Active Learning Initiative
The Active Learning Initiative (ALI) provides support for department teams as they redesign undergraduate courses to implement active learning strategies. These courses have energized the learning experience for thousands of Cornell students and have led to deeper engagement, greater connection with peers, and increased interaction with instructors. The ALI nurtures projects within departments that can grow into more elaborate efforts and spread teaching innovations further afield.
Based on extensive educational research, ALI’s fundamental premise is that active learning strategies improve educational experiences for both students and faculty. Classrooms with active learning components can improve student learning as well as their non-academic experiences related to engagement, social belonging, and classroom rapport. Active learning strategies can improve the experience for instructors by making teaching more rewarding and promoting a culture of engagement with students. ALI grants provide departments with resources to hire postdocs or lecturers (ALI fellows) to help faculty transform courses and design effective active learning strategies.
The Center for Teaching Innovation offers ideas for getting started with active learning as well as workshops and consultations on topics such as course design and teaching strategies.
The ALI is funded by Alex and Laura Hanson ’87, deans of participating colleges, and the Office of the Provost. It is supported by the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and the Center for Teaching Innovation.
To learn more about ALI funded projects, select the area you would like to explore.
Arts & humanities
The Classics Department joined the Active Learning Initiative in the Initiative’s second phase. The department, known for its teaching in small seminar-style and language courses, is interested in developing larger introductory courses with broad interest to the Cornell community based on an active learning model. With the help of a postdoctoral fellow, Classics has developed two new courses, “Statues and Public Life” and “Hieroglyphs to HTML: History of Writing”, and transformed their large Mythology course. Their approach has been to offer structured activities that ask students to closely examine ancient literature, art and material culture, to compare these different forms of expression, as well as make connections between the past and the current day.
In 2022, Classics will continue the transformation of their undergraduate curriculum. As with their earlier grant, the department plans to use active learning strategies that prioritize student thinking and discussion. The focus will be on making the Classics curriculum more inclusive by implementing active learning in four courses that address issues relevant to both Classics and the modern world. The department believes these courses, which will address the ancient world’s treatment of race and ethnicity, gender, human rights, social justice, and climate change, will engage students from across the university.
The Department of History will develop one new course and redesign five others with the help of two postdoctoral fellows. The courses will address the current urgent need to train students in media literacy and evidence-based knowledge. This is evident in its new course, The deep fake: Conspiracies throughout history, which will teach undergraduates how to become sophisticated interpreters of the evidence and sources that inform media, news, and history.
Courses planned for redesign such as A global history of love and The rise and fall of the Soviet empire are geared towards a wide range of students within and outside the college. The department believes that by incorporating the “doing of history” through active learning, its courses will galvanize students to engage more deeply with historical meaning-making and encourage them to explore classes in other regional areas and time periods.
The Music Department wanted to engage students in the learning process in new and innovative ways and to provide better ways for students to practice what they are learning. Their 2017 grant allowed them to introduce new technology in and out of the classroom with portable keyboards, polling questions, and custom software developed by their ALI postdoctoral fellow. In 2018, faculty began to introduce lightweight portable keyboards into a sequence of three music theory classes (Music 1105, 2101, and 2102) to help students explore new concepts and develop self-awareness about their playing through immediate feedback. With the help of a postdoctoral fellow, they also developed online learning tools, which provide adaptive feedback to students outside of class. The department predicts that both the keyboard practice and the immediate feedback with the online tool will make abstract theories more understandable, helping students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of music and music theory.
Engineering & physical sciences
Biological and Environmental Engineering
The Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering recognizes that in order to succeed as engineers, students must leave Cornell with problem-solving skills that transcend fundamental and applied knowledge sets. Students must be able to transfer their skills and knowledge across courses and contexts to identify and develop solutions to complex problems. As part of its 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, the department is targeting four courses that focus on developing problem-solving skills in order to provide students with a “problem-solving toolbox.” This toolbox will serve beyond the immediate course and into meta-learning that spans biological engineering as a discipline, giving students a structure with many potential applications. Three faculty members and two postdoctoral fellows are transforming three existing courses and developing one new course; about 200 students will take these courses every year.
With its grant, the Nancy E. & Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering will employ teaching principles used in architectural design education to transform its 6-course, core undergraduate sequence. This is the first step in a plan to expand design education to address challenges students face in bridging conceptual knowledge with practice and improving their ability to integrate knowledge across scales. With the new approach, students will work in small groups to model, analyze, and design products to present in class during feedback critiques. The department believes the new teaching strategy, paired with emphasis on applying engineering analysis to complex biology, will improve students’ proficiency and prepare them for variability and uncertainty common in their careers while building essential communication and teamwork skills.
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
With the help of the Active Learning Initiative, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering redesigned most of its junior-year courses in phase 3 of the ALI to incorporate project or case-based learning, where conceptual learning was paired with classroom activities and team-based assignments such as robot design in Mechatronics. The department is now poised to revolutionize laboratory instruction at the Sibley School by creating multiple learning studios that will replace traditional lab courses. The department plans to organize studios around three engineering systems: forklift, robot, and satellite; each integrating laboratory experiences across 5-10 classes. Studios will act as central hubs for students of any skill level across all years of the program, connecting classes and concepts across the curriculum. In this model, students will visit and revisit the same instructional spaces in multiple contexts, alternating roles as experts and learners and interacting with multiple modes of an engineering system. The MAE project will affect every required class in the curriculum and one third of all classes in the department.
The Physics Department, one of the original departments funded through the ALI, focused their efforts on the core undergraduate sequence for physics and engineering majors (Phys 1112, 2213, and 2214). Teams of faculty worked on each course to develop a deliberate practice model in which students prepared ahead of time and worked in small groups on problem solving during the main class time. Today, students prepare for class by reading and completing online quizzes, and they spend about 50% of their time in class working on problem solving with other students. In 2017, the Physics department began a second phase of work targeting the transformation of the laboratory portions of five physics courses. These newly designed inquiry-based labs ask students to design experiments and analyze data in ways that guide them in grappling with many of the decision-making processes that experimental physicists encounter.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was one of the pioneers of the Active Learning Initiative in 2014. Department faculty were interested in using new teaching pedagogies to improve student learning in two, large introductory courses: Introduction to Ecology and the Environment (BioEE 1610) and Evolutionary Biology and Diversity (BioEE 1780). After choosing a gradual implementation approach, BioEE 1610’s instructors settled on a blend of lecture, polling, small-group discussion, and small-group activities in every class.
Faculty in BioEE 1780, adopted a more structured, Team Based Learning (TBL) approach with their class. Now funded through the 2019 Initiative, course faculty have launched an online active learning version of the Evolutionary Biology course with the help of an ALI-funded postdoctoral fellow. The online class runs in parallel to the in-person course during the school year and on its own in the summer. The instructors hope that the new version of the course will reach a broader and more diverse community of students without increasing the size of the already popular in-person course. It will serve as a model for developing online courses that employ active learning strategies and for assessing the efficacy of online versus in-person instruction.
The Entomology Department wants students to learn the “how’s and why’s” of the scientific process while becoming critical consumers of scientific information. They also want their students to become skilled at evaluating science-based, public policy discussions through a multidisciplinary lens so that they can interpret and communicate scientific information to others. With three years of funding from the 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, Entomology has redesigned three popular classes for non-majors (Alien Empire, Honeybee Biology, Plagues and People). The redesign has incorporated active learning modules that prompt students to practice thinking and communicating like scientists and to learn to evaluate scientific information. Four faculty members and a teaching postdoc contributed to the transformation effort, which reaches over 300 students a year.
Molecular Biology & Genetics
The Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics has developed a plan to improve student performance and shift classroom culture from competitive to collaborative, in response to their concerns about the number of Biological Sciences majors who struggle in MBG core courses. The Department will implement active learning strategies, such as polling, pre-lecture work, quizzes, and collaborative group work in five large, core courses of 170-400 students. They will additionally focus on identifying struggling students early in the semester, implementing strategies for community-building and cooperative learning, increasing student confidence, and normalizing help-seeking in order to better connect students with support. TAs will play an integral role in this process, and the Department plans to create training modules on active learning strategies, pedagogy, and course-specific materials, in order to prepare them for working with students in the redesigned courses.
