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Active learning model changing the culture

Alan Flurry

The Chronicle of Higher Education spotlights innovative efforts at UGA in active learning that are setting a new course for student achievement on campus – and beyond. 

Many of our colleagues are leading engagement in the scholarship and practice of improving student outcomes, from the Active Learning Summer Institute, to the school of art and the math department:

Getting students in a photography course to exercise their creativity is one thing. But active-learning advocates have also argued that the approach can help solve one of higher ed’s most stubborn problems: Getting more students through the foundational courses that have historically weeded many out. Teach those courses differently, research has shown, and students won’t just learn more — more of them will pass, and be able to keep pursuing their degrees.

But teaching those core courses differently is logistically complicated, with often hundreds of students enrolled and multiple instructors teaching sections that are more or less aligned. These courses are high stakes for students but also for departments since subsequent courses are designed on the premise that students have already learned particular content and skills. And there’s no way around it: Overhauling a foundational course is just a lot of work.

With the right support, though, it’s possible. Take, for example, the experience of the instructional team that teaches Elements of Physiology, an introductory course that enrolls some 300 students.

Until this past fall, intro to physiology followed a standard lectures-and-exams format. Then one instructor who’d taught the course for many years and another who was new to it were accepted into the summer institute.

The instructors, Karen Wells and Dax Ovid, designed a new, weekly rhythm for the course, with “Muddy Mondays,” (going over the most confusing point from the previous week), “Working Wednesdays” (doing activities to practice applying the material), and “Freaky Fridays” (reviewing the most-missed quiz question). The idea was to give students lots of collaborative practice to deepen their understanding of the material.

Many students come into college expecting to be tested on problems very similar to the ones they completed in homework or during class. College-level work, though, often requires applying concepts to a fresh problem. Giving students lots of practice on the hardest concepts, the instructors figured, would provide better preparation.

Early results suggest they were right. The last time Wells and another instructor taught the old version of the course, its “DFW rate” — the percentage of students who received a D or an F, or withdrew — was 19 percent. In the redesigned version, with the same two instructors plus Ovid, the DFW rate dropped to 11 percent. In a class of about 300, that translates to roughly 25 additional students passing the course.

Kudos to our colleagues for this recognition of their work, and more importantly, for working to advance higher education.

Image: CHE


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