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February 13, 2017

A&S Active Learning Initiative Hopes to Facilitate More Interactive Classrooms

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A $2.7 million grant, given to the College of Arts and Sciences by Alex and Laura Hanson ’87, will fund six new projects as part of the Active Learning Initiative in the departments of music, classics, economics, mathematics, physics and sociology.

ALI is a program launched during the fall of 2016 in response to new research discoveries saying that there are more effective ways to teach than through the traditional lecture-based format used throughout colleges across the country, according to the University.

“Many of our classes are taught today the same way they were 100 years ago: the professor stands at the front of the room and lectures students who quietly take notes,” said Prof. Douglas McKee, economics. “Our plan is to make our classrooms far more active by integrating problem-solving and discussion at a basic level.”

McKee, who led the proposal effort for his department to implement ALI, added that the initiative will facilitate more interactive resources and activities among professors and students to enhance the learning environment.

“Students will be expected to come to class ready to work, having done the reading and/or watched the preparatory videos,” McKee said. “Evidence shows this approach improves learning outcomes for students at all levels. We will use the lion’s share of the grant money to hire postdocs that will work with faculty to develop these resources and activities.”

The classics department will also focus on creating a classroom environment that is student-focused by organizing “entirely new materials and programs” that can allow for “[developing] classes that bridges and bring together two or more faculty in innovative ways,” according to Prof. Sturt Manning, classics.

“We hope to create classes and classrooms where students themselves are doing the discovering and discussing and they become the ones passionate and excited and involved in the topics and take ownership of the classes,” Manning said.

The classics department will also be transferring ALI resources “into new, larger classes so that a wider range of students can experience them,” said Prof. Courtney Roby, classics.

In the music department, ALI will “[encourage] students to learn via hands-on engagement at the keyboard,” as well as “play music and work through theoretical concepts while receiving real-time feedback,” added Prof. Roger Moseley, music. “The keyboards will function as ‘polyphonic clickers’ with which students can themselves provide digital and audible feedback to their instructors and peers,” Moseley said.

The physics department will be using the grant to improve labs in six introductory courses, directly impacting students’ exposure to physics classes at Cornell, according to Prof. Natasha Holmes, physics.

“We are planning to revise the labs to focus on skills such as critical thinking, experimental design and understanding data and models,” Holmes said. “The plan is to turn our labs into a creative and interactive environment where students are taking ownership of their work.”

The department of sociology is similarly hoping for more “peer-to-peer and student-instructor interactions,” according to Prof. Vida Maralani, sociology, while the department of mathematics will “[improve] student perception of mathematics as an inquiry-based discipline.”