Date of Award

Summer 7-16-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Science Teaching


Tillotson, John W.


active learning, cell biology, higher education, Merrill, self-determination theory, undergraduate

Subject Categories

Education | Higher Education | Science and Mathematics Education


Although many undergraduates begin college as STEM majors, attrition rates from the field are high and numerous reports suggest that evidence-based teaching methods are critical for retention. Despite educators' research and near consensus that active learning is more effective than lecture, there are many types of active learning and the literature indicates their effects are not equivalent. The purpose of the current study was to directly compare different kinds of active learning by assessing their correlation with student performance (including learning gains) and understanding students' perceptions of them (including whether they contained Merrill's five principles of instruction and/or met three self-determination theory [SDT] needs). Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from one cell biology course (which is required for multiple biology-based majors) at a large, research-intensive university. Among clickers, homework, and passive learning, students scored higher on exam concepts assessed via homework (but not when homework was paired with clickers), and when wording of exam questions stemmed from homework or posted practice exam questions. Additionally, there was no difference in exam score if homework was paired with a passive learning technique (e.g., posting questions and keys), compared to concepts assessed through homework only. Conversely, larger learning gains were observed from clicker-based concepts compared to concepts assessed through homework, and learning gains of cumulative homework were marginal. Students felt clickers, homework, and lecture all had Merrill's principles and met SDT needs. Students' perceptions of additional attributes and suggested improvements of each technique are discussed. Finally, recommendations for higher education faculty and future research are presented.


Open Access