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Teaching and Learning

Cornell Sociology Launches Active Learning Project Across 5 Courses

Cornell University's Department of Sociology is offering five large introductory courses that have been reimagined as part of the College of Arts and Science's Active Learning Initiative (ALI).

Launched in 2013, ALI's initial project was to remake seven introductory physics and biology courses "using the pedagogical model advocated by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman," according to information on the college's site. "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."

Since those initial courses, ALI has seen a $2.7 million expansion with six new projects, including that of the Department of Sociology.

The sociology project includes courses taken by approximately 600 students each year and will remake discussion sections and lectures, in part by better relating them to one another. Other changes include clicker polls, short data analysis assignments and "think-pair-share" activities.

One of the activities includes the use of census categories for race across time in the U.S. The original census only had two categories, while the current one has five. To demonstrate the concept of race as a social construct, students are asked to place celebrities into the category they would have been sorted into throughout American history.

"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 Vida Maralani, co-leader of the sociology ALI project, in a prepared statement.

Kelly Nielsen and Melissa Pirkey, postdoctoral fellows at ALI, designed the activities, which were then refined by faculty and teaching assistants.

To make it easier for faculty to transform their own classes into active learning courses, the ALI team is creating a database of these activities, as well as offering training and professional development for graduate students.

To evaluate the results, the team collected baseline data on the courses, and grant funds from ALI will in part be used to publish their results.

"The most important takeaway from ALI classes, what students seem to really gain," Pirkey said in a statement, "is that it's not just about getting the right answer but getting them involved in the experience and wanting to engage more."

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About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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