** This page is unpublished **

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning:

Cooperative learning strategies enrich student learning


A current wave of reform has prompted instructors in undergraduate science education to move away from passive, lecture-style formats and replace this approach with ones that involve active learning. Here, I investigate whether cooperative learning strategies (CLS) complement the traditional lecture format to facilitate student learning. This study was conducted in a Vertebrate Physiology course at Vanderbilt University during the three week neurophysiolgy module. These preliminary results suggest CLS enhance students' conceptual understanding of the material. Furthermore, student surveys conclude this active learning process potentiates students' confidence, knowledge and experience as assessed by Personal Perception Indicators (PPIs). By using CLS, instructors may deepen students' conceptual knowledge and facilitate the progression of student learning from knowing to application.

Inquiry Phase


My long-term goal is to implement the underlying theme of my teaching philosophy, which is to help my students develop the conceptual understanding and critical thinking skills they need to pursue meaningful inquiries in neuroscience. My pedagogical experiences have revealed distinct teaching philosophies between undergraduate and graduate science education. I feel undergraduate science courses primarily use lectures to communicate informative facts that are regurgitated by students on exams. While effective in transmitting information, I feel this teaching philosophy attenuates the learning process and gives students the impression that knowledge is a static collection of facts to be memorized. Conversely, knowledge is perpetually evolving, utilizing established information to ascertain new ideas and discoveries. The graduate school model is based on this thought process behind the derivation of information. Discussion formats combined with the traditional lecture format are typically used in graduate science education.

One of the major challenges of utilizing a lecture format is to communicate a deeper understanding of the material. Students cannot achieve a level of understanding by simple communication of facts. Students must grasp core concepts and initiate their own views to incorporate knowledge. Pedagogical literature suggests lectures are effective as any other method for transmitting information (Lodish et al. 2004) and progressing students along the knowledge and comprehension categories of Bloom's Taxonomy. However, the use of lectures solely is insufficient to advance students along the entire cognitive continuum. Most lectures are not as effective as discussion methods to promote thought. Compared with discussion methods, the students' role in a lecture format is often passive. The essence of learning to think requires practice; lectures do not generally incorporate this, nor do they provide an opportunity for active expression and assessment of thoughts (Bligh 2000). A current wave of reform in undergraduate science education has prompted many instructors to move away from a passive learning format in which the instructor attempts to convey knowledge to students through lectures and note taking (Allen and Tanner 2002). They are replacing this approach with ones that involve active learning, such as Cooperative Learning Strategies (CLS). The use of different methodologies to teach information addresses various learning styles effectively, as well as maintains the attention levels of students (Bligh 2000). By supplementing lectures with other teaching methodologies, students are better able to fully grasp the material to develop their own perspectives.

To address this principle, I decided to conduct a pilot study on investigating whether CLS complement the traditional lecture format to facilitate student learning. My teaching plan was to use lectures to effectively transmit informative facts combined with analytical discourse to develop conceptual progression, essentially fusing the most valuable aspects of undergraduate and graduate education. I am exceptionally interested in whether group activities deepen students' synthesis and critical analytical skills with respect to traditional lecture styles.


  • How effective are CLS at facilitating student learning? Specifically, I assessed the impact of small group collaboration on students' conceptual understanding and self-confidence.
  • Do Participant Perception Indicator (PPI) surveys accurately measure student confidence, experience, and knowledge?
  • What effect do CLS have on students' responses to the post-test assessment, as well as the PPI ratings?
  • Is there a correlation between student PPI responses and conceptual understanding of the material?
  • Do CLS help students to synthesize and apply their knowledge?

  • Context

    Dr. Clint Carter invited me to give several neurophysiology lectures for an undergraduate Biological Sciences course, Vertebrate Physiology, at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Carter was very enthusiastic about collaborating to design a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project within the Neurophysiology Module. The protocols described here were approved by the Vanderbilt University Institutional Review Board.

