Thummaphan P, Lan MC, Wenderoth MP.  Caution, student experience may vary: social identities impact a student’s experience in peer discussions.  CBE Life Sciences Education.  December 2015.

More Information: Sara Brownell (