Evidence that communities of practice are associated with active learning in large STEM lectures

Jonathan H. Tomkin, Shereen O. Beilstein, Jason W. Morphew, Geoffrey L. Herman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Background: With the increased attention on the need to retain students within STEM majors, it is important for STEM instructors to adopt evidence-based instructional practices that are student-centric and employ active learning techniques. However, traditional approaches for increasing student-centric, active learning practices such as workshops, seminars, and department or college mandates have been either inefficient or ineffective at motivating institutional change. This is particularly true for introductory STEM courses with large enrollments. One promising approach is to develop and support instructors in forming communities of practice around reforming introductory and foundational STEM courses. By engaging instructors within these communities of practice, and connecting the communities with each other, instructors may be more likely to experience an epistemological shift that will lead to adoption of active learning practices. To explore whether participating in a community of practice is related to the use of student-centered, active learning techniques, 25 undergraduate foundational STEM courses whose instructors were members of a community of practice were observed using the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM Courses. The results were compared to a sample of 35 undergraduate foundational STEM courses whose instructors were not members of a community of practice. Results: Instructors who were members of a community of practice were much more likely to employ student-centric practices, such as asking questions, following up, and engaging in discussion, and much less likely to use instructor-centered practices, such as lecturing. In addition, students in these classes were more likely to be actively engaged in problem-solving activities rather than passively listening. We found that student-centric, active learning practices correlated with students attending and actively participating in class, an effect that is stronger for courses taught by instructors who were members of a community of practice. Conclusion: Communities of practice are a potentially effective mechanism for enhancing student learning and retention by increasing the use of active learning practices by STEM instructors. These communities are particularly effective when they consist of small, disciplinary teams working on the same course(s) and are linked with other individuals or groups that use evidence-based instructional practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1
JournalInternational Journal of STEM Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019



  • Communities of practice
  • Evidence-based instruction
  • Instructional change

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education

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