348. Active Learning Initiative at UGA

While there is compelling evidence that active learning results in increased student learning, these initiatives often face resistance from students and faculty. In this episode, Megan Mittelstadt and Leah Carmichael join us to discuss the active learning initiative at the University of Georgia that provides professional development for faculty, active learning training for students, and for the redesign of classroom spaces. Meg is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. Leah is the Director of Active Learning, also at the University of Georgia.

Show Notes


xJohn: While there is compelling evidence that active learning results in increased student learning, these initiatives often face resistance from students and faculty. In this episode, we explore a large-scale active learning initiative that provides professional development for faculty, active learning training for students, and for the redesign of classroom spaces to better support this initiative.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Megan Mittelstadt and Leah Carmichael. Meg: is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. Leah is the Director of Active Learning, also at the University of Georgia. Welcome Meg: and Leah.

Meg: Hi.

Leah: Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Meg, are you drinking tea?

Meg: I am, I’m drinking double chai. Tea is a big deal. In our center. All of the people who work here have favorites. And we provide tea service at every workshop and I checked this morning, the most popular tea at our workshops is lemon ginger.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s good to know. Another teaching center full of tea. [LAUGHTER]

Meg: Yeah, we even have the teas of folks who don’t work here anymore that we keep stashed, just in case. So, Leah, you know, Colleen. Colleen drank…

Leah: Yeah.

Meg: …caffeine free peppermint tea, and we still keep it stashed, even though she doesn’t work here anymore. [LAUGHTER] Just in case.

Rebecca: How about you, Leah?

Leah: Well, I am a diehard coffee drinker. And so I am enjoying a cup of coffee. But my best friend is a potter, so I have her beautiful mug here to enjoy it with.

Rebecca: Wonderful. How about you, John?

John: I’m drinking a black raspberry green tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s nice. And I’m back to my blue sapphire black tea.

John: Black and blue?

Rebecca: It’s black and blue. [LAUGHTER] We’re recording this at the end of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

John: We read about the active learning initiative in a recent Chronicle article and we invited you here to talk a little bit about the active learning initiative at the University of Georgia. We were really impressed to see that the university had budgeted over a million dollars a year for five years as part of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan. This is a really large investment in effective teaching practices, and it’s especially impressive that this is happening at an R1 university. How did this initiative come about?

Meg: Yeah, we’re really excited that this investment is happening. And it kind of stems from an initial pilot that happened in 2018. There was a presidential initiative on active learning that resulted from a faculty task force. And so in 2018, our president allocated a million dollars to active learning programs, as a pilot. I feel super lucky to have a president who cares so deeply about the teaching enterprise at UGA. It’s something that you don’t see at every institution. And so I really appreciate it, value it, and count my luck there. Our president allocated a million dollars in 2018 for an active learning course redesign institute and a pilot classroom infrastructure renovation, and also the creation of a one-credit course for our students called Becoming an Active Learner that’s deployed by our Student Success Center. And that first year, we thought, “Gosh, it might just be a one-year investment, so we really got to make this count.” And so all the folks in the center sort of got together and backwards designed the programming for our first Active Learning Summer Institute, which by the way, was one of the most gratifying and enjoyable experiences of my career to get five educational developers in a room and get to go totally meta and apply the backwards-design process to the creation of a Course Design Institute. We nerded out. [LAUGHTER] We had like the room where we had all of our notes on the walls, and it was sort of our Beautiful Mind room for the Course Redesign Institute. We loved it. And so we designed this institute for 2018, and it went quite well. The folks at our institution who applied were way more applications than we could accommodate in the Institute and the folks who got into the Institute had a good experience. And we were able to show a couple of courses that had been redesigned seeing some really significant positive outcomes for students, both in terms of their depth of understanding, but also in some of the metrics in courses like numbers of Ds, Fs and withdrawals from courses decreasing in a few really key courses like our introductory mathematics course sequence. And so we were able to go back to the President and the Provost every year after that and say, “Okay, here’s how the course redesign Institute went, could we get funding to do it again?” And so we continued to do it every year. And this continued for a couple more years. And when we got into the 2020 timeframe, UGA was preparing for our next reaffirmation through SACSCOC. And for SACSCOC reaffirmation, an important component of that reaccreditation proposal is the creation and proposal of a Quality Enhancement Plan (or QEP). And so a committee was assembled to come up with what that topic might be, and they looked at programs that existed on campus as well as the university strategic plan. And luckily, by this point, our strategic plan had been drafted with quite a few key performance indicators related to the adoption of active learning practices. And so they identified this opportunity to scale the Active Learning Initiative at UGA. And so they proposed this topic, it was selected and now the funding has been stabilized for some of the pilot programs that existed, but also some newer initiatives to0.

