The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Experiential learning via research projects in freshmen biological anthropology courses


Department of Anthropology, University of Washington

March 28, 2015 , Archview Ballroom Add to calendar

Experiential learning is a hallmark of effective instruction but is believed to be unfeasible in large (>100 students) courses. Because many universities utilize large lecture-based classes for their introductory anthropology courses, undergraduates’ initial exposure to anthropology often lacks opportunities to practice their learning. Since 2006, we have annually taught a large, introductory lecture course (Human Biological Diversity) that has, at its core, a group research project designed to engage students as scientists. We report herein on the difficulties, and more importantly, on the efficacy of this approach.

Most years, the students organize into groups that develop and implement a research project addressing some aspect of modern human biological variability. Each group is responsible for the proposal, data collection, analysis, oral presentation, and formal write-up. Projects range from the unimaginative (Does stature predict arm length?) to the trendy (Does classical music improve speed/accuracy of doing arithmetic?) to the innovative (Do males sort colored objects by shape, rather than color, more than females do?). Research projects are “expensive” because they require substantial teaching assistant and instructor time, so one year we attempted to replicate the course learning outcomes without the project.

The non-project year had a 10% reduction in exam grades, largely from questions that required more integrative thinking than rote response. In project years, the innovativeness of the research project did not, however, predict course grade. As a first step in an ongoing evaluation, this anecdotal evidence lends credence to the role of experiential learning in developing integrative thinking.