Although theories and practice in education have emphasized learners' active role in their learning, undergraduate large-enrollment courses (e.g., general education courses) pose challenges for providing students with a learning environment conducive to developing critical thinking skills through their engagements in active learning. This study investigated the effect of incorporating active learning strategies such as small-group learning with authentic tasks, scaffolding, and individual reports, which were employed to enhance students' learning and critical thinking in a large undergraduate, general science education class.
Two active learning modules on natural disaster content were implemented over the semester. Pre and post-tests were developed and implemented to examine effects of active learning on student learning of geoscience concepts and reasoning skills, and two sets of individual reports were analyzed to investigate levels of critical thinking exhibited in student reports over the semester. Data were collected from 155 students enrolled in the class.
Results indicate that the active learning strategies had a positive significant effect on undergraduate students' learning of geoscience concepts, from pretest to posttest, as well as students' critical thinking displayed in written reports, which suggests that the use of active learning strategies in a large class were useful to enhance student learning.
With regards to students' critical thinking, the findings of this study revealed students' average critical thinking levels fell in the category of "developing" for all subcategories (e.g., identifying problems while considering social context, developing a perspective, justifying own decisions, presenting evidence/data, and integrating issues, etc.). The quantitative results revealed that the use of the active learning strategies was associated with a statistically significant gain in student scores on Individual reports. Thus, the finding of this study from the quantitative and qualitative analysis confirmed that the active learning strategies were useful in enhancing students' critical thinking as well as engaging their critical thinking process: (i) The result from students' scores on Individual reports revealed a statistically significant increase, and (ii) the results from students' perception survey and interview identified specific areas of the critical thinking process students perceived as being supportive (e.g., approaching the problem from various perspectives, applying scientific concepts/ideas to real-world problems, and so on.).
From the qualitative results regarding students' perception, in general, the use of active learning strategies reportedly had a positive effect on students' engagement in the learning experience. The three active learning strategies employed in the course were perceived as being supportive for student learning and critical thinking. Overall, students perceived positive impacts or values of the active learning strategies on the following: (1) their active engagement in their learning, (2) receiving external support and input from group discussion and scaffolding as well as for applying knowledge to real-life problems, and (3) individual writing opportunities.
With regards to the relationships between student learning, critical thinking, and other demographic data, a correlation study identified several major relationships as follows: (i) there was fair degree of positive relationship between GPA and student learning as well as between GPA and critical thinking. (ii) there was also a positive relationship between student learning and the number of science courses taken in high school, and (iii) there was a slight positive relationship between student learning and critical thinking.