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Lessons From Probability: A Natural Experiment

headshot of Ranjini GroveAuthor:

  • Ranjini Grove, she/her, Associate Teaching Professor, Statistics, University of Washington, Seattle campus




Project Description

The focus of this project is to examine student perceptions on active learning in a probability class. It has been documented that STEM students often feel a lack of enthusiasm for active teaching strategies, with many describing high-quality, polished lectures as much more conducive to learning than activities such as groupwork. I was interested in comparing inherent attitudes on this topic among students enrolled in a traditional format probability class, with those of students in a class covering similar content, but designed with active learning components. The main findings are that student perceptions varied dramatically between the two classes. Students in the traditional format class expressed negative attitudes towards active learning/group work. However, students in the active learning section expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for it and also reported engagement in behaviors that demonstrated resilience and willingness to struggle.

Project Question

There exists by now, considerable evidence in favor of the benefits of groupwork and its impact on student learning and engagement. I was interested specifically in student attitudes towards groupwork as well as whether it could encourage them to become more resilient problem-solvers.


In Autumn 2023, I taught two sections of an Introduction to Probability course. The first, STAT 340, was a class of 50 students, all recent admits to the statistics major and in their junior year of study. The second, MATH/STAT 394 was a larger class of 120 students, representing a variety of mathematics and mathematics adjacent majors and years of study. Both classes were offered in person.


STAT 340 met 4 times a week, with a double period every Friday. This enabled me to design the class so students would work collaboratively in learning teams of 3-4 during the additional class period and solve a set of problems, answers to which would be presented in class the following Monday. MATH/STAT 394 only met 3 times a week for 50 minutes each, as is the norm for all undergraduate MATH classes. Students in MATH/STAT 394 were told to solve these problems on their own and submit their answers. Both classes were otherwise identical in terms of content, assessments, grading benchmarks, etc.

I administered a mid-quarter survey to assess attitudes towards groupwork as well as who they turned to when they encountered difficulties.


Both surveys had high response rates with about 72% of the students providing feedback in STAT 340 and 56% in MATH/STAT 394. Two clear sentiments emerged from their responses.

The first is that students in STAT 340 overwhelmingly described the weekly groupwork as very helpful and the aspect of the class which contributed most to their learning. On the other hand, the students in MATH/STAT 394 were not very enthusiastic, with many students describing groupwork as “not efficient”, “chaotic” and “time consuming”. A recurring theme was that mathematical concepts are best understood with individual thought and effort.

Responses to the question about “encountering difficulty” were also interestingly bifurcated. Students in 340 described contacting their group members when they encountered difficulties. In addition, they mentioned activities like “going back through lectures and practice examples”, “re-working similar problems” and only asking for help from the instructor/TA if these efforts led nowhere. On the other hand, students in MATH/STAT 394 by and large said they immediately turned to office hours and instructional staff for help.


Although the observational nature of the study design does not support making a causal statement about the benefits of active learning, the patterns in responses to the survey questions were quite striking. The main takeaway is that although students (particularly in the sciences) may have preconceived notions about the challenges and limitations of groupwork, a well-structured groupwork component with interesting, contextualized and open-ended problems may create a meaningful shift in their ability to be resourceful and engaging in activities that exhibit independence of thinking and effort.

Additional Insights

I specifically relied on a term-long learning group model in STAT 340 and the groups were formed early in the quarter using student input on their study preferences/habits. I preferred this model for this class since the students were all statistics majors and I wanted them to have the opportunity to develop meaningful, collaborative relationships with a subset of their peers. Their responses to the groupwork survey are consistent with the purported benefits of this team-based learning model.

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