The common area of WALC is designed for student collaboration.

Opening this fall, the Wilmeth Active Learning Center was designed with as a place for students to meet and study, with large open lounges and study spaces located throughout the building.

Purdue’s investment in active learning goes beyond a new building 

When Physics Professor Andrew Hirsch begins his 34th year of teaching at Purdue this fall, he will be conducting an experiment that looks to challenge centuries of accepted doctrine and practice in the world of higher education.

But Hirsch’s experiment isn’t a test of the laws of physics or the nature of science, but the fundamentals of the academy itself. When it comes to teaching, is it time for the traditional lecture – in which the instructor stands before an audience and dispenses knowledge to eager pupils, a teaching style that dates to the ancient Greeks – to be replaced?

To put it another way: Are today’s students, who grew up with instant access to a world of information, and who claim multi-tasking as a second language, truly able to learn sitting in a lecture hall taking notes? And even if many of those students succeed, what about those who do not – could a change in teaching style improve their chances?

“The fact is too many students don’t get at least a C in my course, which means they can’t proceed to their engineering discipline,” says Hirsch of his basic physics course, notorious among freshman as a “weed-out” course for engineering students. “While some of that’s maturity issues with the transition to college, a lot of these students on paper – based on test scores and high school experience – shouldn’t be struggling. Which leads me to say that maybe it’s not the material, but the way we teach it.”

A sampling of the different classrooms inside WALC.

Classrooms in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center will use a variety of movable furniture to utilize different active learning approaches and configurations.

Becoming active

For Hirsch, changing the way he teaches physics means changing the way students behave in his class – from passive listeners absorbing his teaching to active participants required to take a dynamic role in their learning, both inside and outside the classroom.

Although “active learning” has been a buzzword in education – at all levels – for more than a decade, the general principle behind it is simple: People learn best, and retain knowledge more readily, when they take an active role in learning and applying that information.

In practice, that can mean time spent working on problems during what’s traditionally lecture time, or increasing the amount of time spent on collaborative group projects, which tend to force students to participate. Generally, it also means relying more on technology – in some courses, lectures are delivered via online videos so class time can be devoted to problem solving. Others rely on apps like Hotseat, a mobile app that allows instructors to give quizzes or poll their students live in class via their smartphones.

The push for and the promise of active learning at Purdue has been deemed so necessary that more than 250 faculty have been invited to redesign their courses through initiatives like the IMPACT (Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation) program and more than 40 “active learning classrooms” – typically defined as classrooms with moveable seating and other features to facilitate collaboration – have been built across campus.

This fall, Purdue’s investment in active learning makes an even bigger statement with the opening of the Wilmeth Active Learning Center, which will house 27 active learning classrooms, student collaboration space and technology like student-accessible wide-format printers and a data-visualization lab. (The building is also the new home of the Library of Engineering and Science.)

Prof. Larry Nies in an active learning classroom

Professor Larry Nies talks with students inside an active learning classroom.

Critical thinking

Creating a new and high tech learning space, however, doesn’t ensure that the teaching inside that space will be any more effective than in a traditional classroom. In fact, some faculty argue that the classroom is the least important component.

“It’s really about figuring out what the learning objectives for a course are,” says Larry Nies, a professor of both civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering. “What should students know when they leave my course, and what’s the best way to get there?”

Where Nies used to spend a lot of time teaching specific pieces of knowledge, he now believes that helping students develop critical thinking skills is just as important.

“In the real world, most of the problems these future engineers will be working on don’t have a single correct answer,” Nies says. “Most problems could really be opened ended, and what I’m trying to do is help develop the critical thinking skills so that they can figure out what is the best approach.”

Developing that skill set, however, does require Nies to give up some of the control of his class. Previously, he relied on lectures to provide knowledge and exams to assess if it is learned. Now, he includes things like group projects and in-class activities to keep students engaged. For instance, in a project about designing a new road, he might have students in a group role play various parts –engineer, politician, landowner and conservationist – to help the students realize the complexity of the issue.

“It’s not really about whether the students are active – however you choose to define it – but about how instructors are engaging with their class, if they’re being effective,” Nies says.

