Engaging Diverse Learners in Biology

By Madison Wright

19 February 2021

Students in a classroom raising their hands and engaging with the instructor

What works and what doesn’t work for engaging students in the classroom? It likely depends on who is in your class and why they’re there, say researchers in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences who are studying ways to improve teaching and learning in higher education.

Students have many reasons for choosing to take a particular course at university.  It may be a requirement of their program, an elective option in a non-related program, or they may just have a general interest in the subject matter. But if students filling seats in a class have different reasons for being there, will the same engagement strategies keep all of these students feeling curious, involved, and attentive in class?

Prof. Genevieve Newton and undergraduate student Devin Hymers (now a graduate student in the Physics Department) set out to discover if these “unique learners” can be engaged in the same way, or if certain strategies are more effective for students in different degree programs.

First-year biology courses at the University of Guelph offered Newton and Hymers the perfect opportunity to explore this question.  Two of the largest first year biology courses, Discovering Biodiversity (BIOL 1070)  and Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Biology (BIOL 1090), attract students in both biology and non-biology majors.  Both courses also use a range of different engagement strategies such as  student response systems (clickers), in-class discussions and activities, lab and seminar activities, and an interdisciplinary project.

Newton and Hymers surveyed students at the end of the semester to determine how often they participated in the various engagement strategies, as well as how engaged they felt throughout the entire course.

They found that the more engagement strategies that students participated in, the more engaged they felt by the end of the semester. This was true for both biology and non-biology students, highlighting the effectiveness of these strategies to engage the class as a whole.

But perhaps not surprisingly, non-biology students were overall less engaged in biology courses than their biology major classmates.  And some strategies were more effective than others, depending on a student’s major.

“We have different students that are engaged by different strategies, and this could be related to the different strengths and interests that these students have,” explains Hymers.

The strategy that was the greatest predictor of biology students feeling engaged was the use of clickers, while in-class discussions and activities were more effective at engaging non-biology major students.

Hymers says, “It’s important, particularly for these large first year courses, to look at a lot of different opportunities for engagement. We want to try and make sure every student in the course is getting everything they can out of it.” 

Especially, Hymers adds, because students’ perceived engagement was also positively correlated with their final grade.

“At the end of the day, it is about creating the best experience for the students.”


Read the full study in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.