This chapter offers a brief primer on the concept of active learning, summarizing the growing research base and introducing its applications in a variety of educational settings.33 After outlining some of the general characteristics of common approaches to faculty development programs, it then describes a program developed by the National Academies to apply the concepts in an effort to improve undergraduate biology education. As mentioned in Chapter 1, that National Academies program is the model for a new international project to develop networks of life sciences faculty able to apply active learning methods to responsible conduct and dual use issues. Chapter 4 will repeat much of the basic material presented in this chapter, but in the context of how it was presented and modeled in a real learning situation.
Methods for active learning instruction have been under development and refinement for more than 130 years. A large and growing body of evidence, cutting across scientific disciplines, is demonstrating that modern versions of these methods offer the potential for significantly improved learning in comparison to traditional, student-passive, lecture-based instruction (NRC, 2000; Handelsman et al. 2007; Knight and Wood, 2005; Prince, 2004; NRC, 2011d; Meltzer and Thornton, 2012). A common feature of active learning instruction is that it involves students in their own learning more deeply and more intensely than does traditional instruction. In all cases, the instructional methods (1) are based on, assessed by, and validated through research on teaching and learning, (2) incorporate classroom and/or other activities that require all students to express their thinking through speaking, writing, or other actions that go beyond listening and taking notes, and (3) have been tested repeatedly in actual classroom settings and have resulted in objective evidence of improved learning. Learner-centered environments are more likely to be collaborative, inquiry based, and relevant (Brewer and Smith, 2011). The research suggests that there are many teaching strategies that can support active learning. These range from problem-solving/discussion sessions in class to original investigations that may be student designed. Table 3-1 contains descriptions of a variety of active learning techniques, with illustrations of how they might be used in biology classes.
The methodology has been effective in various settings, from small groups to large lecture-based courses.34 At the college level,
33 Many of the terms associated with active learning are defined in the Glossary.
34 Engaging students in active learning in large class settings such as lecture halls has garnered much attention from education researchers. A number of techniques, including the use of individual wireless response systems (clickers) that allow students to answer questions anonymously, “think-pair-share” techniques in which students develop their own answers to questions and then discuss their answers with a student next to them (often combined with clicker questions), and similar exercises involving peer learning and engagement have proven to be valuable active learning tools in these kinds of settings. For additional
formal active learning has been used in courses that range from introductory undergraduate to graduate level. The data show that there is no significant difference in the positive results achieved by predominately female or male, and heterogeneous or mixed gender groups. However, the positive effect of small-group learning was significantly greater for groups composed primarily of African American and Latino students compared with predominantly Caucasian and relatively heterogeneous groups (Springer et al., 1997). Additionally, workshops for teachers and college and university faculty increasingly use active learning methods.
It has been demonstrated that to be well understood, factual knowledge must be put in a suitable conceptual framework. The data show that framing learning in the sciences as four intertwined strands of proficiency provides a sound basis for creating effective teaching and learning experiences at all levels (NRC, 2007b, 2011d); these are:
• understanding scientific explanations,
• generating scientific evidence,
• reflecting on scientific knowledge, and
• participating productively in science.
A critically important aspect of effective instruction is the integration of learning about process and content. Although this is not always the case in practice, science teaching laboratories historically have been viewed by many faculty as the place to provide valuable and unique opportunities for the learner to engage in conceptual materials. Rather than being viewed as an add-on or distraction from content mastery, the laboratory is one of the many pathways to factual knowledge and deeper conceptual understanding (NRC, 2006b). However, the science education community is now beginning to view the entire course (classroom, laboratory, and field experiences), especially at the introductory level, as an opportunity to integrate content with scientific processes and skills and to help students understand and appreciate the relevance of science to their own lives and that of their communities (Labov, 2004; Handelsman et al., 2006; AAAS, 2011; PCAST, 2012; NRC, 2012a). Critical reflection, as called for in the third strand, is an essential component of virtually all effective approaches to learning. To date, this is the only practice that has demonstrated student learning gains in understanding the nature of science (NRC, 2006b, 2008). Reflection provides students with the opportunity to explore their level of understanding with other learners (and the teacher) and helps them become more aware of their own levels of learning. Students become able to self-monitor their learning, they plan and set goals, and they have many opportunities to reflect on their learning and adapt as necessary. The value of such “metacognition,” or self-monitoring of one’s learning, has been demonstrated by many studies and is a critical component of effective teaching and learning strategies (Zimmerman and Schunk, 2001). Active learning, properly implemented, encourages metacognition. Given the complexities of the ethical and social dimensions in the responsible conduct of science, it is also important to include time for various forms of reflection throughout a course.
Research shows that understanding is built on a foundation of existing conceptual frameworks and experiences. While prior knowledge can support further learning, it may also lead to pre- or misconceptions that act as barriers to learning. Prior understandings are influenced by culture, which has implications for
information about encouraging active learning in large class settings for different disciplines, see for example MacGregor et al., 2000; Allen and Tanner, 2005; Caldwell, 2007; Poirier and Feldman, 2007; Stranger-Hall et al., 2010; Wood and Tanner, 2012)
TABLE 3-1 Examples of Learning Objectives and Active Learning Techniques
|Biology Example and Instructions||Objectives|
|Answering the following question in large group. One person records answers. Optional: Arrange the list into two or more categories (e.g., abiotic vs. biotic factors)
Question: What does a plant need to survive
|Brainstorming elicits responses from large audience and aggregates them into a single list. It provides the instructor and students with an overview of the group’s collective knowledge. By separating the brainstorm list into two or more categories, students evaluate how well they understand the role of each response in a specific context.|
|Case study and decision making|
|Read the following case. Write a paragraph to explain what the patient should do next. Justify your recommendation with biological reasons.
Case: A patient expressed eye irritation, which the doctor diagnosed as conjunctivitis. Antibiotic treatment alleviated the symptoms within a few days, but the symptoms returned two weeks later. The doctor recommended taking antibiotics again.
|Cases engage students in solving a problem in a real-life context. To solve them, students need to evaluate what they know about infectious disease, causal agents, and antibiotic resistance; apply that knowledge to the case; and determine what additional information is needed to make a recommendation.|
|Answer the following question on your electronic response keypad.
Question: Which organisms are most distantly related? (a) bacteria and archaea; (b) plants and animals; (c) plants and fungi; (d) humans and fungi
|Clicker questions require students to gauge whether they understand a concept or topic, thereby engaging students in the ensuing activities (e.g., lecture) about that topic.|
|Work with a group to discuss the following statement. Write your answer individually.
Statement: Explain the role of aflatoxin in liver cancer.
|Group exams engage students in working collaboratively to identify creative solutions to a problem. Writing individual answers requires students to evaluate how well they understand the topic and its underlying concepts.|
|Arrange the following terms in logical order. Explain (using arrows or words) how the terms relate to each other.
Terms: tRNA, DNA, protein, mRNA, amino acid, translation, transcription, replication, promoter
|Mini-maps engage students in developing a nonverbal representation of a concept. The process of developing a visual arrangement requires students to evaluate different ways that terms can relate to each other and to appreciate that a biological process may not be unidirectional or linear.|
|Write for one minute to answer the following question.
Question: What about the structure of DNA suggests a mechanism for replication?
|One-minute papers engage students in articulating their knowledge about a topic or applying their knowledge to another situation. By writing their answer in one minute, students need to evaluate the most important and relevant components of their argument.|
|Write for one minute at the beginning and end of class in response to the following statement. Explain any differences between your responses.
