We all know how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice. The same holds true for a range of goals—from improving a golf swing to giving a good presentation.

As a graduate student at the University of Washington, David Haak wondered if this principle could be used to help boost the performance of students—especially those considered high-risk—in introductory undergraduate science courses.

These huge lecture classes are key portals to higher-level sciences, but in them, students are often not given the chance to practice the critical thinking and articulation skills by which they'll be judged in crucial midterm and final exams.

At U.W., students from educationally or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, many of who were underrepresented minorities and the first in their family to attend college, had previously been more than twice as likely to fail the intro Biology 180 lecture course than other students.

But Haak, now at Indiana University, and his colleagues decided to take a page from the  latest K–12 pedagogical lesson books and start introducing more active-learning elements into the courses. For his more structured course design, he included previously proven tools, such as small group discussions, short weekly exams and class-wide quizzes where students use clickers to register their answers in a central computer system—allowing an instructor to get instant feedback on the class' comprehension.

The team then analyzed student grades from several academic years of the biology course given in both standard and active-learning formats. Even when controlling for student ability and individual faculty differences, the team found that the courses with the most active learning elements saw improved learning for all students. And those who benefited the most were the disadvantaged students. The achievement gap between them and their more advantaged peers was cut nearly in half.

With this sort of interactive learning, "they find out how to apply information in new ways, to develop higher-order thinking," Haak said in a prepared statement. "Such higher-order thinking is the first step in mastering science." The class structure thus provided students the chance to practice and hone skills all semester, supporting what the researchers call the Carnegie Hall hypothesis.

And Haak and his colleagues maintain that the active-learning environment, with its quizzes and buzzer questions, is actually leading students to a deeper understanding of the material rather than just better test-taking skills. "The high level of exam questions in this course suggests that the performance gains we document here reflect actual learning gains," they wrote in a paper describing the work, which published online June 2 in Science.

Countless programs—many of them successful—have funneled more resources toward mentoring or tutoring for high-risk students. But such initiatives are often vulnerable in tight financial times. The classroom model described in the new study proved itself effective in the midst of budget cuts. Even as class size more than doubled—from 345 to 700 students—lab time was cut by 30 percent and the ratio of teaching assistants-to-students fell by about half, the improvements in student achievement were sustained.

"If the Carnegie Hall hypothesis is correct, highly structured courses may be able to reduce the achievement gap while raising the performance of all students without requiring additional resources," Haak and his coauthors noted in their paper.

Scott Freeman, a U.W. biology lecturer and coauthor of the paper, acknowledged that although the approach is affordable once it is up and running, developing a good interactive course can take time, money and enthusiasm on the part of the professors and departments. "Most faculty lack training in these techniques and may also lack the time to develop needed materials," Freeman said in a prepared statement. But given his school's positive results, he added, "we should move to active learning as quickly as possible."

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