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Active learning grants energize CALS classrooms

Grant funding is supporting faculty as they develop techniques that use hands-on learning and incorporate student response technologies while dedicating classroom time to problem solving and engagement. Photo by Jason Koski.

Jumbled on the classroom tabletop lay cards scrawled with words that, when properly arranged, tell a most exquisite story: the complicated flow of genetic information in a cell.

Students in the microbiology class broke into small groups and conferred with each other about the best way to organize cards with words like “RNA polymerase”, “start codon”, “mRNA” and “promoter”. When students felt confident they had it right or had a question, they called over an instructor and tried to explain to them the process in detail.   

Chloe Carpenter ’20 said that being actively engaged in this way enhanced her ability to understand the subject matter.

“Working with the material in this way is better for your cognition level. It’s learning as you go so you’re much better prepared for exams,” said Carpenter, a biological sciences and animal science double major.

Teaching techniques like these are increasingly being used in classrooms across the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the university. Known as “active learning”, the techniques align with President Martha Pollack’s vision of “education with verve.”

CALS is supporting faculty with grant funding that promotes active learning in their classrooms. This academic year, six proposals split $500,000 to help hundreds of students sharpen critical thinking skills, develop in-the-field experience and become equipped with skills to tackle scientific problems rather than be passive learners. Faculty are shifting emphasis away from the traditional lecture to techniques that use hands-on learning and incorporate student response technologies while dedicating classroom time to problem solving and engagement.

“Students today are used to having all possible information at their fingertips,” said Kathryn J. Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “As a consequence, universities have to be able to teach them differently than the classic 50-minute lecture. Here at CALS, we are committed to preparing our students to be the problem solvers of tomorrow. With active learning, we are helping students master difficult problems and increase mastery of creative and innovative thinking.”

Research shows that the more students are involved in their own education, the better they learn, said Sue Merkel, associate director of the CALS Office of Academic Programs.

“Memorization is not an optimal learning method,” Merkel said. “What we want to do as educators is to discover, ‘how to get students to solve new problems using what they learned’. We are dedicated to helping faculty achieve that in their classrooms.”

In the microbiology class taught by Esther Angert, professor in the Department of Microbiology, and Dan Buckley, professor in the Department of Microbiology and the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), students were given reading assignments outside class time to learn the flow of information in the cell. Classroom time was dedicated to learning the intricacies of DNA replication, transcription and tra in a more engaged way.

“This is complicated stuff; students often get confused and want to memorize a list of components,” said Buckley. “But it’s not something to be memorized: Cell function is a process, it’s a program.”

Professor Esther Angert, right, discusses the flow of genetic information in a cell with Suraj Reddy '18, left, and Adham Gabr '19. Photo by Jason Koski.

“We’ve been developing a lot of active-learning teaching strategies as we try to break students away from memorization,” said Angert.

Students are noticing.  “I’m taking more classes that aren’t super lecture-focused,” Carpenter said. “In those old kinds of classes, you go in, try to absorb a bunch of information and then regurgitate it for a test.”

In Biology and Management of Plant Diseases, active learning means getting students out of the lab and lecture hall to local farms. Rather than learn through lecture, students inspect squash, apples and other produce at an operating farm to see actual diseases, pests, and problems and interact with growers.

“Our classes focus on plant disease, but what I wanted them to understand from their grower visit is the breadth of the integrated nature of the topic. For growers, diseases are a part of horticulture, plant breeding, entomology; it’s complex and multi-faceted,” said Kerik Cox, associate professor in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section of SIPS, who co-teaches the course with support specialist Mary McKellar.

Max Grout '21 and Hannah Soros '21 inspect an apple at Little Tree Orchards. Photo by Chris Kitchen.

Plant science major Isabella Yannuzzi ’20 and others in the class visited the Silver Queen Farm in Trumansburg, New York. Ahead of the trip, students researched common local diseases. Face-to-face with the farmers, students asked about growing practices, the use of pesticides and crop rotation.

“I appreciate it when you get to go out and they let you apply your knowledge yourself; it’s different than reproducing knowledge on a test,” said Yannuzzi. “You get to see the information you’re learning, and you actually get to use it.”

Cox said this semester the same amount of lecture material is being presented, but activities have been restructured. Cox and McKellar have strategized ways to get students thinking and applying their knowledge by posing  scenarios and real-world examples during class time once dedicated to lecture.

“These are the scenarios and the activities that will stick with the students,” Cox said. “The one time they saw the blurry photograph from a real blueberry extension inquiry and realized it was just the plant maturing and not undergoing some awful, catastrophic failure.”

Even small changes in the classroom can have a big impact, Merkel said. Having students talk among themselves, adding polls and questions during lectures, and flipping the classroom — a method for delivering instructional content before class, and using class time for more active learning — are some strategies faculty have implemented.

McKellar said incorporating more active learning in the classroom is helping students see the bigger picture and the “Why” of what they are learning.

“I think a lot of times students get hung up on the details and forget why they are learning the material,” she said. “It’s not just to memorize: instead, students are learning the biology of these pathogens to better understand how to manage disease.”

Kerik Cox, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, discusses apple tree growth with students at Little Tree Orchards in Newfield. Photo by Chris Kitchen.

Another course that received an active learning grant, the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratory, is developing assessments for critical-thinking skills and training for teaching assistants and instructors.

“Many graduate students just want to get up and talk and explain, and so you really need to train people to learn how to facilitate learning, to ask questions or to help students discover rather than just tell, tell, tell,” Merkel said.

Courses receiving funding:

  • Integrating Active Learning to Promote Critical Thinking in the Nature of Plants (PLHRT 1115)
    • Instructor: Taryn Bauerle, associate professor in the Horticulture Section of SIPS
  • Engaged Teaching in Organismal Biology in Insect Biology (ENTOM 2120), Herpetology (BioEE4700) and Evolutionary Plant Morphology
    • Chelsea Specht, professor, Section of Plant Biology in SIPS
    • Patrick O’Grady, professor, Department of Entomology
    • Kelly Zamudio, professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
  • Introduction to Environmental Science and Sustainability (NTRES 1101) and Society and Natural Resources (NTRES 2201)
    • Clifford Kraft, professor, Department of Natural Resources
    • Richard Stedman, professor, Department of Natural Resources
    • Dylan Bugden, doctoral candidate and lecturer for NTRES 2201)
  • Developing and Assessing Critical Thinking Skills in the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories (BioG 1500)
    • Mark  Sarvary, senior lecturer, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior
    • Natasha Holmes, assistant professor, Department of Physics
  • Development and Implementation of a Problem Based Learning Project for Biology and Management of Plant Diseases (PLPPM 3010)
    • Kerik Cox, associate professor, Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology in SIPS
    • Mary McKellar, teaching support specialist, SIPS
  • Introductory Microbiology Lecture (BioMi 2900)
    • Esther R. Angert, professor, Department of Microbiology
    • Daniel H. Buckley, professor, SIPS and Department of Microbiology

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.