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A Shift to Active Learning

Wittke Award-winner Rebecca Benard and her colleagues transform their teaching


Fall | Winter 2015

Biology instructor Rebecca Benard began adopting new teaching methods as an Active Learning Fellow in 2014-15. Photo by Mike Sands.

Rebecca Benard emerges from her office in Millis Hall into a somewhat larger room with a long table and a whiteboard. The space is crammed with first-year students waiting to ask questions. Ordinarily, young people just starting college are shy about seeking help from their teachers. But Benard, an instructor in the biology department, has already built a close relationship with this group. And so, on a sunny September afternoon, a dozen undergraduates are here to sharpen their understanding of the material presented in lectures earlier in the week.

Such gatherings are a regular occurrence: Benard sets aside an hour each Friday to work with students in her Anatomy and Physiology course. The crowd reminds some of her colleagues of a sit-in, she says. Yet the mood couldn’t be more different.

Students love Benard. Soon after she joined the Case Western Reserve faculty in 2009, they began nominating her for the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. They said things like, “She makes anatomy and physiology fun and fulfilling,” and declared their excitement at the “cognitive breakthroughs” they experienced during her office hours. In spring 2015, Benard won the Wittke award.

Today she stands at the whiteboard sketching the various layers of skin cells with colored markers and discussing their complex interactions. She isn’t so much lecturing as leading. A student asks, “Can we go over keratinization?” “Yes,” Benard responds. “But not I. You.” Through a rapid series of questions, she demonstrates how much students already grasp.

“We’ve got the stratum basale,” she says as she draws the deepest epidermal layer. “Now what kind of cell should I be drawing next? What shape?”

“Cuboidal,” a soft voice offers tentatively.

“Cuboidal!” Benard echoes, louder. “Yeah! You got these cuboidal-shaped cells! Now, what’s happening in the stratum basale layer?”

Another soft voice: “Mitosis.”

“Mitosis! Yes!”

And on the hour goes, with Benard cheerleading the students through the lesson. Her brown hair is tucked into a topknot that becomes increasingly tousled as the session goes on. No wonder: She stands for minutes with her palms atop her head, elbows jutting. She paces. She points. She declares, “Cells are amazing!” In response to a group summary of the material, she calls out, “Beautiful!”

During Benard's office hours, a dozen students from her Anatomy and Physiology class gather outside her door to ask questions. Photo by Mike Sands.

During Benard’s office hours, a dozen students from her Anatomy and Physiology class gather outside her door to ask questions. Photo by Mike Sands.

But her success as an instructor isn’t born of animation and enthusiasm alone. The true heart of it is close attention to what teaching methods work.

“Most scientists are not trained to be educators,” says Benard, who earned a doctorate in ecology from the University of California, Davis. “You’re trained in your specialty and then it’s, ‘Now go teach,’ and they hand you the book.” She decided to approach teaching the way she would approach any question in science: What does the research say? How can she adapt research-proven methods to her own classroom? How can she test their efficacy?

Last year, Benard went further still with her deductive, methodical, hypothesis-testing approach as one of Case Western Reserve’s Active Learning Fellows. Since its introduction in 2013, the fellowship program has offered course development funds, technical support and pedagogical guidance to selected faculty members from all parts of the university. The fellows each begin to reconfigure the way they teach by restructuring one class, moving away from the model of the lecturing professor and toward methods that increase students’ opportunities for collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking. The Provost’s office and Information Technology Services sponsor the fellowship program with cooperation from UCITE, the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education.

For Benard, the fellowship was part of “a big journey for me personally and professionally to teach students how to learn.”

Flipping the Classroom

One of the most dramatic ways to introduce active learning is with something called the “flipped classroom.” What’s “flipped” is the tradition of having students listen to lectures in class and do assignments at home. In the flipped classroom, the lecture moves out of the classroom, often as a series of short videos watched online. The assignments—often the toughest part of any class, and the part that’s supposed to put learning to work—are moved into the classroom, where students can solve problems individually or in groups and have immediate access to professors and teaching assistants.

Students in Geneviève Sauvé’s Physical Chemistry I class solve problems together in small groups in one of the university’s new active learning spaces. Photo by Mike Sands.

Students in Geneviève Sauvé’s Physical Chemistry I class solve problems together in small groups in one of the university’s new active learning spaces. Photo by Mike Sands.

“Instead of having students getting frustrated in the dorm room, let’s have them frustrated in an environment where they can work through the problem and get their questions answered,” Benard says. “If they want a lecture, they can have it, but they can watch it outside of class.”

Michael Kenney, who served as the Teagle Professorial Fellow and senior instructor in the chemistry department from 2007 to 2012, was an early adopter of active learning at Case Western Reserve. Three years ago he decided to flip a class of 382 students—an unusually large class for this approach.

It wasn’t easy, given the way lecture halls are designed. “It’s like teaching in a small stadium,” Kenney says. “You have seats ramping to the back of the room and nine chalkboards in the front, and you’re the instructor there onstage. It’s not really conducive to an active, collaborative environment.” Students couldn’t easily huddle into small groups, and it wasn’t easy for him to move from group to group. Still, after more than 15 years of teaching general chemistry, Kenney found that the flipped classroom was transformative.

“The content was no longer the most important thing,” he says. “What was important was taking that information and applying it to solve problems. To prepare students to be able to do that required a different teaching process.”

Michael Kenney (left), assistant director of Academic Technology and Faculty Support, works with faculty members such as physics professor Corbin Covault in the Active Learning Fellows program. Photo by Mike Sands.

Michael Kenney (left), assistant director of Academic Technology and Faculty Support, works with faculty members such as physics professor Corbin Covault in the Active Learning Fellows program. Photo by Mike Sands.

Kenney is now assistant director of Academic Technology and Faculty Support in Information Technology Services (ITS). In this role, he has put his flipped classroom experience to broader use. ITS has started redesigning classrooms to promote active learning. To date it has created five colorful spaces that have nothing in common with the theater lecture hall. The new rooms, which accommodate 20 to 54 students, include chairs that swivel and roll, movable tables, touch-screen computers with web conferencing ability, enough wireless bandwidth to support five devices per person, writeable walls and whiteboards, and LED lighting. Faculty members can “push” content from their computers to screens mounted near students’ collaborative work stations, or pods, around the room.

One goal of the Active Learning Fellowships is to show faculty members how to take full advantage of the new spaces. A survey of students from active learning classes taught by the 12 fellows in the program’s first year showed that almost all students found active learning valuable, saying it had a positive impact on their learning and their enthusiasm. Seventy of the 96 students who responded said they thought the active learning approach was the best way to teach the course they took.

During her year as a fellow, Benard flipped her 200-level Development and Physiology class, which normally meets twice a week. Because the class was too large for any of the active learning spaces, Benard innovated by splitting the group in two, with half the students attending an interactive lesson on one day, and the other half attending the next. “To my knowledge, no one in the College of Arts and Sciences had this kind of course design before,” Benard says. “The whole approval process took about six months.”

Implementing the course required a lot of work. Benard created 10–12 six-minute videos for each unit and asked students to watch them on their own. Class time was devoted to case-study problems. In one lesson, students used what they had learned about organ systems and immune response to figure out what happens when a patient receives a blood transfusion from an incompatible donor. The students worked through each step of the body’s reaction, from the action of antibodies to organ failure. “So many students are so insightful,” Benard says. “It’s just crazy for me that they can make the leaps that they do.”

After that first flipped semester last spring, Benard surveyed her students. Eighty-five percent said the class should be taught this way again. “As an educator, it was the best semester I’ve ever had, hands down,” she says. “I can’t go back. I just can’t go back. I cannot do it.”

Deeper Learning

Associate Professor Geneviève Sauvé, who’s in her seventh year as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry, was an Active Learning Fellow at the same time as Benard. She grew interested in the idea when she realized that students in her physical chemistry class rarely understood the material in a useful way. “They were just memorizing and plugging numbers into formulas,” she says.

This fall, Geneviève Sauvé taught Physical Chemistry I in one of the university's new active learning classrooms. Photo by Mike Sands.

This fall, Geneviève Sauvé taught Physical Chemistry I in one of the university’s new active learning classrooms. Photo by Mike Sands.

So, last fall Sauvé flipped the class. “The first semester was awful!” she acknowledges. “I was constantly in a race to create all these videos and convert all my homeworks into class activities. It was not a fun time.” But the results convinced her. “At the end of the semester, this class performed better than students had in previous years. I had fewer C students and more A students.”

Corbin Covault, a current Active Learning Fellow, avoided the madness of flipping an entire course at one time. A professor in the Department of Physics, Covault has been teaching for 20 years, 14 of them at Case Western Reserve. In his introductory physics class, he has 300 students each term. This fall, Covault selected ideas from the active learning approach and found places for them in a more traditional classroom.

“In the past, I would introduce all the new material in lecture, having assumed that most of the students didn’t do the assigned readings,” Covault says. “This year, I developed a series of key lecture videos I ask them to watch. They get points for completing regular lecture assignments.” By making this shift, Covault has secured 10 to 20 minutes of class time each session that his students devote to problem-solving activities.

“My hope is that it will take students from seeing the material as a large collection of facts and ideas they have to know, to seeing how they are interrelated—to go from superficial learning to deeper learning,” Covault says. “That’s the focus of the activities, and so far, they seem to be pretty successful.”

Covault was already devoted to finding the best teaching methods before he became an Active Learning Fellow. Benard was as well. Still, she says that the fellowship has had a profound impact. “It helped me refine my goals,” she explains. “Most important, I have this community of other people in the university doing the same thing. We can bounce ideas off each other. I’m still learning.”

Jenni Laidman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky.

Page last modified: February 9, 2017