Collaborative Learning in STEM: Impacts on Student Motivation, Retention and Self-efficacy (2019-2020)


Collaborative learning is an evidence-based instructional strategy that deepens student learning by facilitating engaging classroom discussions among students. These cooperative activities are at the core of active learning, a pedagogical method whereby students perform activities for the purpose of discovering, processing and applying information. 

While active learning increases performance for most students in STEM fields, underrepresented students show the largest positive effect. In addition, these teaching interventions completely close the performance gap between first-generation college students and continuing-generation students.

Why, then, is active learning more effective for STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds? Some studies have shown that the interactive and interdependent nature of active learning helps increase the sense of community in the classroom, an effect that may be especially important to the success of at-risk student populations.

To better serve Duke’s diverse undergraduate student population, this Bass Connections project will test the impacts of collaborative learning on student motivation, retention in STEM and self-efficacy.

Project Description

The goal of this project is to determine the impacts of collaborative learning on course-related behaviors and enthusiasm for course content in undergraduate STEM classrooms at Duke. The project team aims to identify teaching practices in STEM classrooms that improve retention rates for all students, close achievement gaps, generate enthusiasm for course content and promote equity in the classroom.

Team members will measure how different collaborative learning practices across campus impact self-reported course behaviors. The measured behaviors will include classroom participation, involvement with independent research projects, time spent studying and engagement with peers about course content outside of the classroom. The team will also assess self-reported student enthusiasm for the material, self-efficacy and intention to stay within STEM.

The team will design surveys and release them to students in STEM major courses, then analyze responses and make comparisons between STEM courses with and without active/collaborative teaching methods.

Anticipated Outputs

Study findings with broad application and transferability to young adults in other undergraduate institutions; data for Trinity College of Arts & Sciences departments in the natural sciences that can be used toward course enhancement and curriculum design; presentations at local and national conferences; manuscript for publication; preliminary data for future grant proposals


Summer 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Learn about active learning pedagogies; carry out a literature review; design surveys; submit and obtain IRB approval
  • Fall 2019: Collect surveys; analyze data
  • Spring 2020: Present findings at national meetings; write a manuscript for publication

Team Outputs to Date

How Course Structure Impacts Student Outcomes (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Impacts of Course Structure on Learning Experience (presentation by Clarke Shead and Matt Long)

Collaborative Learning in STEM Positively Impacts Student Outcomes (poster by Nicole Santeiro, Taylor Braswell, Matthew Long, Clarke Shead, Benjamin Thier, Junette Yu, Thomas Newpher, Minna Ng)

The Changing Landscape of Higher Education (talk by Thomas Newpher and Ben Thier, TEDxDuke 2020: (un)familiar, Duke University, February 9, 2020)

This Team in the News

Bass Connections Teams Share Research Highlights in a Virtual Showcase

Doctoral Students Honored for Commitment to Outstanding Mentorship

Thomas Newpher and Ben Thier Deliver Talk at TEDxDuke

See related team, Impacts of Collaborative Learning in STEM (2020-2021).


Image: Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, by Fabrice Florin, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium.

Team Leaders

  • Thomas Newpher, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Minna Ng, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/graduate Team Members

  • Nicole Santeiro, Masters of Public Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Taylor Braswell, Psychology (BS)
  • Matthew Long, Biology (BS)
  • Clarke Shead, Psychology (BS)
  • Benjamin Thier, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Junette Yu, Neuroscience (BS), Linguistics (AB2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Elizabeth Bucholz, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering
  • Dorian Canelas, Arts & Sciences-Chemistry
  • Jeffrey Forbes, Arts & Sciences-Computer Science