Building Learning Collectives into STEM Classes

Streamed Session Leadership Equity and Inclusion

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Brief Abstract

Learning collectives are a potentially effective way of supporting students, especially in extremely difficult larger lecture courses. After finding learning collectives effective in several courses, The team at our institution used a Learning Collectives pilot for our Introduction to Biology courses to increase student success, retention, and graduation to great effect. 


I have been in the Instructional Technology field for 10 years, focusing online course design and faculty collaboration. I am currently an Instructional Technologist and Designer at the Queens College Center for Teaching and Learning, I received my MA from TC, Columbia University in their Instructional Technology, Media and Design program after focusing on the various macro and micro factors that are essential to successful online course design, as well as a mechanism for collaborative faculty development. This work is essential to my work with collaborators. It was remarkably timely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which this framework was utilized in part as we moved hundreds of faculty online. I am a firm believer that online learning and education must be designed with the modality in mind- one cannot just copy and paste in-person materials into an online frame. We must take into account the limitations and affordances of a modality, and how that works in concert with the human element- prior knowledge, cognitive load and the like. I also believe that for design to be successful-one must be flexible with the mechanisms. For today’s learning to be successful, we must analyze and utilize the most effective learning framework, modality, and methodology. Each circumstance should take into account the goals, prior knowledge, motivation, affordances and limitations of the modality, and learning framework. We must adapt and change as we collaborate.

Extended Abstract

Students often report feeling “lost in the shuffle” in college courses, especially large lecture courses. For this reason (among others), these classes often have lower pass rates and result in lower student retention. Fixing this is a common struggle for college administration, especially as these courses tend to provide the foundational knowledge essential to progress and success in later courses in the department series. 

Learning Collectives are a methodology in which students are arranged into defined or organic collaborative groups to learn and support each other in their education. This uses a variety of resources including student-based (ie: study groups), focused around awareness and utilization of institutional resources (ie: Academic Support Centers and Counseling Centers). One such learning collective project, the “Freshman Year Experience” (FYE) had great reviews and significantly increased rates of increased student retention and success.

Learning Collectives have also been developed and integrated into courses themselves. The Queens College’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) facilitated several courses that utilized learning collectives as part of the pedagogy to great success. However, these were limited to the courses they were developed for, and we wanted to move towards a more encompassing strategy that targeted the areas that they would be most impactful for. Specifically, with our institutional project designed to increase student success rates in our STEM courses.

The introductory Biology courses (Biology 105 and 106) at Queens College are extremely in demand and are the gateway for many of our pre-med and STEM focused disciplines. Unfortunately, they also have the sad distinction of having some of the highest DFWI rates college-wide. Seeking to ameliorate this issue, the HSI-STEM Project launched an initiative to increase student success, retention, and overall access to higher education through (among other efforts), learning collectives. 

Biology 105/6 is structured as an extremely large lecture of over 300 students. One of the earlier projects of HSI-STEM was redesigning the labs to be taught in coordination with the lectures instead of independently. These corequisite labs focus on the in-practice concepts that are covered in the lecture. HSI-STEM launched a pilot initiative to incorporate targeted learning collectives into all sections of these course offerings. These projects involved both making defined learning collectives for groups of students, coordinated by a peer mentor who had recently completed the relevant course, as well facilitating students to connect to each other in organic learning collectives amongst themselves.

Organic Learning Collectives:

Faculty fostered organic learning collectives by giving students resources and frameworks to form learning collectives amongst themselves. For example, making a buddy system to go to peer mentor or faculty office hours to discuss areas of the coursework that they needed some clarification on. The peer aspect of the support ameliorated the intimidation factor that particularly affects first generation students and freshman who are often unfamiliar with that aspect of higher education. 

Organic learning collectives were also given information about creating internal chat and discussion forums including mobile-friendly platforms, and prompts to potentially consider on a given week. Peer mentors reached out to the learning collectives on a regular basis to support them and facilitate group collaboration. 

Defined Learning Collectives:

As part of a course, faculty members can also preselect groups to form defined learning collectives. These are designated groups of students who meet both inside and outside of class to collaborate together and review course material. Advantages to defined learning collectives are they are less likely to leave students behind, and ensure a defined structure. However, we have found that the defined learning collectives were less likely to continue beyond the course series as strongly throughout a student academic career. From our observations, the most impactful collectives were with peer mentors who facilitate the creation of organic community based learning collective, especially in STEM courses.

After the course series, support for student learning collectives continues. Building on prior implementations of learning collectives, the HSI-STEM Learning Commons is structured around supporting students throughout their STEM course progression. Students continue to be supported in similar ways in later courses in the series. The commons ensures that direct resources for supporting all levels of students exist. 


These projects are currently ongoing, and thus we do not currently have complete data at this time, however we expect to have more comprehensive data to present at the conference. The early results have shown to be promising. Thus far, student lecture and lab grades in the learning collectives cohort rose significantly compared to the control and overall DWFI rates decreased significantly for the learning collective cohort.  


There are plans to institutionalize and formalize the HSI-STEM Learning Collectives programs beyond the current grant funded instance. Funding is being secured through college resources to support not just the currently supported courses, but expanding to STEM courses in a wide variety of disciplines. Future plans also include launching similar learning collectives frameworks for other disciplines at the college as well. 

Level of Participation: 

This is a highly participatory session. Rather than lecture at the audience for 45 minutes, the presenters will frame the session around conversations of student success in STEM courses, particularly initiatives that increase student success rates for minority and other underrepresented groups. Throughout the session, the presenters will engage the audience through tools such as Mentimeter and the Zoom chat, and frame the conversation around that.

A large chunk of the session will also be spent in scaffolded engagement breakout rooms. Essentially, after presenting the problem to a large audience members will have the option of moving into a breakout room guided by a presenter focused on topics that the audience seemed most interested in earlier in the presentation.

To support and engage our audience at all levels, engagement during the session will be scaffolded. During the breakout rooms participants can also choose to engage: 

  • Discussing with the other members of the session via audio/video in Zoom
  • In the chat
  • By sharing resources and ideas in a shared collaborative resource page.

Session Goals: 

  • Importance of learning collectives, and how they can increase student success
  • Mechanisms of implementing Learning Collectives into courses and programs.
  • Understanding impact Learning Collectives can have specifically for STEM courses, especially for underrepresented groups.