Rebecca: There’s a substantial body of work supporting the efficacy of active learning and increasing student learning and reducing equity gaps. And it’s so exciting to hear about such a big investment and the interest of faculty [LAUGHTER] having more interest than spots for example, But I know one of the things that sometimes happens when faculty decide to start implementing active learning in their classes is sometimes there’s some pushback from students, but I heard you say something about a one-credit course for students. Can you talk a little bit about that? And how that ties to preparing students for this endeavor?

Meg: Yeah, so because we had this course from the get go, there was already this idea that reaching out directly to students and building their capacities and dispositions as learners to amplify their success in an active learning environment is something we might ought to think about. Of course, we also think about it from the faculty side too. One of our most popular sessions in the Course Redesign Institute is a session on student resistance to active learning, and we rely heavily on Tolman and Kremling’s Why Students Resist Learning for that session and then talk about some of the instructor facilitation and explanation strategies that instructors can use to ensure that student resistance is not cropping up and to help prevent barriers to student engagement. I think what’s really cool about Tolman and Kremling’s book is that they reframe “student resistance” to “barriers to engaging” and so we work with faculty to reframe student resistance as “Where are the barriers to engaging that we need to address as instructors?” And then on the student side too, the philosophy is “Where are there barriers to engaging?” And then “When can we do some really important work to help students appreciate that engaging in active learning is a really actually durable practice for them?” It’s really going to benefit them long term. And since that idea was already in the mix, as we were coming up with the programming for the QEP, there was a really large committee, I think, a 33-person committee of faculty, students, and administrators who proposed the programming that would go into our Active Learning Initiative. And one of the things that they wanted to think about was the role that metacognition plays in active learning. That was identified really early on because we were already aware of the student piece, thinking about metacognition as a key component of active learning. The committee spent quite a bit of time unpacking: “What are the learning dispositions involved in student metacognition? And what are the learning dispositions involved in lifelong learning and other benefits of active learning? And where’s the overlap?” So we looked at things like the AAC&U value rubrics on lifelong learning. And I think the other one was, I want to say, it was like transferable learning, I’m getting the title wrong. But anyway, there were two AAC&U value rubrics that we looked at, as well as some of the literature on metacognition and literature on lifelong learning. And our assessment team identified four student learning dispositions that seemed to exist across all of the categories that we were looking at: students acting more curiously, students engaging with initiative, students becoming more reflective in their practice as learners, and students drawing connections between what they were learning in their active learning courses and developing other knowledge and skills. And so we use this framework of these four learning dispositions to really drive our student programming. And I’m going to pass it over to Leah, so she can share a little bit more about how we’ve expanded beyond this one credit hour course to a whole portfolio of student facing initiatives.

Leah: So, first of all, I would like to say with the instructor development piece, I was an instructor on campus, a lecturer, and was in that first cohort in 2018, an international affairs scholar. And it really was the first time that I had had such a professional development opportunity that felt like it truly revolutionized the way I taught, the way I thought about my students, the way I interacted with my students. And so whereas I was taught to transform one of my courses, I ended up transforming them all. And when I was able to be on the team for active learning, I signed up, it was really excited to do that. So it was an amazing experience. For the student piece, what I really love is that we have not just gone to the instructors and said, “Alright, it’s time to consider something different and then your job is to not only do all this hard work to change and rethink your courses, but then can you do us a favor and sell it to the students?” That’s just such a burden and very difficult. And so within CTL, they do a great job of training us in the Institute to go in first day and frame the course, to craft our syllabus language in a way that would potentially be able to introduce this course before even day one and to help decrease that student resistance. So that was a really important piece. But we also would have these teams of students, these just superstars on campus, who are also part of the programming for active learning. One of my absolute favorites is the peer learning assistants. This is an on-campus paid position for students. They apply and they are able to either return to a class or return to an instructor whom they have worked with before. And they attend a class where they facilitate active learning approaches and activities with the instructor. So the peer learner is responsible for helping with the planning of the course and preparation with the instructor implementing it and then also of course, following along with the course materials. And this is a key: this near-peer experience has been key in allowing the burden to be shared in introducing active learning within a classroom. And the students look at these peers, maybe a semester ahead of them sometimes, maybe years, and they start to see these mentors that are built in. And these students know and care about active learning. They see why it works in the class and they’re returning to the class. And we have found that those classrooms have been just the most wonderful place to see this cultural change among students. We also have active learning ambassadors. And they are trained to do outreach. They do demonstrations for faculty. One of my favorite moments is we have an active learning summit every year open to the public. But we have an active learning summit in which they run a showcase where the faculty walk in, and there are students behind tables with interactive material demonstrating different active learning techniques and how they see it in their class, how they use it for study skills, and how they would enjoy instructors being able to incorporate it in their classroom. The faculty love it. They stop, they ask questions, they think, “Well, what about this? Well, this would be difficult.” And then students give that experience from their perspective of how these techniques work for them. And we see that the faculty really crave that and really enjoy being the learner in that moment, and learning from a student about what techniques work best for them.

Meg: And Leah, I think one thing that’s really unique about our quality enhancement plan that I haven’t seen at other institutions yet, or if they have them, I haven’t seen them, so mea culpa. But one thing that’s really cool about our Quality Enhancement Plan is that we have a partnership with our Office of Student Affairs where they’ve designed some programming through our residential life curriculum to embed active learning in the co-curriculum too, so that students are experiencing and talking about the value of active learning not just in the classroom with each individual instructor, but experiencing active learning outside of the classroom in the co-curriculum. Students who are leaders on campus are trained in active learning facilitation techniques, so that when they go in to serve as leaders of student groups on campus, they have some of these active learning tools in their back pocket that they can deploy and experience on the other side as well. So we’re really seeing active learning proliferated, not just in the classroom, but outside of the classroom too.

John: It’s nice to see such a holistic approach. In so many cases where we’ve seen active learning initiatives, it’s usually just designed for faculty development, to go and fix all those issues and challenges. And by approaching it from all these angles, it seems to be a really effective way of addressing some of the challenges that faculty face when doing this. One of the challenges, though, that faculty sometimes face when they introduce active learning is they go into a classroom where the seats are either bolted down, or are very rigid. I think part of your plan involves some type of infrastructure changes to support that. Could you talk a little bit about how classrooms have been redesigned as part of this process?

Leah: It’s such a key aspect of it, I have the anecdotal experience where I graduated from the Active Learning Summer Institute, went into a classroom ready to be highly engaged and interactive and set up have a highly mobile class design only to find that I was in stadium seating, with fixed seats and I thought, “Oh, no, what am I possibly going to do?” And so we have three foci, within the initiative. And we’ve mentioned the instructor development piece. So key, but as you said, it can’t stand alone without support for the other two. We have the student piece, we also have the classroom piece. And so our goal is to every… usually it has to be in the summer, when it’s much quieter… every summer, we just push for classroom enhancements across campus. And we have three criteria in mind that we see as not necessarily perfect for every single classroom situation, but the baseline for which we want to capture for an active learning classroom. And so the first is: does this classroom have mobile furniture? Are we able to move students around? Could an English professor have a roundtable discussion? And then within the 20-minute transition time, could my students go into that same classroom, which happened last semester, in a highly mobile classroom and be able to set it up into a simulation of roleplay thing for my international politics course? So do we have classrooms with that mobile furniture is the first thing. The second is, do we have student collaboration tools? And these do not have to be high tech. In fact, we ran the survey, and students and faculty said just give us more dry erase boards. We don’t need the fancy, fanciest of smart screens. Please just give us the basics. But let us work on a project huddled over together and be implementing and creating something new. And then finally, it’s just general space, do we have enough space that we are able to not only move the furniture around, but move people around in an effective way. And so 25 square feet per student is kind of our ultimate goal. And so we looked around and I was actually just running the numbers recently. And I think on campus we have, depending on how you measure our classrooms, between 400 to 600 spaces, it depends on if you count labs, and these other learning spaces, about 82% have at least two of these criteria. And so we’re getting there. We’ve made a real push and we’re trying to say: “Yes, instructors, please change but also know that we’re going to meet you with an environment that facilitates this kind of approach to learning.

Meg: Well, I also have to interject and say that the stance of the CTL is that active learning can happen in any classroom no matter the features. And so of course, like a good backwards design course or re-design institute, we always start out with the situational factors of a course. And that might include what’s the likelihood that you’re going to be in a fixed-seat auditorium or fixed table, but moveable chairs, and think about the choreography of that, the active learning techniques that you’ll adopt based on that. But in Leah’s example, in particular, if I remember correctly, Leah, you had a student in a wheelchair in your course the first semester after you redesigned your course. And when you were in the tiered auditorium, that meant that there was a specific area where the student in the wheelchair could sit and they couldn’t move through all of the case study roles that you had available. And so you were able to advocate for a different classroom, you obtained one, thank goodness, and everyone could move through a flat classroom instead. And so sometimes things crop up, even if you have planned to be in a fixed-seat auditorium, that you have to be able to modulate on the fly based on the characteristics of your students each semester too.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about whether or not your program has focused on specific programs or if it started with specific programs and its spread to different programs or what your strategy is for involving faculty across disciplines?

Leah: One of the most important parts that I really liked about this initiative is it’s not a mandate, we are not requiring any instructor to adopt active learning through a mandate. Instead, it really is a support, educate, encourage. And so we really have not been focused on okay, this unit by X year needs to have Y outcome in terms of an active learning goal. But in terms of strategy, what’s nice is we can start to see the people that walk in the door to find the active learning Summer Institute. And the high demand that first year was a nice little kind of bellwether that, okay, there is something going on here. When you have more people that can fit, and that’s consistently. The CTL needs to keep it kind of a quality curated experience with a cohort that goes through and has to do these really difficult re-education, understanding education differently, and then of course redesign. Such a dense set of tasks. So with this cohort like experience really requires so much of the faculty. What we started to notice, as we looked around and realized that instructors from different schools and colleges were coming to the Summer Institute, and we have seen that as the CTL has expanded beyond the Summer Institute and provided workshops, both standalone workshops, as well as a course redesign experience outside of the institute. We see hundreds of faculty each semester coming into the programming of active learning. And really we have, I believe, 19 schools and colleges that have undergraduate programs, and we have representatives from each that participate in this programming.

Rebecca: That’s wonderful.

John: What type of training do faculty receive as part of the institute and other training that you provide?

Meg: It was initially just that summer Course Redesign Institute. And what we started hearing from faculty as we would get these applications every year is the deadline would pass, and we’d hear from some faculty who would say things like, “Oh, I really, really want to do the institute. but summer is my field research season” or “I’m in the clinics in summer,” or “I have childcare duties that I can’t get away during that time of year.” And so there started to be some sort of advocacy for other on ramps into the programming, so that when we had the opportunity to stabilize the funding through the Quality Enhancement Plan for active learning initiatives, we started thinking about how can we make this program one that faculty could find the on ramp that is appropriate for their needs? Is it a faculty member who’s been using active learning for a long, long time and they really want to brush up on their skills in one particular area? And so that might look like engaging in a specific workshop on something like facilitating group discussions in a large lecture environment, or looking at student metacognition and how that plays into a particular student developmental level that they might teach in their courses? Or does somebody want to do the whole workshop series and Course Redesign Institute all the way through, but they can’t do it during the summer, or anywhere in between. And so what we ended up with is a workshop series, we have 12 standard workshops that we offer over time: four fundamental workshops, and eight special topics, workshops, and we rotate through those. We offer a couple of each every year. And then we have the active learning summer institute that happens every May. And then starting next academic year, over the course of the spring semester, we’ve designed a course redesign experience that takes the course redesign elements out of the active learning Summer Institute and decouples those elements from the active learning workshop components of the Course Redesign Institute that we currently have, so that faculty can upskill through the workshop series. And once they’ve taken eight of the 12 workshops, they can apply for the course redesign experience over the spring semester. Through that course redesign experience, they come and meet with us for a couple of hours every three weeks or so over the course of the spring semester. And the idea is that by the end of that course redesign experience and workshop series completion, they’ve recapitulated all of the experiences that you might have during the multi-week summer Course Redesign Institute. We also provide different communities for folks to engage with. We have several robust Faculty Learning Communities on campus. So we have multiple faculty learning communities related to active learning, one specifically coming up this year that Lea generously funded from the Active Learning Initiative budget for folks who are looking to engage in SOTL, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, on their active learning endeavors, as well as specific faculty learning communities for the folks who have peer learning assistance in their courses, or who are engaged in the work after the course redesign experience, for the alumni of the Course Redesign Institute. We also have opportunities for faculty who are highly engaged and master teachers to serve as active learning mentors to their peer faculty. So we have three active learning mentors every year who work with the folks who’ve graduated from the course redesign institutes to give them opportunities for office hours with their faculty peers for micro mentoring sessions on specific topics of interest. They also create supportive resources. We have similar mentors for our PLA faculty, our peer learning assistant faculty. And for those who are serving in those mentoring roles, the Center for Teaching and Learning provides them with opportunities for additional coaching and support on instructional development, educational development, instructional coaching practices that they might bring to bear in those consultative sessions with their peer faculty, too. So the goal here is that we have some workshops that are entry level, some special topics, workshops, the course redesign experiences, some stuff for the master teachers, who are really wanting to be mentors and wanting to kind of serve as role models within their spheres of influence and for others who are moving through this programming, and we’re helping them build capacity in those areas, too. And then, of course, we have faculty on campus who have been working in active learning for years and years and years, and who published on active learning, who are real role models nationally. And so we really try our best to honor their expertise and bring them in to help frame the ways in which we deploy our programming, but also to serve as guest speakers and to engage with folks who are newer to active learning so that we can help provide opportunities for that cross-collaboration and multidisciplinary discussion.

Rebecca: I love the range of options you have available, and really how much you all have embraced the idea of flexibility for your teacher learners, just like we might want in our classrooms as well.

Meg: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the active learning techniques that faculty have adopted after going through the institute or other variations?

Meg: Yeah, so as you’ve heard now, our summer institute is three weeks long. And so not only are we giving sessions on active learning, but we’re modeling active learning throughout. And so folks see a lot of different techniques that they might not have seen before. And they’re trying to identify which things that they’re seeing, which instructor moves they see, that align with the needs of their students, of the needs of their course, and their teaching persona as well. So as you might imagine, folks to leave the institute, select different things that are authentic to their practice and their situational factors for their course. So we go into the Institute, which actually begins today for summer 2024. We’re recording on the first day of the Active Learning Summer Institute. So we’re getting the anxious energy of meeting the new faculty. We start out on the first day of helping faculty appreciate that we don’t see active learning as a homogenous set of teaching activities, we’re not going to give them the recipe. We want them to discover the recipe that works for their course. So our QEP is sort of predicated on the notion that the extent to which students are actively engaged in thinking and applying what they’re learning is of far greater importance than the particular active learning instructional strategies used. And so to that end, the course redesign process helps faculty first hone in on the key enduring understandings and learning outcomes at the course level they want their students to leave with and identifying key learning bottlenecks or threshold concepts that they’ve identified that students tend to either have a tough time with, or they’ve really had to work hard to help students grasp that concept in order for them to move from novice to expert in that field. And then we encourage faculty to design their active learning interventions in alignment with those key features of the course so that active learning is more like the trunk of the tree rather than the ornaments on the tree. And our philosophy there is that when pressed for time, the ornaments are easy to cut, but if the act of learning is baked into the backbone or the trunk of the course, that’s just inherent to the identity of the course and it’s not something that’s going to be cut for time. And also you’re putting your energy into where the biggest impact is going to be for your learners..

Leah: If I may add, this was the revolutionary part of being a participant in the Active Learning Summer Institute. I thought I was going for the tips and the tricks, I’d get my little suitcase of ideas and I would just kind of put it all in there through the Institute, and then graduate and use all those as those ornaments as Meg: described it. And instead, I found myself looking at my course and realizing that the backwards design principle had me throwing a lot of content at my students, and not really aligning the activities in the course towards the student learning outcomes. Once I was able to do that hard work, then the excitement of “Ooh, okay, well, which tips and tricks, which kind of active learning engaging styles would be most useful for this.” And that’s just a really exciting way to do it as an instructor.

John: Most instructors, as they come through their educational process, have not been exposed, particularly not in graduate school, to active learning techniques. How do you address issues of faculty resistance to completely changing the way in which they’re approaching the design of their classes.

Leah: It takes a while, [LAUGHTER] having been one of the resistant faculty, I’ll speak to it from this perspective, I think Meg: referenced the former colleague Colleen, and she was my mentor going through this institute. And I remember her asking me to write all the content that I felt was so essential to get the students to to learn throughout the semester, and I distinctly remember this moment where she said, “Okay, let’s put that in an envelope, all that stuff that you just wrote down, we’re just going to put it in an envelope, and we’re just going to set it over here, it’s still very much matters, don’t worry, it’s not going away. It’s all still important.” And then she said, “Let’s really think about the future student. Who are you teaching? What would be a success?” And I think that’s a moment where I could take a deep breath, as a faculty. At first, it was scary and fearful. But it’s a moment for the first time you take a deep breath and go, if I miss a case in international law, they are still going to thrive in this world. I’m focusing on what skills they actually need to thrive in this future career. And so it’s not about that specific case, it’s about the skills. And once I was able to realign that, and it’s so important to be sitting in a cohort, it’s not an isolating experience, you’re sitting in a cohort with other people doing the same reformulating of their whole profession, with mentors from the CTL, helping and encouraging them. Without that sort of ecosystem, it would be a very lonely and harder… just slow… process, maybe, even if you are willing to change. So I think the quality of that instructional development experience within the CTL cannot be replicated. And then I hope the other two kind of prongs of the initiative, once they leave the institute, they’ll still have the mentorship for the next year with CTL and with the faculty mentors. They then can leave and say: “We have the classroom engagement things.” We are also trying to change the environment to help you and we want your feedback. We are always asking those active learning instructors, what can we do differently within these classrooms? And then also the students… we’re engaging the students. So you’re going to walk into class, and they’re going to know what you’re trying to do, and that it’s recognized as a really good thing to do across campus. So it’s the ecosystem that will create more empathy and support and therefore reduce the resistance.

Meg: Yeah, so Leah mentioned, this idea of you have this mentor that exists for the year after the institute. And I don’t know that we explained that. That’s a pretty unique feature of our Course Redesign Institute. And it comes somewhat from our Center for Teaching and Learning has quite a bit of tradition around investment in longitudinal cohort-based programming. So we have a lot of one-year, two-year, multi-month cohorted faculty development experiences, because we find that that interdisciplinary conversation is so helpful for helping folks build connections and shared disciplinary content, and teaching practices with one another in ways that proliferate those great ideas across campus and seed innovation. And as we thought about the ways that our faculty fellows…we call them Faculty Fellows Programs at UGA… ways that our faculty fellows programs were successful, were in that sort of longitudinal support that was available. And we wanted to replicate that as best possible with our Course Redesign Institute. And when we thought about the outcomes of our institute, and how we wanted people to leave the institute, be prepared to deploy a redesigned course in the coming academic year. And we started thinking about what that experiences like as a teacher, and we thought, “Gosh, people are going to leave the institute, be all excited, go back to their department, where they might be one of few who’s engaging in this sort of robust active learning commitment, especially in the early years of the institute.” How can we support them in being successful when they go into their first class and leave the class and go: “Ooh, that didn’t feel like it usually felt I wonder if it went well?” or they do their first robust activity and maybe it doesn’t go quite as they were expecting? How can we be there for them in those moments? So as folks leave our Course Redesign Institute, they’re each paired with a mentor from the CTL. And that mentor is their touch point for the year following the institute, so that when they have that class session that throws them for a loop or they get some feedback from students, that they’re not quite sure how they’re To respond to it, they have a touch point that they can go to. And it’s someone who knows their course intimately, who’s worked with them through the redesign process, is aware of the ways in which their course has changed, and is there to provide them with that support. And also that mentor is the person who performs… we call them mid-semester formative evaluations… but at other CTLs they’re called small group instructional diagnoses. So at the midpoint of their course, someone from the CTL comes in and talks with their students to focus group them, to collect some feedback on how the course is going so far, and then works with the faculty member at closing the loop on that feedback to help students appreciate that they are such an important component of the redesign process too, because the instructor is engaging in this two-way exchange of information with the students both on the content and on the operational organization of the course and refining the course in response to that feedback. So we want the students to appreciate that their experience and the way that they’re learning and what they think could be happening to support their learning even better, how that could be incorporated into the course as it continues.

Rebecca: I really love the depth of the culture change components that are built into this initiative, from feeling like you’re part of something bigger, the fact that it’s voluntary, your support structures, it’s holistic, both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, there’s opportunities for feedback loops. Change can be really difficult, but when you’re a part of that bigger network, it can be helpful. The timing of this was really interesting when it kicked off…so, a couple years before COVID, so you had some time to establish the roots, and then COVID erupts, AI erupts, there’s more first-gen students, we’ve got a lot going on, and there’s a lot of change happening. How do you help your faculty avoid burnout with so much change and maintain this momentum?

Meg: Yeah, great question. You’re taking me right back to the pandemic and that experience of everyone just doing the best emergency remote teaching you could do. And one of the things that I remember from that period is faculty who had gone through the Active Learning Summer Institute mentioning that they were so glad that they’d gone through the institute because it made pandemic teaching easier. They had recently conceptualized of their course learning outcomes that identified the most important content that they wanted to prioritize, they had a sense of some lesson plans for how to deploy these things. And even though the institute happens in person, because of the way we were talking about how you would make adjustment to different things in different settings, they could more easily conceptualize of how to engage online or asynchronously with students using active learning principles. So we had this early indication that the folks who’d experienced the course redesign process felt better prepared for emergency remote teaching and pivoting quickly. We also found active learning to be perfectly timed as an initiative as a response to post-pandemic disengagement. So when students were coming back into the classroom and members of our community were craving that deep intellectual engagement and community with one another, but then in some instances, were a little bit disappointed when it didn’t materialize in the ways that it might have before the pandemic, we found that faculty were coming to the institute, saying, “This is something that I’m hoping can meet this need that I have to engage students in rich conversation or to engage students in deep intellectual engagement in this learning community, and how can I address this through active learning?” And also, we’re lucky to have a large number of faculty champions for active learning on campus, folks who’ve been using active learning for a while, and in various departments across the institution, not just in specific pockets. And so they’re serving as role models and mentors to the faculty in their unit. And a message that those faculty champions were helping us reinforce is that teaching with active learning is a joyful way to teach. And so oftentimes, when these faculty champions, these mentors, were talking to folks who were saying things like “post-pandemic teaching is a little bit disappointing,” or “I’m feeling a little bit burned out because of everything that we’ve experienced through the pandemic, and through these various disruptions to higher education.” When their mentors were telling them, “Have you considered bringing some joy into your classroom and making teaching a more joyful experience for you and for your students? And guess what? You can do that through active learning. Let me tell you how I brought joy into my classroom through active learning.” We would see folks come to us and say, “I’m just really looking for some rejuvenation and some revitalization, and I’ve seen my colleagues just transition their course through active learning in a way that they’re just skipping down the hall after they leave their class, and I want that feeling. So I’m hoping that this will be that experience for me.” And so we had people coming to us asking for that, and we hoped that would be the case. And then I’ll just add that like many higher education institutions right now we’re in the midst of an evaluation of teaching culture change, too. And so we’re trying to adopt a more what we’re calling a three-voice culture of teaching evaluations that’s relying upon your individual reflection on your teaching some data from your students and the interpretation and contextualization of that data, as well as peer observation of teaching data and bringing that all together as sort of like triangulated data to provide some insights on our teaching, and then respond to that and have like a assessment loop on this. And so it’s this idea of a culture of continuous improvement with teaching where we’re able to proliferate this message of: “You’re not an award winning teacher necessarily on your first day of teaching, but this is a set of skills that you can develop over time. And also, you’re never done developing it.” And so this culture is helping to amplify the message that taking part in educational development is not just an expected part of being a teacher, but it’s an opportunity to continue your culture of continued mastery.

John: So one of the ways in which this is spread has been from faculty to faculty. One of the things I’ve been noticing a lot on my campus is that it also sometimes spreads from students to faculty. As more and more faculty move from faculty-centered teaching to student-centered teaching, students become a little bit more vocal sometimes about expressing what works for them and that will often result in faculty considering using new techniques that their students have recommended to them. Has that been happening as well at your institution?

Leah: That’s why we wanted to capitalize on this proactively and have channels of growth. And so again, we have little areas in which we have students really playing that intentional role. So rather than maybe a complaining, “I went into this class and I didn’t like it” kind of a customer satisfaction problem area, we really want to make sure it’s more that students, first of all, are trained in the active learning pedagogy. So my active learning ambassadors, as they are chosen, we then say, “Okay, here’s the wizard behind the curtain friends, come join us [LAUGHTER] and see what’s going on behind these intentional classrooms that you really enjoy and don’t quite know why you like it so much.” So we bring them into the understanding of what instructors are doing when they’re in an active learning classroom and why. And then we give them opportunities to then go and front face and tell other faculty, “this is what an active learning classroom feels like for a student.” This is why one of my favorite moments… we have, again, as I mentioned, an active learning summit every year in February, and there was an entire breakout session run by students who were peer learning assistants and active learning ambassadors. And they were talking about the study skills that they have seen through their training, or through their classes that really work in their discipline that they use outside of the classroom to kind of empower themselves to study and to learn. And what was wonderful is that the front of the room were students in a panel and most of the room or faculty and I found that the question and answer period, the instructors would raise their hand and say, “Okay, well, but I’m not in that discipline, but I’m thinking about bringing this into my class in X way, is this something that you would find effective?” And they were asking the students about designing their course to be student centered. And that’s when I think if we put those students that know what is going on, so it’s not a complaint section, it is more a reframing and a sharing out of we know what you’re trying to do and we really appreciate it, and here’s how it works really well, for us. It just starts to kind of change that conversation from being yet another instructor versus student dynamic, which I think we have plenty of those around campuses at any given time to becoming an instructor and student experience.

Rebecca: Having student ambassadors and student voices celebrating this work, is certainly a testament to the success of this work. And you’ve also mentioned some other moments of assessment. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re assessing this initiative?

Leah: There is a rich assessment team who is actually part of the larger Active Learning Initiative. And so I hope I do justice to their very nuanced framework that they have. We have macro level, mezzo level, and micro level indicators that we are trying to capture. At the most macro level demand is one of the earliest indicators of success for us. Are people applying to the Summer Institute? Are ambassadors applying for the program? How many peer learning assistants apply and how many instructors want them, just really kind of those basic quantifiable amounts for demand. And then we also are attempting to capture survey data across the university. We stop the students and say: “We don’t know if you’ve interacted with active learning in the classroom or not, we’re not selecting a given class, we’re just wondering what you would say if you observe a cultural change going on.” So we’re also trying to get these larger macro level indicators. Then at the mezzo level, we’re getting into those lifelong learning dispositions that Meg: referenced earlier, the curiosity, the initiative, the reflection and connection. We have artifacts that we pull from courses that have an instructor who’s either going through all the Active Learning Summer Institute, or who has gone through it already, so we do a pre- and post-analysis. And we have faculty scorers, who can go through these artifacts to see if we are capturing if the artifacts include a prompt about curiosity or a prompt about initiative. And then we are attempting to measure, and we’re working on different ways to do that, but measure if we’re seeing growth over time in these lifelong learning dispositions, and then finally, at kind of the micro level, we’re making sure that the disciplinary knowledge is being enhanced within this that are focused on active learning techniques. One thing we have yet to mention is yet another part of our holistic umbrella. This is why the programming is so large, but we have these active learning change grants. And this felt really good to hear for me as an instructor who went through the institute. And then it was about five years later that the next person in my department went through the institute. What these change grants do is it really allows those who go to the institute to go back to their department or their unit and say, “What if we change several classes at a time through some sort of infusion of deep learning and the CTO will support us, the assessment team will help us assess whether we’re doing what we’re saying we’re doing.” And so on this micro level, the assessment team is really starting to capture some pretty cool indicators, that when you kind of create a unit change, there’s a cascading norm it’s called in international affairs, where you change enough of the unit and enough of the actors in a given scenario, you can then really see that norm start to shift in a unit. And so at each of these levels we’re finding it’s still early. So we’re not saying “It’s a win, close up shop,” [LAUGHTER] but we are finding really robust indicators of early success.

John: Well, you’ve given us and our listeners a lot to think about, and it sounds like a model program that could be copied very productively at other institutions. But we always end by asking: “What’s next?”

Meg: We’ve started to hear from folks that are interested in proliferating initiatives. So, of course, we welcome conversations with folks who are interested in hearing about some of the elements of the program and brainstorming ways to deploy these on other campuses, lessons learned along the way, etc. I mentioned earlier that as folks crave these multiple on ramps, we’re deploying these additional on ramps over time. So starting in the fall, we’ve designed some of our foundational active learning workshops, we’ve taken those and created asynchronous online versions of those workshops that are going to be hosted in our learning management system. So they’ll be available on demand. So if a faculty member doesn’t happen to be available at the time that we’ve offered that workshop this semester, they can still engage, especially in those foundational workshops. And then the spring semester course redesign experience version of our Course Redesign Institute will be deploying for the first time in spring 2025. We’re really excited about that as well.

Leah: I would also say for your listeners, if there is an interest in kind of seeing what we’re up to and helping participate in engaging with this discussion, traditionally the active learning summit has been really focused on UGA community for the first two years, but in the third year, so February 2025, we are going to open up the summit to visitors and encourage them to be a part of these breakout sessions or propose different ideas that they would like to talk about. I know Rebecca mentioned earlier, the challenges of AI, we’re going to try to have a breakout session, though, that focuses on this: active learning best practices in the age of such change. We’ll send out a call for applications in the fall, and we’d love to have anybody who’s interested in learning more, I think it will be Thursday, February 27, and Friday, February 28, on UGA campus, and we welcome all those who are interested in attending.

Rebecca: That’s great. Thank you so much for joining us. There’s so much to think about and so much exciting work that you’ve all done.

Leah: Thank you.

Meg: Thank you so much for having us.

John: Thank you and we look forward to more conversations in the future.

Meg: Absolutely. Anytime.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.