The Active Learning Initiative supports departments in redesigning their courses to implement research-based active learning strategies and to create sustainable improvements to undergraduate education at Cornell. This project is motivated and informed by a large and growing body of new research from both cognitive psychology and college classrooms, identifying a variety of pedagogical approaches that are significantly more effective for student learning.
Initiated in 2013 with the help of Alex and Laura Hanson ’87 and initially overseen by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Active Learning Initiative has already impacted thousands of Cornell students. The first courses to be transformed were in the departments of Physics, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Neurobiology and Behavior. The efforts focused on introductory level courses taught in large lecture halls with between 100-375 students.
In 2017, the Active Learning Initiative expanded with new grants to the departments of Mathematics, Economics, Sociology, Classics, Anthropology, Music, and Physics. Twenty-eight courses will be transformed as part of the second phase of the initiative; most of them are large, introductory level courses with a total impact on thousands of students. The Phase II projects introduced alternative models for the implementation of active learning methods within a diverse set of academic subjects.
Phase III began in January 2019 with nine projects in departments from across the university (Biological and Environmental Engineering, Entomology, Information Sciences, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Plant Sciences, Natural Resources, Math, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Psychology). The newest round of projects involves 70 faculty members and will transform 40 courses, improving learning environments for 4,500 students. The Initiative is supported by Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and the Center for Teaching Innovation.
Active Learning Initiative Project Summaries
Information Science (IS) has experienced explosive growth in its undergraduate enrollments over the last several years. With a 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, the department will reimagine how to facilitate student learning in some of its largest and fastest growing courses. Six faculty members have committed to using innovative active learning techniques drawn from a variety of disciplines to transform six courses central to the IS curriculum over the next three years. These faculty plan to incorporate activities in and out of the classroom and to develop peer-programming and live-coding collaborations, interactive case studies, and group data visualization projects with the help of two teaching innovation postdoctoral fellows. A particular focus of this project is how to implement collaborative classwork and peer feedback with increasingly large class sizes. The planned changes will impact over 1,500 students enrolled in these courses.
The Mathematics Department began its involvement with the Active Learning Initiative in 2017 when it received a three-year grant to transform two introductory calculus courses and a proofs course. Together, these courses (supported by approximately 20 faculty, lecturers, and graduate students) serve over 900 students a year. With its 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, Math will significantly advance its work by transforming two linear algebra courses that provide foundational math knowledge for many fields and impact over 400 students a year. The redesigned courses will target improving students’ conceptual understanding as well as their ability to model real-life situations. Mathematics will also continue to develop its instructor training program. Seven faculty members and a new lecturer will lead this transformation over three years.
Biological and Environmental Engineering
The Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering recognizes that in order to succeed as engineers, students must leave Cornell with problem-solving skills that transcend fundamental and applied knowledge sets. Students must be able to transfer their skills and knowledge across courses and contexts to identify and develop solutions to complex problems. As part of its 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, the department will target four courses that focus on developing problem-solving skills in order to provide students with a “problem-solving toolbox.” This toolbox will serve beyond the immediate course and into meta-learning that spans biological engineering as a discipline, giving students a structure with many potential applications. Three faculty members and two postdoctoral fellows will transform three existing courses and develop one new course; about 200 students will take these courses every year.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was one of the pioneers of the Active Learning Initiative in 2014. Evolutionary Biology and Diversity (BioEE 1780) was one of two core introductory courses transformed over the course of the department’s five-year grant. Now funded through the 2019 Initiative, course faculty are taking active learning one step further. With the help of an ALI-funded postdoc, the instructors will launch an online active learning version of the course. The online class will run parallel to the in-class course during the school year and on its own in the summer. The instructors hope that the new version of the course will reach a broader and more diverse community of students without increasing the size of the already popular in-person course. This online course will also serve as a model for designing online courses that employ active learning strategies and for assessing the effectiveness of an online version when compared to the in-person course.
The Entomology Department wants students to learn the hows and whys of the scientific process while becoming critical consumers of scientific information. They also want students to learn to evaluate public policy discussions related to science through a multidisciplinary lens and be able to interpret and communicate scientific information to others. With three years of funding from the 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, Entomology will redesign three popular classes for non-majors (Alien Empire, Honeybee Biology, Plagues and People). The redesign will incorporate active learning modules that prompt students to practice thinking and communicating like scientists and to learn to evaluate scientific information. Four faculty members and a new teaching postdoc will be part of the transformation effort, which will reach over 300 students a year.
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Struck by the differences they observed between students’ work in class and in their engineering project teams, seven faculty members in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) have developed a plan to transform six courses taken by nearly all MAE students during their junior year. Funded by the Active Learning Initiative for four years, these faculty will combine the best elements of project teams and coursework through case-based learning. They plan to introduce each concept in class with a real-world engineering example, followed by classroom activities and open-ended or team-based assignments. Because all juniors must take these classes simultaneously, faculty will be able to introduce projects and assignments that span multiple courses, focusing on different aspects of the same engineering challenge. The transformed courses will give over 130 students a year a richer and more applied engineering experience.
