Innovative Approaches to Teaching


Exciting things are happening in classrooms throughout the College of Arts & Sciences as new approaches to teaching spread through the disciplines, fueled by research pointing the way to better pedagogical approaches. The push towards creative classroom approaches has come from professors and departments deeply committed to their teaching mission. In response, the College has provided support and funding to make innovative pedagogy possible in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

In active learning classrooms throughout the College, the emphasis is on hands-on activities and frequent student-student and student-instructor interactions through methods such as discussion or problem solving with a partner or small group and the use of technology like iClicker audience response systems and smartphone apps to enhance learning.

"The College of Arts & Sciences' commitment to active learning and education innovation is impressive and its successes are important for the entire University" says Julia Thom-Levy, Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and associate professor of physics.

Physics professor Julia Thom-Levy discusses her experience shifting Mechanics and Thermal Physics to an Active Learning Initiative course.

Faculty are re-conceptualizing their courses in large and small ways; it needn't be a complete course overhaul to make a difference to student learning, points out Peter Lepage, director of education innovation and Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics. "You can introduce active learning into your course over several years, dip your toe in the pond, and decide whether to dive in. What's exciting is that people who try it seriously generally want to do a lot more."

The active learning approach to teaching is simply more fun than the traditional mode, an aspect not emphasized often enough by advocates, says Lepage. "If you talk to the people who have totally converted they can't imagine going back, and the reason is because their classroom experience is utterly transformed. And it's because the students are alive. You're interacting with them – all of them, not just the three that come up after class. It's incredibly energizing."

And classes are more engaging not only for the professor. "Students have a lot more fun with active learning," says Doug McKee, senior lecturer in economics. "When they're there actually playing with the material and connecting it to what they know and talking to their peers about it in the classroom, most – though not all – students enjoy that process much more than just sitting there and taking notes."

Faculty Innovations in Teaching

A&S faculty have been finding effective, creative methods to engage students in the classroom since well before the College's Active Learning Initiative (ALI) launched in 2013. Jed Sparks, ALI project lead for biology, has long incorporated improvisation as well as interactive activities in his biology classes.

Math 1300: Math Explorations, taught in alternate years by Steve Strogatz, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, and Tim Riley, associate professor of mathematics, is based on an engaged learning approach called inquiry-based learning, developed at Westfield (Massachusetts) State University. The professors pose questions, problems or scenarios, rather than simply presenting established facts, and encourage students to work things out on their own. Riley notes that although it can be frustrating for students when the professors answer questions with "what do you think?" it spurs deeper learning.

Riley uses active learning in different ways in different courses. For Introduction to Topology 4530 he provides the class with the skeleton of a textbook; the students take the initial definitions and work out how to develop the theory and fill in the gaps. "The biggest challenge is to convince the students that it's okay to come to the board and make mistakes," says Riley. "Formulating conjectures, uncovering errors, putting them right, and thereby progressing towards a fuller understanding is how mathematics is done."

Associate Professor of Music Roger Moseley helped revamp the music department's curriculum, integrating experiential learning into classes. Students in his Music 2102: Tonal Theory II use keyboards in class to explore music theory; in Associate Professor Andrew Hicks' MUSIC 1101: Elements of Music," students experiment with the ideas they've been discussing.

"The exercises were a way for us to loosen up and have fun with learning, and getting a chance to dance, sing and play ancient instruments allowed me to actually explore the elements of music rather than just read about them," says Yabework Kifetew '19, an urban and regional studies major in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning who took Elements of Music.

Notes McKee, "Students remember more and learn more deeply when they're actively engaged with the material. Instead of just listening and recording, they're playing with it and solving problems with it and actively figuring out how to connect it to what they already know. And when you do that, it sticks longer and you develop a much deeper understanding of what's being taught than just a set of terms. And that's what we're going for."

In government Professor Suzanne Mettler's GOVT 1111: Introduction to American Government and Politics class, students simulate the real U.S. Senate budget process, with each student taking on the role of a real congressperson.

"A common theme throughout the semester was, why does Congress get nothing done? Why is there so much gridlock?" says Phoebe Keller '18, who played Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Having to play the characters and make compromises that they would make, [knowing] you'd have to bring home all the decisions to your constituents … it was really revealing."

The Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology has incorporated recent pedagogical advances into a number of preparatory classes and into the Pre-Freshman Preparatory (PSP) program as well.

"Students participating in the PSP not only have greater success in freshman chemistry, but also show improvement in their other courses," notes Brian Crane, the George W. and Grace L. Todd Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor.

Active Learning Initiative

The Arts & Sciences Active Learning Initiative (ALI) launched in 2013, thanks to the generosity of Alex and Laura Hanson, Class of 1987. The initial five-year pilot project's goal was to transform three introductory courses in physics and four in biology using the pedagogical model advocated by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman. In this model, knowledge transfer occurs via homework assignments – videos, readings, online exercises and quizzes -- outside the classroom rather than during in-class lectures. Class time is then focused on applying the new knowledge via problem-solving, experiments and reasoning practice to give students experience making and testing predictions and solving problems. The goal is for students to learn to think like someone in the discipline – like an economist or physicist or historian.

Audience response systems, such as iClickers, enable instructors to assess whether students have absorbed what is being taught. "It's surprisingly difficult to know what your students are actually learning when you lecture," says McKee. "Every professor has a story where they say, I thought I gave this great lecture, and then as I was leaving the classroom I heard one student say to the other one, 'now, what exactly did he mean when he said X?'" And X was the most basic point you were trying to make! That's disappointing. Tools like the iClicker give you feedback in the moment that you can use immediately."

Rigorous assessments of what students actually learn, built into the course in an integral way, is another important element of active learning. So-called "deliberate practice" in active learning classrooms is another technique designed to lead to student mastery. This includes feedback from the teacher and fellow classmates, so that students learn to critique their own reasoning and think about problems the way an expert would. The peer interaction forces students to explain their thinking and to consider other points of view, helping them integrate new information. Recent research shows that the extent to which students engage in deliberate practice is more important to their ultimate success than their initial interest or talent for a subject.

Assistant Professor of Physics Natasha Holmes likes to quote one of her students, who said, "Compared to all my other classes, this [active learning] class made me feel like a scientist."

Measured results from the ALI courses at Cornell have shown significant improvements in student learning, with grade improvements across the board. The biggest gains come from students who had been receiving poor grades, according to Ron Harris-Warrick, the William T. Keeton Professor of Biological Sciences in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.

Cornell University Biological Sciences professor Ron Harris-Warrick discusses his experience shifting Introduction to Neuroscience to an Active Learning Initiative course.

Adds McKee, who is project lead for the economics department's ALI project, "Research shows that learning gains are actually higher for underrepresented minorities and women than they are for white males. Not only is active learning a way to lift the average, it's a way to reduce inequality."

The success of the ALI project was recently recognized by the university when it honored physics professor Tomas Arias with a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship for his leadership in transforming Cornell physics courses to the ALI model.

But the ALI approach is not necessarily appropriate for all classes. Riley, for example, has found that his graduate courses work better with the traditional lecture format. "There's no way to do active learning that works in all settings," he notes.

And lecturing still has an important role in active learning, whether as an introduction to an activity or as a wrap-up at the end of class, where students are invited to show how they solved a problem, after which the professor explains how an expert would have handled the problem.

Cornell University biology alumnus in the College of Arts & Sciences, Nnana Amakiri '17, discusses his experience taking an Active Learning Initiative class from Professor Ron Harris-Warrick and how it differentiates from other traditional classes he's taken in his major.

"One of the benefits of the ALI is that there's a number of us trying to do things in a number of different disciplines, and we have a lot of shared methods and strategies and challenges. The fundamentals of how people learn, when you think about how the brain actually works, are pretty much the same across the board," says Holmes. "On the other hand, there are elements of a discipline that are unique -- there are things a physics professor wants a student to be able to do in physics that a biologist or humanities professor may not care about."

ALI draws on the enthusiasm of the faculty already engaged in educational innovation, offering the opportunity to engage with pedagogy in a better resourced context, says Lepage. ALI focuses on big projects as well as supporting seed projects within departments, such as the Department of Anthropology's new Global Gateways course sequence.

