Active Learning

Cornell U Adopts Active Learning

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY has transformed two introductory courses into active learning classes in an effort to boost student engagement.

Students in the classes read assigned passages or watch instructor-created videos before class and then complete a pre-lecture quiz. During class time, students work in small groups to complete activities designed to reinforce the material they studied before class. The small groups stay the same all semester, so students have the opportunity to develop friendships.

In 2009, some professors in the department "started organizing their classes by modules, adding more online resources and incorporating more team teaching," according to a report in the Cornell Chronicle, and those changes led to the implementation of active learning in the past year. The university's College of Arts and Sciences has also embarked on a five-year pilot project to help science professors implement this "flipped classroom" model, where students watch recorded lectures outside of class and then spend class time engaged in more active learning.

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has implemented active learning in an introductory class on evolutionary biology and another introductory class on ecology. Introduction to Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity is a required course for biology majors in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and of Agriculture and Life Sciences and about 250 students register for the course each fall.

Margaret (Cissy) Ballen, a postdoctoral researcher in EEB who helped develop learning activities for the class, compared student learning outcomes from the new active learning classes with outcomes from the class the year before, which was taught using traditional methods. According to the Cornell Chronicle, Ballen's evaluation of the active learning classes found that they have led to "greater classroom confidence and learning outcomes."

Kelly Zamudio, one of the faculty members teaching the class, said she would like to see more classes implement active learning methods, particularly in classes such as mammology, herpetology and entomology, and she's "also interested in how active learning can be applied to online classes," according to the Cornell Chronicle.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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