The new Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (ESS) major is a rapidly growing multidisciplinary major that includes 75 faculty from 22 departments across CALS and A&S. Through emphasizing cross-disciplinary perspectives, ESS faculty are helping students to think critically and work collaboratively to solve complex environmental problems. The 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant has allowed the department to redesign two courses, Climate Solutions and Introductory Field Biology, and to develop several new courses, including capstones that enable students to dive deeply into a semester-long group project. In the new, Global Water Sustainability course, students work collaboratively to develop and evaluate plans for improving water resource management, including engaging in direct dialogue with outside experts and working with community partners. In Climate Solutions, a hybrid in-person and online course, students identify, implement, and assess an individual climate action and climate policy initiative, then present their project to their classmates. The five faculty and two postdocs leading these efforts will share lessons learned widely within the ESS community to foster additional efforts to incorporate active learning approaches across a wide spectrum of courses.
Neurobiology and Behavior
The Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (NBB), also part of the first round of ALI funding, initially chose to transform Neurobiology and Behavior II: Introduction to Neuroscience (BioNB 2220), a course in the biology curriculum taught by a team of nine faculty. Two years later with the success of their first transformation underway, the faculty transformed Neurobiology and Behavior I: Introduction to Behavior (BioNB 2210), the first course in the two-course sequence. The department’s active learning fellow worked with each instructor to incorporate a few new techniques (e.g., Clicker questions, class discussion, pre-lecture videos). After implementing active learning, the department found that in most years the discrepancy in exam scores between 3-credit (no discussion section) and 4-credit students was so greatly reduced that the function of the discussion section as a tool to master basic concepts appeared to have been satisfied by active learning exercises in the classroom.
When the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) was established in 2015, it significantly revised its 10-course, core undergraduate curriculum. In the years since, the major has more than doubled in size. SIPS is transforming their core curriculum with the help of a 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant by developing in-class activities, improving student learning, and providing faculty with resources to support these changes. These efforts are also targeting the laboratory components of the program by moving away from observational labs and towards experimental labs, where students make a hypothesis, design an experiment, collect and analyze data, and present their findings. The project will involve the work of 14 faculty and four postdocs over five years, with the resulting transformation of 10 courses, making it one of the largest ALI projects.
The School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) has made the creation of a strong and progressive teaching ecosystem a top priority. Since its inception in 2015, the program has worked to transform its core undergraduate curriculum. In 2019, SIPS received an ALI grant to redesign 10 undergraduate courses and labs, incorporating active learning and experimentation while further streamlining its curriculum. With its 2023 funding, SIPS will build on its earlier work with the transformation of four additional courses and the development of one new course. Courses will incorporate active learning strategies, such as case studies, group projects, discussions, and two-part group exams. Implementing active learning and inclusive teaching strategies across their undergraduate curriculum will support SIPS’s commitment to increase the diversity of students in their undergraduate program and build community at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Mathematics & computer science
Information Science (IS) has experienced explosive growth in its undergraduate enrollments over the last several years. With a 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, the department has been reimagining the way it facilitates student learning in some of its largest and fastest growing courses. Six faculty members have committed to using innovative active learning techniques drawn from a variety of disciplines to transform six courses central to their curriculum over a three-year period. These faculty have been incorporating activities in and out of the classroom, as well as developing peer-programming activities, live-coding collaborations, interactive case studies, and group data visualization projects with the help of two postdoctoral fellows. Finding ways to implement collaborative classwork and peer feedback in large classes has been a particular focus of this project. When fully implemented, the changes will impact over 1,500 students.
The Mathematics Department began its involvement with the Active Learning Initiative in 2017 when it received a three-year grant to transform two introductory calculus courses and a proofs course. Together, these courses (supported by approximately 20 faculty, lecturers, and graduate students) serve over 900 students a year. An ALI-funded lecturer helped to transform the classes and develop a training program to introduce instructors to the new teaching methods. Students in Calculus I (Math 1110) now use much of their class time to work on problems alone and in groups while their instructor provides guidance. Math 1106, “Modeling with Calculus for the Life Sciences,” has been tailored even further to a biology-centric audience. Students spend time in class modeling dynamical systems in the life sciences and working with their peers to solve problems. With its 2019 Active Learning Initiative grant, Math is significantly advancing its work by transforming two linear algebra courses which provide foundational math knowledge for numerous fields and impact over 400 students a year. Course changes are directed at improving students’ conceptual understanding as well as their ability to model real-life situations.
