A couple of weeks ago we
about the challenge of helping faculty members use active-learning classrooms well. It’s not that professors don’t want to change their teaching; they may not know how to go about it. Using active-learning techniques can feel uncomfortable at first, so it helps to receive some preparation.
On many campuses, that might mean taking a one-day workshop. But is that really enough time to get into thorny topics like group work and student buy-in? Andrea Aebersold at the University of California at Irvine doesn’t think so. She created and runs an eight-session institute for faculty members on active learning. The incentive: Those who complete the program will be able to teach in the campus’ first active-learning building, opening this fall.
“We’ve invested a lot of money in the space, so we want to make sure we have faculty using it to the best of their ability,” says Aebersold, program director for faculty instructional development in the
Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation
. She was hired in 2017 to create an active-learning certification
in anticipation of the building’s opening. It has proved so popular that both a fall and winter session this year filled up immediately.
The institute is structured as a series of 90-minute
, spread over a term (faculty members are also later observed in class). The goal, says Aebersold, is to give faculty members the time they need to study, discuss, and experiment with strategies that may work for them. Each workshop has a different focus. The one on group work is particularly popular, says Aebersold, because good execution is challenging, and poorly designed group projects quickly go south.
In that session, Aebersold explains that group work is disliked by students because it often lacks accountability and structure. To counter that, she says, each student should be given a role. One is the manager, another keeps track of time, another records the proceedings, and so on. She then divides participants into groups and has them act out those roles to see what it feels like. As part of the role-play, faculty members also go through a peer-assessment process, in which they evaluate one another.
Aebersold builds in plenty of time for discussion. That gives faculty members a chance to share their stories and learn from one another, while she can dig into concepts like stereotype threat — evaluating a person based on pre-existing beliefs rather than the quality of their work — and how to counteract it with clearly designed evaluation instructions.
Those two elements — role-playing and discussion — are a cornerstone of her training, says Aebersold. They allow instructors to think through how they would approach their own class and talk about problems that might arise. Facilitating discussion in a class of 400, for example, is quite different than in a class of 40. And professors are happy to share what has worked for them.
Aebersold comes armed with plenty of reading material and case studies, but never dictates how faculty members should run their classrooms. “I really wanted to design this as a way to support them,” she says, “not to stand up there and say, ‘This is how you should be teaching.’”
She offers guidance based on research and experience. In a session on the first day of class, for example, Aebersold stresses that faculty members should practice active learning from Day 1. She recalls one professor coming back to her, sheepishly, to tell her that he had ignored her advice and lectured during the entire first class. In the second class he attempted an interactive discussion, which bombed. The students had come in expecting another lecture and didn’t know how to respond.
Getting students to buy into active learning is another hurdle. She suggests being as clear as possible on the reasons why the class has been restructured, and backing it up with research that shows active-learning techniques can lead to better information retention and higher grades. But, she says, she still warns instructors to be prepared for some negative evaluations.
Aebersold says that the course has given her an appreciation for how complex teaching is and how little space faculty members have to talk about it. “Making changes through teaching is very time consuming and scary,” she says, “and they don’t get a lot of support for it or a lot of time.”
– Beth McMurtrie, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education