Statement: Describe two mechanisms that a bacterium can use to harm a plant.
|Pre/post questions can take many forms, including one-minute papers or clicker questions. They engage students in thinking critically about a specific question or problem. By comparing pre/post responses, students evaluate whether and why their answers changed during the class period.|
|Use your textbook as a guide and work with a partner. You write the important steps in meiosis; your partner writes the important steps in mitosis. Cut the steps apart and scramble the order. Each of you should try to put the other person’s steps into the correct order. Discuss.||Strip sequences engage students in recognizing cause and effect and in determining the logical sequence of events. When students derive their own strip sequences, they need to evaluate the critical steps in the process.|
|Discuss with a partner what is wrong with the following statement. Propose an alternative statement that is correct.
Statement: “I don’t want to eat any viruses or bacteria, so I refuse to buy foods that have been genetically modified.”
|Statement corrections engage students in evaluating what concepts are misrepresented and in determining what information they need to correct it.|
the development of curricular materials that may be used to teach responsible conduct of research for international audiences (NRC, 2008). The importance of engaging learners’ prior understanding as they learn new material is an important insight from the science of learning (summarized in NRC, 2000).
Faculties are adept at designing curricula to engage students in key scientific practices: talk and argument, modeling and representation, and learning from investigations (NRC, 2008). They are less facile at course design with active learning as a goal. Most instructors first select the textbook, then compile the course syllabus and assignments, construct the examinations, and finally describe learning goals and objectives. Active learning courses are best designed when the first step is the identification of goals and objectives and then the syllabus. This “backward design” process (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), also called reverse design, is intended to ensure that learning objectives inform instructional and assessment strategies through explicit articulation of these two critical components of the learning process and then integrate them into the design of the course at the outset.
Assessment of student learning should be both formative and summative. Formative assessment is generally low stakes (either none or a small portion of the student’s grade) and is used regularly throughout the learning process, providing feedback to both students and faculty about student learning and academic progress. Summative assessment, conducted at the end of the block or course, provides information about student learning gains and the overall success of the effort. Both formative and summative assessments should be used for subsequent course/curriculum restructuring. Without assessment that is closely aligned to learning objectives, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of the curriculum.
Even though much of the research cited and the examples referenced above have occurred in the United States, a growing number of countries are undertaking efforts to reform and transform the way that science is taught. Collaborations between U.S. and non-U.S. universities are assessing the effectiveness of active learning in a variety of contexts. A study conducted simultaneously in Sweden and the United States suggests that curricula that actively engage the student do appear to make a permanent change in their conceptual framework. As long as 2 years after the instruction, students had a “good” grasp of concepts (Bernhard, 2001). A review of the literature finds there is broad but uneven support for the core elements of active learning (Prince, 2004). “Students who learn in small groups generally demonstrate greater academic achievement, express more favorable attitudes toward learning,” and remain enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses and programs “to a greater extent than their more traditionally taught counterparts” (Springer et al.,1997:42).
Conferences of international scientific unions and other professional organizations now routinely include sessions that feature symposia, workshops, or other sessions that emphasize teaching and learning. The International Brain Research Organization (IBRO), a global network for neuroscience research, organizes “Teaching Tools Workshops” that assist African countries in adding or improving the teaching of neuroscience. The workshops include both content and teaching methods, with a strong focus on learner-centered approaches.35 The 2012 Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching, which draws participants from the
35 Further information is available at http://delsold.nas.edu/USNC-IBROUSCRC/activities_workshops.shtml#past.
United States and overseas, chose the theme Evidence-Based Learning and Teaching to reflect that approaches to teaching and learning should be based on scholarly activity.36 Additionally, the IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE) is held each year in the Asia-Pacific region and complements the Frontiers in North America and the EDUCON in Europe/Middle East/Africa conferences.37 At the primary and secondary level, IAP–The Global Network of Science Academies, has promoted what it calls “Inquiry-Based Science Education” since 2001 through activities led by the Chilean Academy of Sciences.38 The next section describes the model used for the project that is the subject of this report.
PUTTING RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE39
Introductory science courses at large universities in the United States serve as the portals that connect undergraduates to frontiers in research and scientific ways of thinking. An introductory undergraduate biology course might be the only exposure many students have to the life sciences, or to any of the sciences. It often serves as the best opportunity to interest students in a biomedical research or other life science careers.