    I coordinated with three other graduate students to teach the Neurophysiology Module that spanned the first month of the course. The class had 25 students and met three times per week for one hour. The students were mostly upper classman with a major in Biology and/or Pre-medicine. The student composition was advantageous for a study on student learning. The course served as a requirement or preferred elective for the students; therefore, the students' interest and motivation was higher than an introductory undergraduate course.

    This study should be of interest to others who use a lecture environment in their education techniques. Large lecture environments form the foundation for transmitting information in most biological science courses. Lectures allow the professor to teach the basic concepts of knowledge that are important and necessary to initiate scholarly practice in the field of interest. Ideally, teachers want students to apply their knowledge to develop new concepts and perspectives. By using CLS, teachers may deepen students' conceptual knowledge and facilitate the progression of student learning from knowing to application.

    Experimentation Phase

    Figures of Results

    Project Design

    Gathering Evidence

    My overall goal was to determine whether CLS enhance the depth of student learning and understanding. To assess my goal, I compared individual student responses to answers derived from group activities. The data collected was comprised of student assessments from problem sets and exams, PPI surveys, as well as student feedback concerning teaching strategies. PPI surveys assess students' personal views about how knowledgeable, experienced, and confident they are in their responses. The PPI responses were based on a numerical scale with 1 being lowest and 5 being highest. A more in-depth reading of PPIs can be found in the link below. As a secondary goal, I wanted to evaluate the correlation between students' conceptual understanding of the material and associated changes in PPI responses.

    The study spanned the full three weeks of the Neurophysiology Module, and data was gathered over three class sessions spread throughout the module. On the first day of class, a Baseline Assessment (see attachment below) was administered to the students asking them two questions; one question covered previous material from an introductory class and the other asked about material from the upcoming course which the students were not knowledgeable. Each question was accompanied by PPI surveys to determine a baseline for student responses. I expected the PPI ratings regarding previous material to be higher for all categories (knowledge, experience, and confidence) than the PPI ratings regarding the question the students were unfamiliar with.

    Due to the limited number of class sessions I led (4), I needed to devise a project plan that would incorporate lectures conducted by various instructors. For two weeks, instructors used a traditional lecture format to cover the material. After all the neurophysiology lectures were completed, I gave the students a Pre-test Assessment (see attachment below) to assess the effectiveness of the lecture format on student learning. Each question in the Pre-test Assessment was accompanied by PPI surveys. Students were instructed to work on the Pre-test Assessment individually and to bring their individual responses to the following class. During the next class, I utilized CLS to attempt to deepen students' understanding of the material. I divided the class into small groups for the first half of the class. Each group discussed their individual responses to the Pre-test Assessment. I didn't specify how long they should spend on each question. The structure was left to each group's discretion. We reconvened for the second half of the class to discuss answers as an entire group. After the CLS session, students completed a Post-test Assessment (see attachment below) where students were assessed on the same material as the Pre-test questions. Again, students completed PPI surveys with each Post-test question.

    Finally, I had students evaluate the CLS approach. The link to the student evaluation form can be seen below. Baseline, Pre-test, and Post-test Assessment questions can also be seen below.

    Baseline Assessment

    Pre-test Assessment

    Post-test Assessment

    Student Evaluation Form

    Participant Perception Indicator Website


    I established a baseline for student PPI responses in the first class by asking a question students were expected to know from previous courses (Figure 1; Question 1) and asking another question that students were unfamiliar with (Figure 1; Question 2). The PPI responses were based on a numerical scale with 1 being lowest and 5 being highest. In Figure 1, the Question 1 PPI average is significantly higher for knowledge, experience, and confidence ratings than the Question 2 PPI averages. This difference is also summarized in Figure 9. The baseline data suggests students give higher PPI ratings to questions that assess known material.

