ASU study finds active learning can alleviate depression for undergraduates

May 4, 2023

Increasingly, college courses are transitioning from traditional lecture to active learning because research shows that students learn more and struggle less when they engage in activities and discussions in class. 

However, new ways of teaching and learning can also bring new sets of challenges and opportunities.  A group of students participating in active learning, surrounding a table and looking at and writing on a piece of paper. “We know that active learning courses, where students are engaging with content and their peers rather than passively listening to the instructor, can affect students' anxiety,” said PhD candidate Carly Busch. Photo courtesy Pexels Download Full Image

In a new study published in Life Sciences Education, Arizona State University researchers Katey Cooper, Tala Araghi and Carly Busch highlight how active learning has the potential to both alleviate and exacerbate depressive symptoms in undergraduates. 

“It was encouraging to find that, despite the negative impact that depression can have on learning, active learning courses can have a positive impact on students’ depression,” Cooper said.

“Specifically, we found that engaging students in learning, providing frequent opportunities to successfully solve problems, giving students opportunities to seek social and academic support from their peers and allowing them chances to realize that other students struggle too was protective against depressive symptoms.” 

Cooper is an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences and a program director of biological education research in the Center for Biology and Society

Busch is a PhD candidate in biology and society in the Cooper Biology Education Research Lab. Over the years, the Cooper Lab has examined how new ways of teaching, including active learning, result in novel challenges and advantages for undergraduate science students.  

Araghi graduated in 2022 with a degree in biological and biomedical sciences and as a member of Barrett, The Honors College. Busch served as Araghi’s mentor as she carried out her honors thesis in the Cooper Lab, which resulted in the depression and active learning study.

“Based on prior work from our group, we know that active learning courses, where students are engaging with content and their peers rather than passively listening to the instructor, can affect students' anxiety, but it was unknown what aspects of these courses exacerbate or alleviate their depressive symptoms,” Busch said. 

Depression is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a mood disorder that results in persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. In 2019, a nationwide survey revealed that 39% of undergraduates met the clinical criteria for major depressive disorder. This number increased to over 45% during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To characterize the relationship between active learning and undergraduate depression, Cooper, Araghi and Busch conducted a national exploratory interview study of 29 undergraduates who identify as having depression and who have been enrolled in at least one in-person active-learning college science course. 

“I had the opportunity to connect with undergraduates all over the country and understand how impactful instructors’ decisions and teaching styles are to the severity of their depression. I began to understand that if we could uncover how teaching styles both exacerbate and alleviate symptoms of depression, we could come up with ways to make learning spaces more inclusive for students with depression,” Araghi said.

Undergraduate students who participated in the study described an array of ways that their depression makes it challenging for them to learn content in active-learning college science courses. 

The study identified four specific aspects of active learning that have an effect on students' depressive symptoms: opportunities to compare self with others, socializing with others while learning, frequent formative evaluation and engagement in learning. 

Each of these aspects have the potential to both alleviate or exacerbate a student's depression symptoms, especially when acknowledging that depression symptoms are not uniformly consistent day to day. 

For example, asking students to participate in a high-engagement activity can help students experiencing depression symptoms by distracting them from negative self-talk and generating more social interaction. However, high-engagement activities require more energy and mental bandwidth and can sometimes feel draining and overwhelming for students experiencing depression symptoms. 

“When you look out into your class, it’s reasonable to believe that at least one-third of your students are struggling with depression. For me, that means at least 100 undergrads in my class. So, hearing all of the positive and negative ways that active learning can impact student depression really made me think deeply about the decisions I make as an instructor, how far-reaching they are and the importance of making choices that have a positive effect,” Cooper said.

Overall, active learning has the power to serve as a positive and encouraging practice for student learning, especially among students who experience anxiety or depression, and by maintaining mindfulness of student experience and making additional small adjustments, teachers and educators can increase this effectiveness and improve the learning experience for their students. 

“A particular strength of this study is that through these recommendations, we can continue implementing active learning across college science courses, but do so in a way that is thoughtful about the experiences of students with depression,” Busch said.

In the example of high-engagement teaching activities, the study suggests that instructors consider giving students the opportunity and flexibility to opt out when they need to preserve their resources on days when their depression symptoms are severe. 

Even though active learning has the potential to exacerbate depressive symptoms, I remain a tremendous proponent of teaching in active learning ways, because of the profoundly positive impact it can have on student performance,” Cooper said. 

