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High Structure Active Learning

What is High Structure Active Learning?

High structure active learning refers to an inclusive teaching strategy that doesn’t leave it to chance that students know how learning works. It is about changing the system that learning occurs within rather than blaming students for deficiencies. Scaffolded and distributed practice is emphasized by being required components of the course that are intentionally designed. The required practice reaches every student before, during, and after class. High structure can refer to both the course design and the classroom environment in which the instructor is engaging with students and facilitating peer to peer interactions.

A low structure curriculum may only have two exams and one paper as the only components of a student’s grade. Students who come in with the know-how of studying and writing are likely to be the ones that succeed. Who is likely to be left behind? Many students. High structure brings more scaffolded and required practice based on how students learn content and skills and can “level the playing field”. In this specific example, an instructor can build in daily assignments, learning activities in the classroom, quizzes, and smaller writing assignment tasks—all incorporating feedback from instructor and peers.

Active learning refers to the intentional practice of content and skills during class time. Using only one mode of interaction would be an example of low structure during class. For example, if an instructor only periodically stops lecture to ask questions to the whole class, we know that many students won’t respond for reasons such as: expecting other classmates to respond, not wanting to be wrong, afraid of speaking aloud to a large group, afraid how peers will judge them or their ideas, and more. By using anonymous ways to ask students questions on paper or by technology and incorporating small group discussion are two ways to increase structure and ensure that all students get practice doing the learning.

Many faculty at UNC have a great deal of expertise in high structure active learning because of departmental efforts to work together implement high structure, active learning effectively in all introductory courses. A grant from the Association of American Universities (AAU) expanded on work already in departments to see if a scaling up of the teaching strategies through a mentor-apprentice model could positively impact most STEM students.  The departments of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math learned together how to transform introductory departmental courses. More than 45 faculty worked to initially change 12 courses together, seeing higher learning gains, fewer failing grades, and increased student perceptions about STEM courses. The departments also successfully transitioned to remote teaching during the pandemic because of the high structure experience they already had.   High structure active learning has spread deeper into these four departments and wider across many disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences in ways that impact every Carolina student today.

More Information

More research articles related to UNC’s AAU project:

Learn more about high structure, active learning teaching through an advice piece, How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive, written by Associate Deans Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan for the Chronicle of Higher Education or read their book on the subject, Inclusive Teaching, Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom