George Mason University

News at Mason

Course Redesign Academy helps faculty implement active learning strategies

December 13, 2019   /   by Damian Cristodero

The Course Redesign Academy at Mason’s Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning is holding programs to help faculty acclimate to the classroom environment in the new academic building that will open in January 2021.

When Pritha Roy incorporated the essentials of active learning into her classroom, the assistant professor of chemistry at George Mason University found that her students followed the work more closely, came to class prepared and participated more.

Roy said it was her participation in Mason’s Course Redesign Academy that gave her the foundation with which to create a more robust learning atmosphere.

“This really helped me build my course in that format,” she said. “This helped narrow down what my focus would be and how I would conduct it.”

A new academic building scheduled to open on the Fairfax Campus in January 2021—with state-of-the-art classroom technology, whiteboards, and moveable chairs and desks—will make it easier for faculty to supplement their lectures with approaches that encourage students to participate and interact.

The Course Redesign Academy at Mason’s Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning is holding programs to help faculty acclimate to the new classroom environment and use it to its potential.

Academies are scheduled in January (already fully subscribed), June and January 2021. There are also shorter workshops scheduled for May, June and August.

“All the research shows that students in classrooms that help support engaged learning, learn better and retain more,” said Shelley Reid, director for teaching excellence at the Stearns Center.

“What we try to have faculty do is think about how to adapt their teaching, even in small ways, so that some part of their teaching is working with the room, to be able to find ways to interrupt their lecture,” Reid said. “Ask a student a question about something they just talked about. Ask a student to have a conversation with somebody else at the table.”

The approach will be especially important in classrooms in the new academic building, which will be set up for active learning, Reid said. Students will face each other at tables, chairs will be movable, there will be whiteboards and wireless projection capabilities, all of which will make it easier for students and faculty to fully engage.

“The new academic building will significantly contribute to our strategic plan efforts around innovative learning as related to our goals of have 30% active learning classrooms (ALC),” said Kim Eby, associate provost for faculty affairs and development. “We are particularly excited about this project because while Mason has been designing and adding ALCs to our classroom inventory for several years now, the new building will expand our ability to offer an ALC experience to larger enrollment classes.”

In fact, Reid said, the new academic building will have seven classrooms that can accommodate 60 or more students, and there are no reasons these active learning strategies should not apply there as well.

“Nationally, and across disciplines, a default assumption is that while active learning is great when teaching small groups, it is difficult for faculty to deliver that content to a large group,” Reid said. “We believe Mason faculty experiences show faculty find ways to make it happen.”

Still, engagement starts before class even begins, Mason faculty members said.

Beverly Middle, an assistant professor in Mason’s School of Nursing, said the Course Redesign Academy gave her guidance on preparing students by explaining learning expectations and outcomes, readings, and classwork evaluation methods.

“Everything was very transparent and clear so students come into the course knowing what to expect and how they will be assessed,” Middle said. “It was a fabulous experience, a great opportunity to tweak a very difficult and fast-paced course.”

And a great opportunity to participate in the active learning the new academic building will promote.

“To me, active learning means the students will be solving problems, with some kind of focused activity with a beginning and an end so they know what they will be trying to do beforehand and can apply the information during class,” Roy said. “It’s not just a regular lecture.”