Exploring and embracing active learning methods across college campuses

Illustration of people working together.

Last month, Adobe released the first installment of a four-part webinar series in partnership with The Chronicle of Higher Education that examines how the pandemic prompted faculty to transform their teaching practices to provide more impactful experiences for students. Ian Wilhelm, assistant managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, led discussions with college faculty and academic leaders on active learning, a method that often involves discussion groups, hands-on work and experiential opportunities.

Speakers from Harvard University and University of California (UC) Irvine shared their unique experiences employing active learning methods in the classroom and shared how academic leaders can spur change on their own campuses and maintain new ways of teaching as classes resume in-person.

Below are a few highlights from the discussion. Key topics included:

Harvard research examines active learning’s impact on student performance

Beth McMurtie, senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, kicked off the first session, “Evidence — and Misperceptions — About Active Learning,” by facilitating a conversation with faculty members from Harvard University who conducted a study that analyzed student performance in active learning classrooms and the perceived impact of these unique methods versus traditional pedagogy.

Louis Deslauriers, director of Science Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — Senior Preceptor in Physics at Harvard, explained how the study set out to explore the strong cognitive bias known as “feeling of knowing,” where perceived fluency is often conflated with learning comprehension.

The researchers sampled students from a physics course where half learned about a specific topic through a traditional classroom lecture, and the other half used active learning methods to absorb the same course material. At the end of the class period, students completed a survey about their perceptions of what they learned and were ultimately tested on their understanding of the curricula. The study revealed that students who engaged in active learning performed better on tests, despite feeling they had learned more through traditional lectures.

The disparity between student performance and their perceived learning experiences illuminated the need for administrators to support faculty’s use of active learning in classrooms and validate the quality of these methods.

Kelly Miller, associate senior lecturer of Applied Physics, Harvard University, emphasized the importance of faculty addressing student sentiment toward active learning prior to implementation and grounding students in the data to help them foster an understanding of the anticipated experience and expected outcome. In addition to normalizing active learning in courses, especially complex subjects like physics, she encouraged other universities to rethink their evaluation practices, which may also help improve students’ perception of their learning experiences.

“Student evaluations of teaching should be used with caution because they rely on student perceptions, which are sort of skewed towards passive teaching methods,” Miller said. “I encourage using other metrics for evaluating teaching beyond the end of semester evaluations, which are biased for all sorts of reasons, not just active versus passive learning — interviewing students, for example, can yield stronger results.”

Reshaping pedagogy and embracing digital innovation in a post-pandemic era

The pandemic further revealed the widespread inequities of access to educational resources, therefore requiring many academic leaders to shift their priorities and accelerate transformation within their institution. Todd Taylor, Adobe pedagogical evangelist and eliason distinguished professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discussed the biggest changes impacting higher education and how the application of multiple tools and learning methods, both traditional and active, can help colleges improve overall academic experiences for students, and ultimately highlight the value of an academic degree.

“We're starting to learn that there isn't one way to teach and there isn't one definition of what a good student is. It's not a binary conversation of either you do active learning or you don't,” Taylor said. “What we're discovering is that there needs to be options, there needs to be a mix different modalities, and technologies such as Adobe Creative Cloud can enable those possibilities to be open.”

As institutions look to the future, Taylor explained that placing an innovative leader at the helm will help establish a culture of change and motivate faculty to embrace more impactful pedagogies, such as active learning. He also underscored the importance of colleges establishing a Dean of Innovation, who can oversee campus-wide initiatives, such as the Adobe Creative Campus program, which helps staff and students develop critical digital literacy skills that increase students’ engagement and employability. Through the use of Adobe Creative Cloud across disciplines, students can evolve from passive consumers of course material to active creators, by demonstrating understanding of concepts, as well as critical thinking and communication skills.

UC Irvine promotes new ways of teaching with active learning institute and specialized classrooms

The webinar closed with “Sustaining New Teaching Models,” featuring a panel of speakers from the University of California (UC) Irvine who shared how academic leaders and faculty can implement and encourage active learning methods on their campuses.

“Faculty hear this catch all phrase of ‘active learning,’ and I like to remind them, it doesn’t mean let’s burn my syllabus to the ground and start over. It can be a three-to-five-minute activity in 1.5-hour-long class,” said Brandon Golob, assistant professor of Teaching in Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine. “I also always exhort my colleagues to talk to their students because they'll discover that they the students really are flourishing in these spaces and finding that their voices matter and that collaborative meaning-making matters.”

Faculty members at UC Irvine acknowledged that gaining buy-in from faculty remains the most critical factor to scaling active learning across campuses, which helps students build digital literacy. Andrea Aebersold, director, Faculty Instructional Development at UC Irvine, noted the institution’s widespread investments in innovation, such as the Anteater Learning Pavilion, toward fostering student collaboration and communication through hands-on activities and digital tools such as Adobe Creative Cloud. Additionally, UC Irvine’s Active Learning Institute provides faculty with a series of eight workshops that teaches them how to integrate their traditional teaching practices with active learning strategies and modern technology. The university’s combined efforts have lowered faculty’s resistance to new forms of teaching by unveiling new ways to incorporate active learning into their curricula.

College enrollment continues to decline year-over-year with the cost of college on the minds of students and families more than ever. COVID-19 upended the state of higher education and in a post-pandemic world, it’s vital that institutions set themselves apart to ensure that students see the value of a four-year degree. Academic leaders are being challenged to embrace new programs, teaching practices and tools to help tomorrow’s workforce receive a well-rounded education and critical skills for long-term career success.

Watch the full on-demand webinar here and keep an eye out for details from Adobe on the next webinar with the Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information on how to integrate digital skills across disciplines and throughout curricula, please visit the Adobe Digital Literacy resources page.