Transforming how students learn

The University of Georgia (UGA) is implementing an active learning model to increase student engagement, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Research shows that active learning—a student-centered approach that encourages students to collaborate and reflect on how knowledge is constructed—leads to greater academic success compared to traditional lecturing, and can narrow attainment gaps among students from underrepresented groups. 

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UGA defines active learning as an “approach rather than a method” that incorporates different teaching and assessment practices and techniques based on the foundational work of Kathryn Patricia Cross and Thomas A. Angelo in Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (1993). Active learning techniques range from simple reflection activities (where students think critically about how and what they’re learning) to more complex case-based and inquiry learning (where students apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios and investigate real world problems).

To integrate active learning on campus, UGA has budgeted over $1 million to transform several traditional classrooms with fixed tables and chairs into more flexible active learning spaces that facilitate discussions, project-based learning, and other peer engagement activities. Other initiatives include providing opportunities for students to navigate and thrive in an active learning environment, such as the University Housing’s Residential Curriculum for on-campus student residents that blends community building, interpersonal skills, social awareness and responsibility, and well-being so that students can succeed inside and outside the classroom. UGA also plans to expand its professional development programs, such as the Active Learning Summer Institute, a three-week intensive course open to full-time faculty members. Faculty accepted into the program receive a $7,500 stipend to teach the course they’ve redesigned during the summer institute. 

These efforts are focused on “creat[ing] an environment in which our undergraduate students can’t help but encounter active learning somewhere across their curriculum,” Meg Mittelstadt, director of UGA’s teaching center, tells The Chronicle.

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Transforming teaching culture

The push toward active learning is part of UGA’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which UGA’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, requires from all of its member institutions as part of its reaffirmation process. Most U.S. colleges and universities offer professional development programs focused on teaching faculty members quick “tips and tricks” because they are run through departments operating on shoestring budgets. UGA’s plans to invest in more intensive professional development programs that ensure professors implement active learning approaches are particularly ambitious, teaching experts tell the Chronicle. If successful, UGA’s efforts could encourage other universities to make similar investments.

The implementation of active learning approaches has yielded positive results in large gateway courses meant to weed out students pursuing demanding majors. UGA instructors who attended the Active Learning Summer Institute redesigned their introductory physiology courses to encourage more in-class collaboration, resulting in a drop in its DFWI rate—or the number of students who got a D or F grade, withdrew from the course (“W”), or whose progress was recorded as incomplete (“I”)—from 19% to 11%. Active learning approaches in precalculus and calculus I classes led to a combined 750 more students passing the courses each year. The math department was awarded an active-learning change grant so that professors can incorporate active learning throughout the full calculus sequence. Institutional support, such as UGA’s investment in professional development and the support it offers its faculty, is crucial to changing teaching culture and adopting active learning approaches that boost student success, experts tell the Chronicle.

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