University-wide Active Learning Initiative

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

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 is targeting 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.


The Classics Department joined the Active Learning Initiative in the Initiative’s second phase. The department, known for its teaching in small seminar-style and language courses, is interested in developing larger introductory courses with broad interest to the Cornell community based on an active learning model. With the help of a postdoctoral fellow, Classics has developed a new course, “Statues and Public Life,” transformed their large Mythology course, and is working on a new course on the history of writing. Their approach has been to offer structured activities that ask students to closely examine ancient literature, art and material culture, to compare these different forms of expression, as well as make connections between the past and the current day.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was one of the pioneers of the Active Learning Initiative in 2014. Department faculty were interested in using new teaching pedagogies to improve student learning in two, large introductory courses: Introduction to Ecology and the Environment (BioEE 1610) and Evolutionary Biology and Diversity (BioEE 1780). After choosing a gradual implementation approach, BioEE 1610’s instructors settled on a blend of lecture, polling, small-group discussion, and small-group activities in every class. For BioEE 1780, faculty decided to adopt Team Based Learning (TBL). 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 have launched an online active learning version of the Evolutionary Biology 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.


When the Department of Economics joined the Active Learning Initiative in 2017, they proposed an overhaul of their undergraduate curriculum that would transform seven of eight required core courses and one popular elective. Their goal is to improve student learning, particularly the ability to problem solve, analyze graphs, and create economic models.
Economics is redesigning the courses to include peer instruction with in-class polling, in-class small-group and large-group discussion. Additionally, some courses have implemented innovative approaches such as small-group invention activities and two-stage group exams. The department has placed a high priority on developing standardized assessments that they expect will become standard for the field.


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 is redesigning 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.

Information Science

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. They hired a lecturer to help transform the classes and develop a training program to introduce instructors to the new teaching methods. Students in Calculus I (Math 1110) now use much of their class time to work on problems either alone or in groups while their instructor provides guidance. Math 1106, recently renamed, “Modeling with Calculus for the Life Sciences,” has been tailored even further to a biology-centric audience. Students spend time in class modeling dynamical systems in the life sciences and working with their peers to solve problems. 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.

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.


The Music Department wanted to engage students in the learning process in new and innovative ways and to provide better ways for students to practice what they are learning. Their 2017 grant allowed them to introduce new technology in and out of the classroom with portable keyboards, polling questions, and custom software developed by their ALI postdoctoral fellow. In 2018, faculty began to introduce lightweight portable keyboards into a sequence of three music theory classes (Music 1105, 2101, and 2102) to help students explore new concepts and develop self-awareness about their playing through immediate feedback. The department predicts that this kind of practice will make abstract theories more understandable and will help students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of music and music theory. The postdoctoral fellow also developed online learning tools, which provide adaptive feedback to students outside of class.

Natural Resources

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 capstone courses that enable students to dive deeply into a semester-long group project. In a new course, Global Water Sustainability, students work collaboratively to develop and evaluate plans for improving water resource management, including engaging in direct dialogue with outside experts. In Climate Solutions, students 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.

Neurobiology and Behavior

The Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (NBB), also part of the first round of ALI funding, initially chose to transform Neurobiology and Behavior II: Introduction to Neuroscience (BioNB 2220), a course in the biology curriculum taught by a team of nine faculty. Two years later with the success of their first transformation underway, the faculty transformed Neurobiology and Behavior I: Introduction to Behavior (BioNB 2210), the first course in the two-course sequence. The department’s active learning fellow worked with each instructor to incorporate a few new techniques (e.g., Clicker questions, class discussion, pre-lecture videos). After implementing active learning, the department found that in most years the discrepancy in exam scores between 3-credit (no discussion section) and 4-credit students was so greatly reduced that the function of the discussion section as a tool to master basic concepts appeared to have been satisfied by active learning exercises in the classroom.


The Physics Department, one of the original departments funded through the ALI, focused their efforts on the core undergraduate sequence for physics and engineering majors (Phys 1112, 2213, and 2214). Teams of faculty worked on each course to develop a deliberate practice model in which students prepared ahead of time and worked in small groups on problem solving during the main class time. Today, students prepare for class by reading and completing online quizzes, and they spend about 50% of their time in class working on problem solving with other students. In 2017, the Physics department began a second phase of work that targets the transformation of the laboratory portions of five physics courses. These newly designed inquiry-based labs ask students to design experiments and analyze data in ways that guide them in grappling with many of the decision-making processes that experimental physicists encounter.

Plant Science

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 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.


Recognizing that its students come from diverse economic and social backgrounds and that they bring their deep-rooted beliefs about society with them, the Department of Sociology wanted to find new ways to help them to look at society from a sociological perspective. Funding through the ALI allowed the Department to hire two postdoctoral fellows to help transform two courses: Introduction to Sociology (Soc 1101) and Social Inequality (Soc 2208). The fellows worked with faculty to design instructional materials for the main class time and with graduate student TAs on the design, content, and pedagogy of discussion sections. They have introduced carefully designed in-class activities, polling questions, and peer discussion as a way for undergraduate students to challenge their preconceived beliefs about social processes, learn from their peers, and develop the skills to think critically about social structure, social dynamics, and the promises and pitfalls of social scientific modes of inquiry. They also designed and implemented a department-wide change in the training of graduate student, who represent the pipeline of future sociology faculty, on learning objectives, curriculum design, and active pedagogy.

Active Learning Initiative: Selected Research Publications

Active Learning Initiative: Media

NSF grants

Three NSF grants are building on discipline-based education research in ALI projects. Natasha Holmes (Physics) is expanding her work in an NSF project entitled “Equity in Undergraduate Physics Labs”. Dr. Holmes will also collaborate with Michelle Smith (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) on an NSF project to develop a critical thinking assessment for Ecology field labs. Doug McKee and George Orlov in Economics have also received an NSF grant to expand their ALI-initiated research in Economics education, specifically examining active learning and long-term knowledge retention.

Current Position Openings

There are no active position openings at this time.

Contact Information

Carolyn Aslan

G. Peter Lepage