"We've targeted big, important courses which are frequently large because large courses are more difficult to teach well. It's a place we can make big improvements. We're also trying to target visible courses to enrich the teaching culture and expand on it," says Lepage. "If you can make these changes in big classes, which are the obvious target, you can do them in smaller classes, too."

ALI provides training and resources to faculty so they can succeed and can also become resources for other professors. Rather than creating its own training staff, the ALI project leaders decided to invest instead in the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI), where extensive expertise in pedagogy already existed. All the ALI support staff – those who do assessments and training -- are situated either in the departments or in CTI. "The teaching issues in A&S are the same as other colleges have, so we decided to build up the center rather than creating expertise elsewhere," says Lepage.

CTI support for ALI includes one-on-one consultations with faculty about their courses, teaching methods and strategies, helping to plan student assessments, and providing feedback based on course observations. They offer faculty institutes and workshops that teach and demonstrate active learning strategies, including one titled "Flipping the Classroom Institute."

"Faculty invite us to observe their classes and to collect data on the type and amount of active learning strategies used during class. This helps them to document the changes and provides feedback," says Carolyn Aslan, CTI teaching support specialist. "We also facilitate focus groups with students in ALI courses to discover what is working well and what can be improved and report this information back to the instructors."

Cornell University biological sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences, Clara Liao ‘17, discusses her experience taking an Active Learning Initiative class from Professor Ron Harris-Warrick and how it differentiates from other traditional classes she’s taken in her major.

New Initiatives

A $2.7 million expansion of the college's Active Learning Initiative has launched six new projects in the Departments of Music, Classics, Economics, Mathematics, Physics, and Sociology, thanks to the generosity of Alex and Laura Hanson, Class of 1987. These new initiatives will have an impact on thousands of students each year.

The music department project takes advantage of new technologies and reflects the keyboard's historically important role in the acquisition and deployment of digital techniques. By networking keyboards in a classroom environment and registering their input via a new software platform to be developed to fit the specific needs of Cornell's faculty and students, the project will enable instructors to gain deeper and more granular insight into how students absorb theoretical concepts—and, just as importantly, how they learn to deploy them in their own music-making endeavors, according to Roger Moseley, assistant professor of music and project lead.

"The creation and performance of music has always involved active learning," he said. "But by enabling students to put theoretical concepts into practice at the keyboard while their instructors and peers provide real-time feedback, the proposed software platform promises to revolutionize how musical thought can be framed, grasped, and made audible."

The sociology project will infuse several large, lower-division introductory courses with active learning; every year, more than 1,000 students from across Cornell take such courses in sociology. According to Associate Professor Vida Maralani, co-lead for the project, these students are socially and economically diverse, in part because the topics covered in sociology's introductory courses – like inequality, race and ethnicity, gender, and immigration -- resonate with students from many different backgrounds.

"The more we can actively engage our students, the more opportunities we provide for students to challenge their preconceived beliefs about social processes, learn from their peers, and develop the skills to think critically about social structure, social dynamics, and the promises and pitfalls of social scientific modes of inquiry," said Maralani. As part of the project, a database of activities will be developed that can be used by faculty and teaching assistants to infuse their courses with active learning strategies. "We're excited to develop materials for our introductory courses and to learn how to effectively transfer these strategies across different instructors of the same course," said project co-lead Kim Weeden, Jan Rock Zubrow '77 Professor in the Social Sciences and chair of sociology.

The economics project will overhaul the entire core curriculum for training undergraduates in economics and related disciplines, infusing seven required core courses and one popular elective course with evidence-based teaching techniques that improve both student learning and retention. In most economics departments, the subject is taught primarily in a pure lecture style. Yet, said project lead Doug McKee, senior lecturer, research has shown over and over in STEM fields that active learning methods lead to improved learning and "we see every reason these findings should apply in our field too."

McKee said that the project will place a strong emphasis on evaluation, both quantitative and qualitative. "As we try new methods with new courses and faculty it will be critical to know what's worked and what hasn't," he noted. "That means investing in good student assessments and carefully looking at the effects of our changes on the whole range of students that take our classes." A&S Biology major Nnana Amakiri '17 discusses his experience taking an Active Learning Initiative class.

The classics project will create courses that give foundational windows into major themes/areas in classics with wider cultural and historical relevance and as vehicles by which a specific topic area can address broad learning aims. The courses will offer immersion in a set of sources and intellectual topics, ancient and modern. "We're excited about the opportunity to take a core strength of our discipline -- close classroom engagement with students in exploring complex ideas collaboratively -- and scale it up so many more students can have those experiences," said Courtney Roby, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies for classics.

Roby added that the courses will be designed to be team taught, offering a broader spread of expertise and illustrating there are plural approaches to all material and topics. "A long-term value of the project will be the skills that we as a faculty develop and can then share amongst ourselves. We're looking to build a lasting culture of creative active-learning course design that will benefit our students for years to come," she said.

The mathematics department served nearly 7,000 students in 2016, and every year, more Cornell students at every level need more types of mathematics to succeed in their majors and their careers. The mathematics project will implement systemic change in how courses are taught that reach students at critical transition points in their mathematical development. Goals for the project include increasing student confidence in their own mathematical abilities and improving student perception of mathematics as an inquiry-based discipline.

According to project lead Tara Holm, professor of mathematics, "Our vision for this initiative is to narrow the gap between mathematics as it's practiced in the world and mathematics as it is experienced in the classroom. The role of mathematics in our society has become more pervasive, diverse, and integral to the other sciences and to society. We intend to work with faculty in other disciplines to ensure we are teaching the mathematics they need their students to know, in ways that make the transfer of mathematics to other disciplines smoother."

The physics project is a way to rethink labs as vehicles for developing students' scientific reasoning, critical thinking, and experimentation skills, according to project lead Natasha Holmes, assistant professor of physics. "One of the biggest goals for these redesigned courses is to get students thinking critically about the data they collect, the models they develop and evaluate, and the conclusions they draw," she explained. "Critical thinking in this way is an important and broadly applicable skill, both in and outside of science."

Because the new courses will reach thousands of students and dozens of graduate teaching assistants through six different courses, Holmes said, "We have an opportunity to make a significant impact on students' education here at Cornell."

Research Outcomes

The active learning movement has spawned a tremendous amount of research, most of it initially done by scholars in the disciplines experimenting with techniques and doing measurements to see whether learning outcomes were changed. Research is the foundation of education innovation, says Lepage. "Research on education within the disciplines is a serious, rigorous area of scholarship, but one that is relatively new to Cornell."

Last year, the College hired its first tenure-track faculty member whose focus is on the teaching and learning of a discipline: Natasha Holmes, assistant professor of physics.

"It's remarkable that Cornell has invested so much into improving these courses, and there are so many people thinking critically about the teaching and learning that's going on here -- and all of this happened without a discipline-based education researcher within the disciplines, which is quite rare," says Holmes. She cites research that shows teaching innovation is occurring primarily in places that have a history of discipline-based education researchers in the departments, "so the fact that Cornell faculty have been taking initiative is really exciting," says Holmes.

Teaching-focused postdoctoral associates have been a critical component of ALI's success, notes Lepage. In addition to helping courses transition to the active learning model, they have worked on course assessments and published articles about active learning at Cornell.

Cornell University Professor Emeritus of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Harry Greene, discusses his experience shifting Evolutionary Biology and Diversity to an Active Learning Initiative course.

Cissy Ballen, for example, was hired as a postdoctoral associate to help transition the Evolution and Biodiversity course in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from a standard passive lecture format into an active learning structure, emphasizing collaborative in-class group work and discussion. She and course instructor Harry Greene, Professor Emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, recently published a paper in PLOS Biology, "Walking and Talking the Tree of Life: Why and How to Teach About Biodiversity," discussing the evolutionary Tree of Life and how to teach it using an active learning approach.

Ballen, who is now at the University of Minnesotta, has just released another paper, co-written with Kelly Zamudio, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Jeremy Searle, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; and Carl Wieman and Shima Salehi of Stanford University. Their research examines why underrepresented minorities do better in ALI classes, using data from Cornell's ALI biology classes. Their research, says Ballen, indicates that "active learning helps remove social-psychological barriers that limit achievement among underrepresented minority students."

Laura Manella, an ALI postdoctoral associate in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, also has a forthcoming research paper related to active learning pedagogy.