Prof. Tim Ropp helps students use a drone as part of a project

Tim Ropp, a clinical associate professor of Aeronautical Engineering Technology, who uses active learning techniques to increase participation and learning in his aviation technology class. 

Land-grant mission

Surrounded by half a dozen live aircraft (including a large jet) and labs that include technology like a 3-D printer and flight simulators, the idea that Tim Ropp’s aviation technology classes continually strive for improved  “active learning” experiences may seem a bit far-fetched.

Since Purdue’s founding as a Land Grant college, much of the learning has been active in nature – whether studying chemistry in a lab, planting corn at an agronomy farm or building electrical circuits in a fabrication shop. Hands-on, participatory learning is in Purdue’s academic DNA.

“Active learning takes that approach to deeper levels. We’re constantly refining our approach to meet the needs of a rapidly changing aviation industry,” says Ropp, a clinical associate professor of Aeronautical Engineering Technology. “Instead of the instructor always being in control, it’s allowing students to have some ownership in the class learning process, to offer their own creative input. It’s inviting the student to take more responsibility for the learning process.”

In Ropp’s class, this requires a flexibility that might make some instructors uneasy. For instance, one semester he had a senior class so committed to their group project he made them a deal: They could forego one of class’s written exams and instead develop and present their “smart” air vehicle data project as a research poster at Purdue’s Research and Innovation Advanced Manufacturing poster session.. They would be graded on their research and topic knowledge, presentation and organizational skills and technical demonstration that had to work perfectly in front of an audience of aerospace industry experts and other research faculty.

“In the end, they probably put in more work and learned way more than they would have if they were just preparing for a test,” Ropp says.

But giving students greater responsibility for their learning does come with some challenges, Ropp admits. In a field as heavily regulated and monitored as aviation, graduates must demonstrate levels of technical competency and expertise of the material as well as how to apply it in a rapidly changing field.  Non-negotiables of technical competency and system knowledge must still be met or they can’t graduate. So a careful balance is required to ensure required material is covered and performance outcomes are met.  However the payoff for that effort is tremendous, resulting in graduates who can ”think and do” and respond to change much more readily.

“The workforce of the future is going to have be more nimble, more able to adapt,” Ropp says. “The way we teach has to help our students learn how to learn and evolve along with the industry.”

A screenshot of a lecture video created by Prof. Andrew Hirsch

Physics Professor Andrew Hirsch is creating lecture videos using ITaP’s Video Express rooms; students will watch the videos before attending class, where the focus will be working on problems in a group atmosphere.

Flipping the classroom

For Physics Professor Hirsch, helping his students learn will be the heart of his class’s transformation this fall, when he begins teaching in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center.

Instead of students sitting in rows listening to him lecture, Hirsch will have students stationed at moveable tables, where they’ll spend 75 minutes, two times a week, working on problems and discussing the answers with each other. The so-called lecture portion of the class will be consumed in the form of two or three short videos that students are required to watch before class.

“The great advantage this has over the class in the lecture hall is that you can create situations that force students to open up, to discuss their work with others, to learn from each other,” Hirsch says. “Students are put in a position where they have to engage with the material.”

To measure that engagement, Hirsch and his colleagues in the Physics Department are treating this fall’s active learning class as a bit of an experiment. Of the roughly 700 students who will enroll in Physics 172 this fall, slightly more than 100 will be a part of Hirsch’s class. The rest will attend class in the traditional lecture and recitation format. All classes will take the same exam.

“We’re going to assess the course and look critically at how we do things throughout the semester,” Hirsch says. “That’s an important part of the process.”

Already, that process has played out in classes big and small at Purdue, as faculty have embraced active learning techniques to transform their classes in big and small ways, evaluating the results and measuring student outcomes – a never ending process of evaluation and redesign.

Has it ended the lecture? Will it ever?

Hirsch says that’s really the wrong question. Ultimately it’s not about declaring one teaching method, or on style of classroom, better than the other. The point he says is to find ways to help more students succeed, both in the classroom and beyond.

“Active learning is not about the flipped classroom or using more technology,” Hirsch says, “but designing your class in a way that students engage with the material, in a way that allows them to learn.”

Writer: Dave Stephens, technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue, 765-496-7998,

Last updated: June 26, 2017


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