The Case for Active Learning

Science's integration into all aspects of modern life makes it more important than ever that people develop a literacy in scientific issues, yet higher education institutions tend to teach students in a manner that emphasizes short-term memorization over complex reasoning skills and problem-solving. In addition, despite genuinely exciting new scientific discoveries, the U.S. has experienced a decreasing percentage of students who wish to pursue research careers. STEM disciplines continue to face the ongoing challenge of recruiting, educating, and retaining students.

The incorporation of student-centered, active learning techniques in STEM courses has resulted in improved student understanding and improved student retention in the general student population and in underrepresented minorities. At the same time, the role of technology in higher education has increased and is a core part of developing scientically literate students. One of the present challenges in higher education is integrating technology with student-centered, active learning in ways that enhance different learning styles.

Within the last ten years, the Student Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project at North Carolina State University, along with related efforts such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) initiative, have integrated technology into redesigned, student-centered classrooms to create more powerful and engaging learning landscapes. Those programs have demonstrated positive impacts in conceptual understanding when active learning techniques are applied in a technology-rich environment.

However, despite these successes and the call to adopt active-learning strategies, traditional lecture methods continue to dominate higher education classrooms. A successful transition to an active learning culture requires overcoming barriers on multiple fronts (institutions, financial resources, students, faculty, environment).

About Northern Michigan University (NMU)

NMU, located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is a four-year, public, coeducatoinal, comprehsneive university which offers 180 degree programs to nearly 9,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Its STEM departments are Biology, Chemistry, Engineering Technology, Mathematics/Computer Science, Physics, and Earth, Environmental, and Geograpic Sciences.

NMU considers information technologies to be a critical signature of its degrees. All faculty and full time students receive leased laptop computers through a Teaching, Learning, and Communication (TLC) notebook initiative. NMU was one of the first ―laptop universitie in the nation. TLC laptops are used heavily by students and faculty alike. The ongoing effort to incorporate technology into NMU classrooms is evident in the last ten years' on-campus changes. In addition to wireless Internet access, a typical NMU classroom configuration includes an instructor laptop docking station, an LCD projector, and other audio-visual equipment. These tools make it possible for faculty to integrate media and computer-based content into their lectures. They are also utilized for student presentations. However, this technology focuses on the same place that lectures halls and classrooms always have: the front of the room, and hence, the professor.

Though the proliferation of laptops and wireless Internet connection enables NMU students in traditional classrooms to participate in active learning exercises, students seated in traditional classroom rows are not well positioned to participate in collaborative active learning exercises. Prior to the Active Learning Catalysts project, there were several individual efforts made to use active learning in NMU STEM courses. However, lacking infrastructure, resources, and ongoing support, those efforts remained isolated and NMU professors primarily continued to structure their classroom time primarily into lectures and shunt student-centered work into laboratories.

Addressing the Barriers

NMU is similar to many institutions in that there is an interest in active learning among STEM faculty members, but the pedagogy has not yet been widely adopted. The Catalysts project creates a framework to change that. NMU provides is a model setting for implementing a plan to broaden and sustain the incorporation of technology-enhanced active learning in STEM courses. NMU has an existing commitment to technology, a mission focused on student thinking and learning, and tech-savvy faculty members dedicated to continuously improving instruction.

Leveraging those attributes, the Active Learning Catalyts project fosters increased incorporation of technology-enhanced active learning activities into STEM courses through a program that addresses two barriers to faculty members adopting active teaching pedagogy:

  • Lack of time and resources needed to become familiar and comfortable with active learning pedagogy and the technology that supports it while maintaining other responsibilities.
  • Classroom environments that are designed for instructor-centered teaching rather than student-centered learning.

The Catalysts project works toward overcoming these barriers by integrating training and support, technology, and classroom environment in a clearly defined strategy for infusing active learning throughout the STEM curriculum. Additionally, we will prepare documentation on the program's effectiveness in the adoption of student-centered active learning in a technology-rich classroom studio.

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