When the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) was established in 2015, it significantly revised its 10-course, core undergraduate curriculum. In the four years since, the major has more than doubled in size. SIPS plans to transform their core curriculum with the help of a 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant by developing in-class activities, improving student learning, and providing faculty with resources to support these changes. These efforts will also target the laboratory components of the program by moving away from observational labs and towards experimental labs, where students make a hypothesis, design an experiment, collect and analyze data, and present their findings. The project will involve the work of 14 faculty and four postdocs over five years, with the resulting transformation of 10 courses, making it one of the largest ALI projects.
The new Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (ESS) major is a rapidly growing multidisciplinary major that includes 75 faculty from 22 departments across CALS and A&S. Through emphasizing cross-disciplinary perspectives, ESS faculty help students to think critically and work collaboratively with the goal of solving complex environmental problems. The 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant will allow them to redesign an online course on Climate Solutions and their Field Biology course, as well as develop new courses, including a capstone course that enables students to dive deeply into a semester-long group project. In a new course, Global Water Sustainability, students will work collaboratively to develop and evaluate plans for improving water resource management, including engaging in direct dialogue with outside experts. In Climate Solutions, students will identify, implement, and assess an individual climate action and a climate policy initiative. Students taking this course on campus will engage in discussions with students from around the world in a parallel MOOC class, and will receive extra training on cross-cultural communication and online interaction. The five faculty and two postdocs leading these efforts will share lessons widely within the ESS community to foster additional efforts to incorporate active learning approaches across a wide spectrum of courses.
The Psychology Department is poised to impact and engage a significant number of students as they implement active learning strategies in several of their undergraduate courses. Introduction to Psychology, one of the largest courses at Cornell, will be transformed as part of this grant. Given the size of the course (over 800 students), faculty aim to introduce polling questions and student discussion, while in smaller classes, they will implement more inquiry-driven group work. Faculty in the Psychology Department are interested in broadening the pedagogical strategies they use and want to have a wider impact on psychology education by targeting learning outcomes established by the American Psychological Association. Five faculty and two postdocs will be supporting this project.
Active Learning Initiative: Selected Research Publications
Ballen, C. J., & Greene, H. W. (2017). Walking and talking the tree of life: Why and how to teach about biodiversity. PLOS Biology, 15(3), e2001630. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2001630
Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing Diversity in Undergraduate Science: Self-Efficacy Drives Performance Gains with Active Learning. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 16(4), ar56. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-12-0344
Ballen, Cissy J., Aguillon, Stepfanie M., Brunelli, Rebecca, Drake, Abby Grace, Wassenberg, Deena, Zamudio, Kelly R., … Weiss, Stacey L. (2018). Do Small Classes in Higher Education Reduce Performance Gaps in STEM? BioScience, 68(8), 593–600. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy056
Ballen, Cissy J., & Zamudio, Kelly R. (2017). Active learning reduces misconceptions about evolution and promotes inclusivity in large classrooms. In Strategies for Teaching Large Classes Effectively in Higher Education. Cognella Academic Publishing.
Holmes, N. G., & Smith, E. M. (2019). Operationalizing the AAPT Learning Goals for the Lab. The Physics Teacher, 57(5), 296–299. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.5098916
Quinn, K. N., McGill, K. L., Kelley, M. M., Smith, E. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2018). Who does what now? How physics lab instruction impacts student behaviors. Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings 2018, 4. https://doi.org/10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Quinn
Quinn, K. N., Wieman, C., & Holmes, N. G. (2018). Interview validation of the Physics Lab inventory of Critical thinking (PLIC). ArXiv:1802.02424 [Physics]. http://arxiv.org/abs/1802.02424
Salehi, S., Burkholder, E., Lepage, G.P., Pollack, S., & Wieman, C. (2019 in press). Demographic gaps or preparation gaps? The impact of incoming preparation on performance of students in introductory physics. Physical Review Physics Education Research (highlighted as an Editors’ Suggestion).
Smith, E. M., Stein, M. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2018). Surprise! Shifting students away from model- verifying frames in physics labs. Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings 2018, 4. https://doi.org/10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Smith
Stein, M. M., Smith, E. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2018). Confirming what we know: Understanding questionable research practices in intro physics labs. Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings 2018, 4. https://doi.org/10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Stein
Walsh, C., N. Quinn, K., Wieman, C., & Holmes, N. G. (2019). Quantifying critical thinking: Development and validation of the physics lab inventory of critical thinking. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 15 (highlighted as an Editors’ Suggestion). https://journals.aps.org/prper/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.15.010135
Walsh, C., Quinn, K. N., & Holmes, N. G. (2018). Assessment of critical thinking in physics labs: concurrent validity. Presented at the 2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings. https://www.compadre.org/PER/items/detail.cfm?ID=14862
Active Learning Initiative: Media
Active Learning Initiative funds nine projects (2019). Cornell Chronicle.
Active learning connects past, present in new classics course. (2019). Cornell Chronicle
Sociology department launches Active Learning Initiative (2018). Cornell Chronicle.
Professors, students laud active learning Physics lab course (2018). Cornell Chronicle.
Active Learning Initiative Goes University-Wide. (2018). Cornell Alumni Magazine.
G. Peter Lepage