First-generation college students face a variety of barriers in higher education compared with their continuing-generation peers. Active learning practices in STEM classrooms can potentially narrow the achievement gap by increasing academic self-efficacy, or confidence in academic abilities. However, these practices can also provoke anxiety in students. Given that anxiety can impair cognitive performance, we sought to understand how first-generation students perceive active learning practices and whether these perceptions affect the anticipated benefits of active learning. As part of a larger study on pedagogical practices in anatomy and physiology courses at the community college level, we asked students to rate various active learning techniques on how much each provoked anxiety and how much each contributed to their learning. All students (N = 186) rated some techniques as more anxiety-provoking than others (e.g., cold calling); however, compared to continuing-generation students, first-generation students' ratings tended to be higher. First-generation students anticipated doing more poorly in a course and attained lower final grades. Notably, the use of active learning practices did not improve first-generation students' academic self-efficacy: by the end of term, academic self-efficacy decreased in non-white first-generation students whereas other students showed little change. When introducing active learning strategies, instructors may need to proactively address underrepresented minority students' emotional reactions and ensure that all students experience success with these practices early in a course as a way to bolster academic self-efficacy.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This research was supported by grant #1829157 from the National Science Foundation. The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.