Michelle Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

Professor McKee utilizes the active learning initiative in Economics 3120: Applied Econometrics lecture.

February 8, 2019

Active Learning Initiative Aims to Improve Student Learning

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The Active Learning Initiative, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to on-campus programs aimed at advancing classroom learning using new techniques to up student engagement.

According to Prof. Julia Thom-Levy, vice provost for academic innovation, the initiative’s competitive grants subsidize methods such as clicker questions, group discussions and in-class activities that are meant to transform classes and incorporate research-based techniques. The third and most recent iteration of the grant competition was open to all colleges for the first time.

This initiative provided support and grants ranging from $195,000 to almost $1 million, spread over three to five years, according to Prof. Peter Lepage, physics. Funding now reaches about 100 faculty members in 16 departments, seven of which are new this year, across four colleges.

“The Active Learning Initiative really tries to draw on the science of how people learn, retain and are able to use information,” said Prof. Vida Maralani, sociology. “All I’ve really done is taken the words I say and converted them into words you will say through activities I’ve created.”

“The research shows that when students do these kinds of activities, the learning sticks for a lot longer and the students have a much deeper understanding of what’s going on,” Prof. Doug McKee, economics, told The Sun.

Thom-Levy described her experience as “going from being a lecturer and talking at the audience for an hour to being a coach.” She also said that active learning lowers the barrier between professors and students.

“You get immediate feedback, and also you can give immediate feedback to the students,” Thom-Levy said.

Data from the first iteration showed that, in each case, everyone from the weakest to the strongest students moved up by more than half a letter grade with better learning strategies.

According to Maralani, the sociology department has collected baseline information about its introductory courses and has just begun to introduce active learning. Her department focuses a large part on training graduate teaching assistants in order to promote the long-term expansion of active learning.

“The graduate students of today are the professors of tomorrow,” Maralani told The Sun.

The economics department has developed studies as well as seven assessment techniques that McKee hopes will become standards in economics.

“Every semester we teach these classes, we continue to measure outcomes, we continue to refine,” McKee said. “We want to share what we’ve learned going through this with the field as a whole.”