“Our study suggests that by making small changes to how we teach, we have the opportunity to avoid inadvertently exacerbating depressive symptoms. This work provides clear recommendations for how to develop active-learning courses in ways that maximize students' mental health.”

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


ASU grad pairs history major, robotics engineering at Polytechnic campus

May 4, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Chloe-Marie H. Fox is graduating with concurrent bachelor’s degrees from Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus that may seem like a mixed-media mashup: one in history (with a focus on religion) from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and the other in robotics engineering from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Headshot of Chloe-Marie Fox. Chloe-Marie Fox missed taking humanities classes so added a concurrent major in history to her robotics engineering major at ASU Polytechnic campus. Fox is continuing her studies at ASU in the Master of Science in robotics and autonomous systems (systems engineering). Photo by Henry Lu/ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Download Full Image

“The first is my passion, and I picked it up for fun and the love of learning,” Fox said. “The second is my career.”

Fox, who is also a student in Barrett, The Honors College, grew up in Mesa, Arizona, and always had her sites set on ASU.

“I couldn’t wait to be a Sun Devil like my mum! My mum and Uncle Joseph both graduated from ASU and I wanted to follow in their footsteps.”

Fox entered ASU with a declared major in robotics engineering and 30 credits, due to the early college program available during high school in partnership with Chandler Gilbert Community College.

“So as a freshman, I had already completed most all of my humanities credits and was taking solely science, math and engineering courses,” explained Fox, who got hooked on engineering at a VEX Robotics event at a local library where the kids were tasked with designing their own robots to pick up blocks. “I had enjoyed that event so much that my mum signed me up for a robotics camp at ASU my sophomore year of high school and it just solidified for me that I wanted to be a robotics engineer. But I realized my first year at ASU that I missed taking humanities courses.

“I did some digging into the major maps and realized that most of my transfer credits worked with the history major,” Fox said. “I was ecstatic! I loved learning about history in high school and couldn’t wait to dive into more specific topics! So I applied for concurrent degrees and here we are!”

Fox said it feels amazing to be pursuing opposite majors.

“They may not seem to go together in a normal way, but they both help me view the world in different realms and thus I get to see the bigger picture.”

The beauty and applied learning at ASU Polytechnic campus really agreed with Fox, who said a favorite spot on campus for studying or meeting friends was the Innovation Hub classrooms.

“No matter what subject it was or if we were all working on different classes, that is where we would meet and it was amazing." 

Fox shared some more about her ASU experience and future plans.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: Truthfully, I have learned a lot. I have learned about so many different historical events, religions and all sorts of academic knowledge. I have learned a lot about myself, too. Like, coffee is amazing and helps to write papers, and that I think I needed both subjects — history and engineering — to feel well rounded in my academic career. I love to learn, and to be able to graduate with two degrees showcases my love of the pursuit of knowledge.

Q: Thinking back, what do you think is the most interesting moment or story or accomplishment in your ASU journey?   

A: I love to read, so any book that is required for a class I keep. I have a mini library of historical and engineering textbooks. If I get immersed into a book, once I finish the book I’ll then immediately tell my friends and end up giving a mini lecture about what it was. My friends are not history majors, but they fully listen to the stories I tell them. I received the best compliment from one of them, who said the way I engage in the history lesson and how I light up telling them information makes it interesting to learn about history, when they previously did not care for the subject. It was nice to be told that my passion for history is shown when I talk about it, and I take that as a big accomplishment.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU and what was it?

A: Out of all my professors I really enjoyed Dr. Debra Neill’s classes, HST 361: Witchcraft and Heresy in Europe and HST 309: Exploration and Empire. I think the valuable lesson I learned from her classes is that there are always two sides to the story. As historians we must look at every angle to see the full picture. There is always more to learn.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: One: Do not wait until the last minute to write a 10-page paper — it worked out for me due to the sheer volume of coffee consumed, but I don’t recommend it. Two: There is always more to learn. Three: "First do what is necessary. Then do what is possible. And before you know it you are doing the impossible." — A quote by Saint Francis Assisi. That quote has kept me going and now I am graduating with two majors and am working toward a master’s degree. You can do anything you want to do; just start in small steps and soon you’ll be taking strides.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be continuing my education by pursuing my Master of Science in robotics and autonomous systems (systems engineering).

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: My first thought is how to teach others to be open minded. How can we teach others to look for the full truth of the matter? How can money go toward that?

My second thought would be using the money to create a device that would purify water so that people can have access to clean water. The money would go to design and implementation of devices in countries that need it.

Maureen Roen

Director of Communications, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts