$2.7M grant expands Active Learning Initiative in A&S

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Rebecca Valli

The College of Arts and Sciences has announced a $2.7 million expansion of its Active Learning Initiative (ALI), which began five years ago with the conversion of four large course sequences in physics and biology. Thanks to the generosity of Alex and Laura Hanson, both Class of 1987, six new projects will be launched in the Departments of Music, Classics, Economics, Mathematics, Physics and Sociology.

“These new projects reflect the college’s commitment to education innovation and to partnering with departments and faculty who have creative ideas about teaching and curriculum development,” said Gretchen Ritter '83, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences. “This expansion of the Active Learning Initiative is going hand in hand with the college’s curriculum effort, and I am excited about the great ideas emerging from both efforts. We are deeply grateful to the Hansons for making these new projects possible.”

According to Peter Lepage, director of education innovation and the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, the new projects will have an impact on thousands of students each year. The economics courses that will be converted, for example, last year reached 3,434 students (majors and nonmajors) across the university.

“The projects chosen outline clear ideas that will improve student learning in ways that can be measured and, therefore, propagated to other courses and departments,” said Lepage. “And they involve teams of faculty that will generate new energy and thought around pedagogy in the departments and the rest of the college.”

Hanson noted that donors and volunteers want to make a positive impact, and “Laura and I have been impressed with the game-changing quantitative and qualitative results so far [of ALI],” he said. “The college has demonstrated both a large treatment effect and a statistically significant improvement. This is a testament to terrific work by the leadership, faculty, postdocs and students. We are confident the investment in the next phase will pay even greater rewards.”

In active-learning classrooms, the emphasis is on hands-on activities and frequent student-student and student-instructor interactions through methods such as small discussion groups, partner sharing and the use of technology like iClickers and smartphone apps to enhance learning. Rather than a traditional lecture, students gain information in advance of class through videos, readings, online exercises and quizzes, so class time is spent on building expertise through problem-solving, experiments and group discussions.

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, who has used active learning in a large 175-student introductory class and a smaller 60-student class.

Participating faculty have expressed considerable enthusiasm about the new projects, including the opportunity to scale up what’s already working and to share successful strategies across courses. The chance to evaluate student learning outcomes is also welcome, say faculty participants: All the projects include rigorous assessment components.

The Center for Teaching Excellence has been an important resource for the faculty developing the projects, noted Lepage. “Associate Director Amy Godert especially has been an enthusiastic partner in the ALI initiative,” he said.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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