According to the 2003 National Academies report Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, however, teaching practices have not kept pace with advances in scientific research about learning (NRC, 2003). Consequently, the gateway through which most students pass is antiquated, misrepresents the interdisciplinary, collaborative, evidence-based culture of science, and fails to implement current knowledge about how people learn. Bio2010 identified faculty development as a crucial component in improving undergraduate biology education and the authoring committee suggested the development of a “Summer Institute” to bring life sciences faculty together to work on improving education. This Summer Institute would focus on integrating current scientific research and appropriate pedagogical approaches to create courses that actively engage students in the ways that scientists think. The committee further recognized the need for ongoing reinforcement of teacher development and the benefits of interactive activities to produce participants who would be fully able to use their new pedagogy and content knowledge effectively.
Characteristics of Faculty Development Programs
Over the years, dozens of programs across all the STEM disciplines have been implemented to build the capacity of faculty to teach effectively. They are a subset of the more general category of “train-the-trainer” programs in which more experienced educators seek to impart knowledge or skills in a way that can be sustained after the initial encounter. The newest programs, such as some of those described in this report, draw on
37 The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a professional association headquartered in New York City with more than 400,000 members in more than 160 countries, now uses IEEE for everything but formal, legal matters. For further information, see www.taleconference.org/tale2013/venue.php.
38 For further information, see www.interacademies.net/Activities/Projects/12250.aspx.
39 A version of the text in this section appeared in the letter report of the planning meeting for this project, Research in the Life Sciences with Dual Use Potential: An International Faculty Development Project on Education about the Responsible Conduct of Science (NRC 2011e:14-19). The material has been lightly edited and updated to reflect developments since the meeting. The section entitled “Characteristics of Faculty Development Programs” is new material prepared for this report.
the science of learning to inform the faculty development programs themselves, infusing the workshops/meetings/ institutes with active learning principles and practices. A report released in 2013 on The Role of Scientific Societies in STEM Faculty Workshops (Hilborn, 2013), for example, provides descriptions and initial assessments of a number of programs run by major U.S. professional societies. Although the programs vary in terms of a number of features, such as their target audiences (e.g., junior versus senior faculty, type of institution), length (e.g., from a weekend to a week to 10 days), and location (e.g., standalone or as part of a professional society meeting), they also share a number of major characteristics.
• Simply stated, the goals of all the STEM faculty programs discussed here are to develop expert competence in teaching, to enhance faculty views of teaching as a scholarly activity, and to promote the use of evidence in evaluating the effectiveness of teaching practices.
• All of the initiatives promote, either explicitly or implicitly, the importance of “scientific teaching.”
• The meetings generally consist of a mix of plenary sessions, often carried out with interactive engagement techniques—to model what the leaders hope the participants will implement in their home institutions—and smaller breakout and discussion sessions.
• While many effective pedagogical practices cut across disciplines, their effective implementation requires broad knowledge of the discipline and its modes of discussion and argument. Hence, all of the programs described here have the participants think about (and in some cases practice) effective pedagogical methods within the context of the discipline. This method builds on the content knowledge of the participants and prepares them more directly for the teaching decisions they will need to make in their own classrooms.
• …all of the program leaders recognize that a one-time workshop is unlikely to produce the kind of expert teaching competence required of an effective instructor. The programs use a variety of mechanisms to continue interactions among the participants (peer mentoring and coaching) and with the program leaders. (Hilborn, 2013:6-9)
Together, these and other programs offer a number of different models for undertaking faculty development.
One Model in Detail: The National Academies Summer Institutes in Undergraduate Education in Biology (NASI)
One substantive result of the recommendation in BIO2010 was the development of the annual National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Biology Education (NASI).40 This institute is designed to model the scientific teaching principles on which it is founded and draws on the expertise of both participants and presenters.