City and Regional Planning
City and Regional Planning (CRP) recently redesigned its undergraduate curriculum to better prepare students for working with cities around the world as they confront accumulating crises stemming from shifting economies and legacies of inequality. This new curriculum helps students prioritize questions of justice and equity, to frame the challenges urban residents face, and to engage in finding sustainable solutions with communities, officials, and policy makers. With the new curriculum in place, CRP is poised to design three new undergraduate courses that will incorporate active and engaged learning, giving students the opportunity to practice the methods of the discipline, such as participatory planning and research, interviewing, collaborative data collection, map-making, and qualitative and quantitative data analysis.
When the Department of Economics joined the Active Learning Initiative in 2017, it proposed an overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum that would transform seven of eight required core courses and one popular elective. Their goal is to improve student learning, particularly the ability to problem-solve, analyze graphs, and create economic models.
Economics is redesigning its courses to include peer instruction with in-class polling, in-class small-group and large-group discussion. Additionally, some courses have implemented innovative approaches such as small-group invention activities and two-stage group exams. The department has placed a high priority on developing standardized assessments that they expect will become standard for the field.
The Department of Government plans to transform four courses that are essential to the major: Political violence, Post-truth politics, How do you know that? and Puzzle-solving with data. The courses will employ a wide range of teaching strategies aimed at improving student retention of core concepts and deepening their understanding of research design and statistical methods. Students in Political violence and Post-truth politics will engage in activities such as debates, simulations, writing, and reflections. In How do you know that? and Puzzle-solving with data, they will grapple with verbal puzzles, create and explain data visualizations, participate in hands-on data activities and analyses, and conduct longer term, project-based work. The department believes that a more hands-on approach to political science concepts and methodology will engage students more deeply with the material and lead to improved learning outcomes.
Faculty in the Psychology Department were interested in using new pedagogical strategies and wanted to have a wider impact on psychology education by targeting learning outcomes established by the American Psychological Association. Using the ALI funding it received in 2018, the department has been transforming four courses and developing a fifth. The courses have revised their learning objectives and assessment strategies and introduced innovative activities to engage students and build community. Courses use case studies, debates, classroom polling, think-pair-share, and collaborative online annotation (for textbook readings) to help students learn the material and practice with their peers. Five faculty and two postdocs are supporting this project.
Recognizing that its students come from diverse economic and social backgrounds and that they bring their deep-rooted beliefs about society with them, the Department of Sociology wanted to find new ways to help them to look at society from a sociological perspective. Funding through the ALI allowed the Department to hire two postdoctoral fellows to help transform two courses: Introduction to Sociology (Soc 1101) and Social Inequality (Soc 2208). The fellows worked with faculty to design instructional materials for the main class time and with graduate student TAs on the design, content, and pedagogy of discussion sections. They have introduced carefully designed in-class activities, polling questions, and peer discussion as a way for undergraduate students to challenge their preconceived beliefs about social processes, learn from their peers, and develop the skills to think critically about social structure, social dynamics, and the promises and pitfalls of social scientific modes of inquiry.
To learn more about ALI, please contact our team:
|G. Peter Lepage
Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor of physics
ALI in the media
A selection of media coverage of ALI projects
Keller, Carolyn. (2023, May 22). CTI announces 2023 Active Learning Postdoctoral Fellowship recipients. Cornell Chronicle.
Winterstein, Dave. (2022, February 21). Field biology changes student perspectives. Cornell Chronicle.
Winterstein, Dave. (2022, February 8). Innovative projects prepare students for ‘real’ engineering. Cornell Chronicle.
Winterstein, Dave. (2021, May 19). Classics active learning course explores differences in ways of writing. College of Arts & Sciences News.
