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Event to showcase Active Learning Initiative, publicize new grants

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Arts Sciences Communications
October 17, 2016

Four years ago, the College of Arts Sciences launched the Active Learning Initiative (ALI) pilot project — which has delivered impressive results — in response to calls from the White House, the National Academies, the Association of American Universities, and an array of professional societies to improve college-level teaching in science and mathematics. In a showcase on Oct. 25 at 3:30 pm in Lewis Auditorium, faculty and students participating in the Active Learning Initiative will share their experiences and the impact on classroom success of the new pedagogy. The showcase coincides with the announcement of new College grants to encourage and facilitate high-impact learning practices, technology enhanced learning, and a culture of educational excellence at the departmental and College levels.

The Active Learning Initiative seeks to catalyze creativity and support sustainable innovation in teaching, explains Peter Lepage, director of education innovation and professor of physics. “The emphasis is on deeper and more frequent student-student and student-instructor interaction. This is not about the curriculum or the tools used but about a philosophy of teaching, with the instructor as facilitator of learning.”

The goal, says Lepage, is to re-envision courses as less about the acquisition of particular facts, and more about imparting an expert’s facility with the subject through deliberate practice of expert thinking/performance. A growing body of new research, from both cognitive psychology and college classrooms, show that this type of pedagogical approach is significantly more effective than the traditional lecture‐based format still used in most college teaching today. 

Gretchen Ritter, Harold Tanner Dean of Arts Sciences, will open the showcase.  “It’s encouraging to see the excellent results from the ALI pilot projects,” says Ritter. “We’re looking forward to receiving grant proposals for new active learning initiatives, taking the College’s long history of excellent education the next step towards the future.”

Also speaking will be Lepage and Julia Thom-Levy, provost’s fellow for pedagogical innovation and associate professor of physics . As she says, “Once I saw how much more effectively the students use their time in ALI courses, and how the lecture hall suddenly came to life, it became impossible for me to teach in any other way.”

Cornell’s physics department introduced active learning in an extensive revision of its large introductory physics sequence for engineers and physical scientists. Student performance in the new courses has exceeded expectations, with the average grade rising and the number of students with failing or marginal grades cut in half, or more. Tomas Arias, professor of physics, will speak at the showcase about these results. 

Two biology departments made substantial changes to selected large introductory biology courses. They found that grades and learning gains increased for all students in the new courses -- but that increase was much larger for students from under-represented minority (URM) groups, completely eliminating a performance gap between white and URM students. Kelly Zamudio, Goldwin Smith Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Ron Harris-Warrick, William T. Keeton Professor of Biological Sciences in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, will speak about their experience with these courses at the showcase.

The new round of grants is an opportunity to broaden the College’s effort within the sciences and mathematics to include the social sciences and the humanities — placing the college and Cornell in the vanguard of an emerging national movement. (The college is already funding a small-scale project in anthropology.)

Funding to substantially improve teaching and learning across significant dimensions of the undergraduate curriculum, particularly in large service courses, is available to departments at two levels: large, 3-6 year proposals involving a team of faculty and with the explicit purpose of affecting a sequence of important courses in a department’s curriculum; and seed proposals intended to allow departments to explore options that might lead to large-scale proposals. 

Grant pre-proposals two to five pages outlining major ideas, relevance of proposed changes and naming faculty members leading the proposed work are due on November 1. The RFP is available here.

Co-sponsors of the showcase, and the Active Learning Initiative, include the Center for Teaching Excellence, Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, Learning Strategies Center, and the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, and Physics.