NASI provides a venue each year for teams of faculty from primarily research-intensive universities to meet for five days of in-depth discussions, demonstrations, and working sessions on research-based approaches to undergraduate biology education. The idea is to generate the same atmosphere as a Gordon Conference or a Cold Spring Harbor research course, but with the topics being issues in education rather than, for instance, bacteriophage genetics. Current research in effective pedagogical practices in undergraduate science education, active learning, assessment,
and diversity are woven throughout the week, creating a forum for participants to share ideas and develop innovative instructional materials that they are expected to implement when they return to their own campuses.
Initiated with a pilot institute in 2003, NASI convened annually during the last week of June on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison from 2004 to 2011. The target audiences have been faculty and academic leaders from universities where large courses, especially at the beginners’ level for both life sciences majors and for students with other career goals, provide significant impediments to reform. Most universities have sent a team of 2-3 people to one institute. Others have sent multiple teams (of different people each year) over two or more years. NASI has been supported primarily through funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI; through summer 2011) with additional support from Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
Based on NASI’s success, HHMI provided a new award to the program that has enabled its expansion to up to eight institutes each year in regions across the United States. Four regional institutes were organized in 2011, seven in 2012, and another seven in 2013.41 These regional institutes adhere to the structure and emphasis of the Madison NASI but also expand the pool of educators beyond faculty in research-intensive universities, participants (e.g., graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in addition to junior and senior faculty), and areas of expertise (beyond a primary focus on the biological sciences). Data about the participants in these institutes and how they change their approaches to teaching and student learning will continue to be collected and analyzed.
Participants at the Madison NASI were selected based on a rigorous application process overseen by a National Academies committee; applications for the regional institutes are monitored by the local organizing committees using similar criteria. There is a particular emphasis on including pretenured as well as senior faculty as members of the team. NASI also trains a cadre of mentor/facilitators who work with participating teams each summer. Many of these facilitators are NASI alumni, selected for this honor based on observations of their performance during the institute they attended.
Although an individual regional institute may reorganize the schedule to some extent, each institute typically consists of a series of plenary sessions in the mornings and facilitated small group activities during the afternoons. All plenary sessions model the kinds of evidence-based active teaching and learning that the Institute stresses for improving undergraduate education. Topics include subjects such as active teaching, how people learn, formative and summative assessment, teaching to diverse student populations, mentoring, and working with colleagues to improve teaching and learning.
Each small group typically consists of participants from three university teams and focuses on producing a “teachable tidbit” in some broad area of biology or interconnected disciplines (e.g. biology/chemistry, biology/mathematics). A tidbit is a module that integrates aspects of classroom, laboratory, or field experiences, assessment, and techniques to help diverse student populations learn more effectively. Small groups are given time to interact with each other during the week to critique each other’s tidbits as they are developed. Each team then presents its “tidbit”
on the next-to-last day. Each tidbit is peer-reviewed by other participants, facilitators, and members of the organizing committee.
All resources and products of each NASI are collected on an Academies portal and made available to all participants, current and previous.
Over the course of the NASI program (2004-2012) 710 people have participated from 167 institutions in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Because so many of these participants serve as instructors in large lecture-style courses, collectively they have taught more than 250,000 undergraduates.
The National Academies recognizes the commitment of these participants by naming each an “Education Fellow in the Life Sciences” for the year following their attendance at NASI. Participants also identify key academic leaders on their campuses who are notified about the honor.
From its inception, NASI has also been a research project. Self-reported data from participants are collected and analyzed regularly to determine the impact of this initiative (e.g., Pfund et al., 2009). In addition, HHMI sponsors a midyear meeting for one representative from each university team approximately 6 months after their NASI participation to measure success, challenges, and new activities that have emerged from their participation. The data and information gained are used in a constant process of adjustments and iterations to improve the NASI; the current version bears only a modest resemblance to the original institutes. This commitment to continuous assessment and adjustment as needed for faculty and students as well as courses and programs is another hallmark of active learning. Chapter 4 describes how the lessons of active learning and the NASI approach and experience were applied to new material in a new setting.