Winterstein, Dave. (2021, March 4). Students use active learning to solve COVID-19 problems. Cornell Chronicle.
Philipson, Erin. (2021). Mechatronics, Producing Creative Student Projects Amidst a Pandemic. Cornell Engineering.
Blackwood, Kate. (2020, May 27). Study uncovers gender roles in physics lab courses. Cornell Chronicle.
Nutt, David. (2020, February 11). Inquiry-based labs give physics students experimental edge. Cornell Chronicle.
Winterstein, Dave. (2020, August 25). Active learning helps math department boost academic success. Cornell Chronicle.
Hayes, Caitlin. (2019, May 21). Active learning connects past, present in new classics course. Cornell Chronicle.
Aloi, Daniel. (2019, February 6). Active Learning Initiative funds nine projects. Cornell Chronicle.
Hayes, Caitlin. (2019, October 22). Educational verve: New approaches to teaching revolutionize the classroom. Cornell Chronicle.
The Active Learning Initiative recognized for educational quality by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (2019). AAAS video.
Glaser, Linda B. (2018, December 21). Professors, students laud active learning Physics lab course. Cornell Chronicle.
Throughout the initiative, ALI instructors and fellows have conducted research on the effects of their course changes on student learning and experiences in the classroom.
Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing Diversity in Undergraduate Science: Self-Efficacy Drives Performance Gains with Active Learning. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 16(4), ar56.
Ballen, Cissy J., Aguillon, Stepfanie M., Brunelli, Rebecca, Drake, Abby Grace, Wassenberg, Deena, Zamudio, Kelly R., … Weiss, Stacey L. (2018). Do Small Classes in Higher Education Reduce Performance Gaps in STEM? BioScience, 68(8), 593–600.
Ballen, Cissy J., & Zamudio, Kelly R. (2017). Active learning reduces misconceptions about evolution and promotes inclusivity in large classrooms. In Strategies for Teaching Large Classes Effectively in Higher Education. Cognella Academic Publishing.
Bennoun, S. (2020). Transforming a Calculus for Life Sciences Course: Moving from Procedural Calculus to Studying Dynamical Systems and Bifurcation Theory. PRIMUS, 1–14.
Bennoun, S., & Holm, T. (2020). Establishing Consistent Active Learning in a Calculus I Course. PRIMUS, 30, 1–13
Ford, M. J., & Ritz, H., & Fisher, E. M. (2020, June), Motivation, Self-efficacy, and Student Engagement in Intermediate Mechanical Engineering Courses Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Online. 10.18260/1-2—3498.
Hernández, L. M. A., Zamudio, K. R., Drake, A. G., & Smith, M. K. (2020). Implementing team-based learning in the life sciences: A case study in an online introductory level evolution and biodiversity course. Ecology and Evolution, n/a.
Holmes, N. G., & Smith, E. M. (2019). Operationalizing the AAPT Learning Goals for the Lab. The Physics Teacher, 57(5), 296–299.
Orlov, G., McKee, D., Berry, J., Boyle, A., DiCiccio, T., Ransom, T., Rees-Jones, A., & Stoye, J. (2020). Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: It Is Not Who You Teach, but How You Teach(PDF) (No. w28022). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Quinn, K. N., Kelley, M. M., McGill, K. L., Smith, E. M., Whipps, Z., & Holmes, N. G. (2020). Group roles in unstructured labs show inequitable gender divide. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 16(1).
Smith, E. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2021). Best practice for instructional labs. Nature Physics, 1–2.
Smith, E. M., Stein, M. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2020). How expectations of confirmation influence students’ experimentation decisions in introductory labs. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 16(1).
Building on ALI research
Cornell researchers hold three NSF grants building on discipline-based education research in ALI projects:
- Natasha Holmes (Physics) is expanding her work in an NSF project entitled “Equity in Undergraduate Physics Labs”.
- Dr. Holmes will also collaborate with Michelle Smith (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) on an NSF project to develop a critical thinking assessment for Ecology field labs.
- Doug McKee and George Orlov in Economics have also received an NSF grant to expand their ALI-initiated research in Economics education, specifically examining active learning and long-term knowledge retention.