Workshopping a solution
Why is this challenge important to an institution’s active learning initiative? Do you have an example?
Kiho Kim (American): I think one perspective that I had is, in order to change culture, it has to come from both of the sides—the administrative side and also the faculty side, and there’s a student component there as well, but I think the bottom lines are with the faculty and the administration. From the administration’s perspective, the SETs, student evaluations of teaching, are really important, and they’re trying to push faculty to do the kinds of things that improve SETs. But ultimately, they don’t look much beyond the SETs. So from the faculty side, whatever’s working for them in terms of the SETs, that is what they will stick with. And in many cases, they're unwilling to innovate because they don’t want to take the chance of something going awry. At AU, we’ve taken some steps towards fixing that by offering faculty a course-release for a semester—a release from being evaluated based on SETs only, if they want to try something innovative. So they can apply to have a pass on a particular class in a particular semester, so that they can try different things without potentially being penalized. There has to be some sort of give-and-take on either end. I think ultimately, the students will go wherever the faculty is pushing them, if the faculty is dynamic and involved.
Brian: You know, one thing that I’ll contribute is that I think the assessment nature of that response can’t be under-appreciated. We know that a lot of people are motivated by how they’re going to be assessed, especially when that’s a big part of their world. And so, if we want to see different emphases in the pedagogy, then that has to be rewarded in some way in the assessment structure. I think the things we’re looking for certainly ought to be part of that, something to help attract change, as opposed to work against change.
"Why is this challenge important? Why do we even need to address this question? Why is it important to having a successful active learning initiative?"
Kiho: I guess the answer is that the evidence for the efficacy of active learning, in terms of student outcomes, is pretty strong and pretty compelling. So the question is, “Why aren’t faculty taking this up more frequently and more deeply?”
What is the broader context that we’re working in?
Kiho: For AU, which is a private institution, we’re also very tuition-dependent, and so we have to make efforts to make AU an attractive place for students. So even before thinking about retention, we have to think about recruitment. Defining AU as a strong, research-led, student-centered, student-focused institution, in terms of classroom activities, has also been an important part of our profile moving forward.
Ed: Yeah, Duke is very similar, in terms of that focus. One of the pieces of feedback that we heard is that that Ivy League students want to be able to get the good grade, because this is a stepping stone to a graduate program, whether it’s premed, or other business school/law school/etc. So, the idea that they know that they can just get the information and then turn it around to get the good grade is something that they’re highly interested in. But Duke is also like AU pushing for the research component, and the things that force you to think (the critical thinking) is important. I think active learning helps with that process of getting students to understand how to be critical thinkers and not just someone who can take the information and then just spit it back out and get the grade. So, I think that broader context is important and we want to make the effort to indicate why active learning is useful. As someone else said, the evidence is fairly clear so how can we get that to be part of what we do? I also think the issue of assessment being part of the appointment, promotion, and tenure process is interesting, but I don’t know how that works across all the academic institutions - whether those annual assessments are a significant factor in appointment, promotion, and tenure. I’d be interested to know how important that is from one school to the next.
What might success look like?
Brian: Let me jump in. At our university, it depends on where the faculty are located, as far as their college, their department especially, and their role in the university. Our adjunct faculty are much more vulnerable to the process. In some departments with especially large numbers of lecturers, that SET score, for us, is one of the key determinants of whether or not they’re rehired. But a tenured faculty member, especially a full professor—a lot of times, those scores are much more for their own improvement so they may not care about the score if they find something new. They want the comments. They want to know how students are responding to that. So, for us, it really depends on their specific faculty role.
Kim Pulford Westemeier (American): I’d say, if we’re only talking about SETs, or student evaluations of teaching, then they’d probably be really high. To me, though, I think success would be that students are really excited to go to class every day and it’s just this culture of learning that’s all of a sudden become a part of just their everyday. So it’s going, being ready to discuss and excited about what they’re learning.
Candy Fleming (Montclair State): I’m just wondering how we would then translate that into improved life or career outcomes.
"How can we somehow relate the students’ excitement about learning, which would be related to higher engagement—how can we somehow get to a measurement of it’s actually improved their actual outcomes, their learning/career/life outcomes?" - Candy Fleming, Montclair State University
Ed: I think that comes into—what are you doing with your alumni, and how actively are you connected with those alumni, gathering information and surveying them on a regular basis? That’s one of the things that some of our programs are trying to do more, reaching out to the alums of their specific programs and get feedback, “Where are you now? What are you doing? What was your experience like at Duke? How has that supported your success moving forward in your career?” That assessment component is not just what happens when you’re on campus taking the courses, but what happens after you leave. I don’t know if all the academic institutions have the ability to do that as effectively as someplace like Duke, which is kind of a machine, when it comes to our alumni association and the fundraising that goes along with that, etc.
Any other thoughts on how we might measure that?
Katie Kassof (American): I think, on a more granular level, we need to look at what the activities are actually doing. Are they causing the students to have more critical thinking? Are they causing them to have to work in teams and learn how to deal with personalities? And boil down less about what the activity is, what they’re learning about in that particular class, and more what are the life skills that those activities are promoting. And then, when you go and look at how the alumni are doing, you have some things, some areas that you can measure.
Butch: Can I just second that for a minute? Because I absolutely agree with that. Part of it is, you know if you’ve got them [students] working collaboratively and you’re witnessing the things that they’re doing in a classroom context. Even with assignments that may be turned in and that are worked in as groups, that’s some measure of an acquisition of a skill set which we then hope and would think is transferable to life settings - such as employment or whatever they do subsequently to their education. I just wanted to second that, because it is difficult to measure these things and quantify what that looks like in terms of a skillset subsequent to employment. To me, it’s measuring it in the classroom and then doing what she [Katie] suggested, which was perhaps then asking questions around those kinds of things through the alumni associations and elsewhere.
What would be resources needed to actually accomplish some of this, both from an implementation as well as evaluation standpoint?
Emily Isaacs, Montclair State: I think that most schools have pretty robust assessment systems for their courses, and we can kind of compare and contrast assessment systems, how students are learning, and specific learning outcome goals in a class which has deployed active learning methodologies and those that haven’t. So, I think of it as being systematic and charting your progress for improvement and achievement in existing, approved student learning outcomes. That, to me, is the base, before you get to the rest of that, which is important, very, very important, but is maybe later down the road.
"From our perspective, one of the things we have to be paying attention to is the ability to scale engaged learning or active learning to larger class sizes." - Brian Beatty, SFSU
Brian: Let me add to that. From our perspective, one of the things we have to be paying attention to is the ability to scale engaged learning or active learning to larger class sizes. Our class sizes are already pretty large, and they’re not going to get smaller, in general. We need to be more efficient at being able to do this. Every active learning class is limited to the 20 or 25 students that can be managed with some specific existing pedagogy. Well, how do we make that work with 49 or 50 students? And I think that technology solutions are certainly one of the ways that we can help scale those effective practices.
Kiho: I would also like to add, in terms of resources, to actually do institution-wide data collecting in regards to how well some of these strategies are working. Individual classes do that, but that data is scattered across the campus, and not really collected in any fashion where one can go in and look at the complexity of factors something contributes to student learning outcomes, including active learning. Do that institutional research. I think resources need to be allocated to be able to do that, so that you can have a better sense of the effectiveness of these strategies.