    The remainder of the analysis compared individual student responses before the CLS session (Pre-test Assessment) to student responses after group activities (Post-test Assessment). Similar to PPI responses, students' grades were based on a numerical scale with 1 being lowest and 5 being highest. Figures 2-4 show the average student grades for the Pre-test and Post-test Assessments. For each question, the CLS increased the grade average. The most personally rewarding aspect of this study was that the CLS led to a substantial normalized gain (Figure 5), suggesting the group activities enhanced students' conceptual understanding of the material.

    Moreover, Figures 6-8 illustrate the PPI ratings increased in the Post-test Assessment with respect to the Pre-test Assessment for each question. The change in PPI rating is also summarized in Figure 9. Interestingly, there was not a significant difference between the categories, suggesting the students did not discriminate between knowledge, experience, and confidence. Perhaps, this can be best explained if confidence is defined as a function of knowledge and experience.

    The CLS increased both students' grades and PPI ratings. To further explore this correlation, I plotted the change in PPI rating versus the normalized gain (Figure 10). Students seemed to rate their experience and confidence higher as their responses improved. However, students did not perceive an increase in knowledge as their responses improved.

    The student evaluations were very positive regarding the CLS approach. All but one student felt the group activities increased confidence. The lone exception suggested the various views that arose from discussion led to uncertainty in his/her answer. Most students agreed that discussion with others uncovered aspects of their responses that they had not thought of. A couple students stated that discussions are more effective in maintaining their attention and participation, leading to a better understanding of the material. Several students felt the CLS required them to synthesize and apply knowledge from the entire Neurophysiology Module. Moreover, students felt the CLS session clarified certain aspects of the material and reinforced others. By engaging and applying their knowledge, students were able to gain a complete conceptual understanding of the material.

    Reflection Phase

    Resources and Obstacles

    I would like to thank the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching for their guidance and organization of the Teaching Certificate Program. Specifically, I would like to give special recognition to Derek Bruff, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the CFT, and Susan Crisafulli, a former Graduate Teaching Fellow of the CFT, for their advice and insights with regard to the design, implementation, and analysis of this project.

    Finally, I would like to think Dr. Clint Carter, Vanderbilt University Professor of Biological Sciences, for giving me the opportunity to conduct this study in the context of his course. Moreover, Dr. Carter was extremely helpful in designing and implementing this project.

    I had a couple obstacles in conducting this study. First, the course was team-taught so I was extremely limited on the number of classes I led. I feel that this problem was circumvented very well by incorporating the lectures of the entire Neurophysiology Module. Secondly, I did not have full control of the course, so it was difficult to design a study within the context of the course. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to design a more complete study involving CLS.

    Looking Ahead

    The statistical analyses assessing PPI ratings and student responses suggested CLS supplement traditional lectures very effectively to enhance student learning. The student evaluations also reflect the self-perceived gain in confidence and understanding of the material, supporting a further use of a CLS approach in my teaching practices. However, I would like to conduct a more long-term Scholarship of Teaching and Learning assessing CLS and the value of PPI surveys.

    This study will be extremely informative for my future evaluation of CLS. I will change several aspects of this study. For instance, I will structure the small group discussions so that there is equal time for each question. In addition, a reliable control group will be essential. I will have half of the students use CLS, while the other half will only be taught by lecture-based approaches. This will allow for a direct analysis of the benefit of CLS within the same student composition.


    1. Allen, D. and K. Tanner (2002). "Approaches to cell biology teaching: questions about questions." Cell Biol Educ 1(3): 63-7.

    2. Bligh, D. A. (2000). What's the use of lectures? San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

    3. Lodish, H. F., R. K. Rodriguez and D. J. Klionsky (2004). "Points of view: lectures: can't learn with them, can't learn without them." Cell Biol Educ 3(4): 202-11.

    This page was designed as part of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching's Teaching Certificate program.

    Author: Brandon Lute

    Last Updated: October 29, 2007

    This electronic portfolio was created using the KEEP Toolkit™, developed at the
    Knowledge Media Lab of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
    Terms of Use - Privacy Policy