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From Martha Pollack

Active Learning Initiative Goes University-Wide


One of my priorities for Cornell from the very beginning has been to champion initiatives that offer what I’ve called “education with verve.” I was pleased to find a strong and growing Active Learning Initiative (ALI) already under way when I arrived, and I’m excited that we are about to take it University-wide with generous support from Alex Hanson ’87 and his wife, Laura Finlay Hanson ’87.

The idea began six years ago, when the College of Arts & Sciences, in partnership with our Center for Teaching Innovation and with support from the Hansons, awarded grants to the Department of Physics and a consortium of biology departments to turn traditional lecture-based classroom education on its head.

Haskins teaches to a small group of students

TEACHING TOOLS: An Intro to Sociology course taught by Anna Haskins is among the classes that have participated in the Active Learning Initiative.Jason Koski/University Photography

Bolstered by research that identified new pedagogical techniques that are more effective than traditional lectures, the two groups converted their large introductory course sequences to an active learning format. Students did prep work ahead of time, reading material or watching short videos and taking a graded online quiz the night before each class. During class time, the professor began with a short lecture followed by a challenging problem for the students to work on individually, submitting their results via an audience response system like a clicker. The students then discussed the problem in small groups and again reported their results with a clicker. The professor would respond to what the results showed about the class’s understanding of the problem, and the sequence would begin again. While all this was happening, teaching staff would circulate in the auditorium to offer advice and assess students’ understanding.

With more interactions between students and between students and faculty—and with technologies such as audience response systems and online active learning in the mix—the students not only did better than their predecessors in traditional course formats, but also enjoyed the experience more. The same was true for faculty, who reported that they enjoyed teaching in this new way and that they connected better with their students.

So far, ALI has worked with more than seventy faculty in nine departments on more than thirty courses that affect thousands of students each year. Its power is being demonstrated not only in STEM fields, but also in the social sciences and the humanities. There are no other models for pedagogical change that have been shown to work on this scale. Departments from across the University will have their next opportunity to compete for ALI grants this fall; a request for proposals was released this summer. These grants will allow departments to improve significant parts of their undergraduate teaching, particularly in large service and gateway courses and other core curricula.

Creating an active-learning course from scratch is a significant undertaking. As with all classes, faculty need to develop clear learning goals, but they often also need to design large amounts of new material for the active learning classroom, and create tools for assessing the impact of the new instructional methods. Our Center for Teaching Innovation and postdoctoral teaching fellows in the subject area, who also engage with faculty in discipline-based education research on data gathered from the course, will play critical roles in the process.

There are other innovations that we can implement in the future. For example, by applying analytic techniques and tools to student data from these courses, we can continue to improve learning outcomes and give faculty early warning systems to help keep students on track. Through the discipline-based education research that we expect faculty members will carry out as they implement new approaches, we can stimulate the development and improvement of active learning far beyond Cornell.

I’m grateful to the Hansons for their continued support of ALI and excited for the future as we solidify Cornell’s position as a national leader in active learning and in providing education with verve.

Martha E. Pollack