Thursday, 3 December 2015

implementing active learning by assessing the current state of our teaching practices

A few articles have been published over the last couple of years in an attempt to facilitate the development of faculty teaching. One is a simple self-assessment that consists of a checklist that faculty check off and then are returned a score and assessment of where in their teaching practices active learning is well implemented and with suggestions of active learning practices that could be further developed or implemented.

A couple of others are assessments that are conducted by classroom observers. The PORTAAL is directly linked to active learning practices that have been shown in the literature to improve students learning outcomes. The COPUS does something similar. Both tools are designed to try and produce an objective glimpse of how student learning is facilitated in the classroom but does not include other elements that contribute to the design of learning environments (e.g. how out of class assignments or exams are designed).

All three of these tools are designed to facilitate faculty development of their teaching and contribute to developing a multi-faceted assessment of teaching praxis. However, they only provide glimpses from two points of view: the instructor and objective or peer observer. The third viewpoint that needs to be included is that of the student. Granted, virtually all post-secondary institutions gather end of term student reviews of teaching, but I suspect that my institution is no different than others that our student surveys of instruction have not been updated to accurately portray the active learning teaching strategies that have been demonstrated to facilitate student learning. And this needs to be done. Instructor's reflective self-reports are useful in engaging faculty in thinking critically about their own teaching but what the instructor thinks is happening may not always be what is experienced by the student. On the other hand, what the student experiences in their learning environment may not be appropriately interpreted by students. Learning is hard work and an excellent learning opportunity may be misinterpreted by students as being uncomfortable and thus an unwelcome experience. Students are not always the best assessors of what constitutes good teaching and learning while in the moment of being challenged that is required for learning to occur. This is where the objective or peer observer is important to provide perspective of what the teacher and the student report.

It would be nice if a tool could be developed that incorporated all three viewpoints. As it is we have different tools for each which require considerable interpretation, translation and contextualizing to truly understand the quality of students' learning environment. This will likely always be the case. But I think there is still room to make this process easier and usable for faculty as they develop their ability to design educational experiences. We need formative assessment tools that are not onerous to use or interpret otherwise they will never be used. They will instead end up being one more item that is added to the pile of things that would be good for faculty to do but likely never will given the time constraints imposed on us by research, service, & teaching.


Eddy, S. L., Converse, M., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2015). PORTAAL: A Classroom Observation Tool Assessing Evidence-Based Teaching Practices for Active Learning in Large Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Classes. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 14(2).

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–5.

Lund, T. J., Pilarz, M., Velasco, J. B., Chakraverty, D., Rosploch, K., Undersander, M., & Stains, M. (2015). The Best of Both Worlds: Building on the COPUS and RTOP Observation Protocols to Easily and Reliably Measure Various Levels of Reformed Instructional Practice. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 14(2).

Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H. M., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A New Instrument to Characterize University STEM Classroom Practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618–627.

Wieman, C., & Gilbert, S. (2014). The Teaching Practices Inventory: A New Tool for Characterizing College and University Teaching in Mathematics and Science. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 552–569.

Wieman, C. (2015). A Better Way to Evaluate Undergraduate Teaching. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 47(1), 6–15.