Focus on Faculty
The transition from seedlings to students has been seamless for Instructor Rebecca Benard, who works with the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Benard received her PhD in Ecology at the University of California, Davis, and went on to teach at both the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and CWRU. She currently teaches a variety of major and non-major biology courses.
Benard’s priority is student success. She is a current Active Learning Fellow, interested in transforming and enhancing her instructional practice. Her endeavor this year was flipping a classroom of nearly 60 students, bringing the interactive learning approach to a course that is traditionally taught in a lecture hall. This is the first year that the course (BIOL 216: Development and Physiology) was flipped, and taught in one of the new active learning classrooms in Thwing.
Benard observes that most of her students thrive and participate actively during discussions. Attendance is also high. The benefits are mutual: Benard reports that this is one of the best semesters she has experienced as an educator, because she was able to listen and provide feedback to many more students than before.
How did Benard manage interactive learning with a class this large? While consulting with a colleague, Benard fashioned a hybrid reduced-seat time course model. It is a hybrid model, because there are online and in-class components. It is a reduced-seat time model because one class is split into two groups. Each group of students attends one 75-minute discussion per week, instead of two 75-minute classes each week as in the traditional format. This allows her to teach in an active learning room that is conducive to collaborative learning, and provides a smaller classroom experience for her students.
Students are assigned pre-class reading, videos, or both. Their in-class activities aim to develop students’ critical thinking and communication skills. After class, students are asked to reflect. Benard explains that the reflection element allows students to understand not only what they’ve learned, but also how they’ve retained it.
Benard’s flipped classroom is not a complete departure from traditional methods. Students are still required to take exams, and the online videos are essentially small lectures. More graduate and professional schools are incorporating active learning into their curriculum, including the Case School of Medicine. As such, early exposure to this teaching method will not only prepare students for what is to come, but allow them to reflect on how they learn and study in their current undergraduate courses.
The course took a year from conception to implementation. Though Benard was responsible for the preparatory measures, she emphasizes that implementation took a small army. Prior to becoming an Active Learning Fellow Benard had a rough outline of how to re-design the course. However, interactions with her cohort and mentors of the Active Learning Program really helped her conceptualize and formulate the learning goals for the course. "Being a part of a community that believes in what you are trying to achieve, and having experienced individuals who can provide guidance is key." Benard also stresses that the course was made possible by her department chair, Chris Cullis, who supported her plan. She is grateful for her supportive department chair, Chris Cullis. Her undergraduate teaching assistants, Nikhil Mallipeddi and Diana Christian, are part of the instructional support team during in-class discussions. ITS staff member, Mike Kenney, was instrumental for helping with the online component of the course, and Tina Oestreich and James Juergensen were key to organizing the assessment of the course.
Evidence supports that active learning reduces failure rates and enhances retention. Such a scheme requires multiple resources – including teaching assistants, active learning classrooms designed for discussion and participation, and online videos and readings. If this class is successful, Benard hopes that she will be able to scale up her pilot model in the years to come.