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Elli Theobald interviewed in UW News on active learning Policy Forum piece in Science

Wednesday, October 13, 2021 - 09:30

Elli Theobald, UW Biology Assistant Teaching Professor, was recently interviewed by UW News about a Policy Forum piece published on October 1 in Science that was written by a team including Theobald and UW Biology Lecturer Emeritus Scott Freeman.

In the piece, the authors call for a fresh look at active learning methods and their potential as classrooms and lecture halls again fill with students. Theobald and Freeman highlight the role that these approaches to education have in promoting equity. In STEM fields, active learning methods can eliminate inequities for students from underrepresented backgrounds, something Theobald and Freeman have studied as part of the UW’s Biology Education Research Group.

Excerpts from the UW News Q&A with Elli Theobald:

Which educational settings employ active learning methods?

ET: In general, higher education — particularly STEM education — is just a little bit behind K-12 in adopting active learning, I think. Before coming to UW, I worked as a middle and high school teacher, and active learning is how I was taught to teach. I couldn’t dream of walking into a class and just lecturing at my students. I would’ve been eaten alive.

In K-12 settings, I think there’s definitely value seen in active learning, and there has been a lot of research backing up the effectiveness of active learning in these settings. And I think in higher education settings, recent research backs up its effectiveness as well in improving learning outcomes, boosting grades and reducing inequities in student outcomes.

Could active learning methods be improved?

ET: Oh yes. In any teaching method, there is always room to improve. Studies show that active learning improves learning outcomes, but there’s also a lot of variation in the results. Why is that?

Well, one new focus as a potential answer is that you have to consider hearts as well as minds when teaching: Getting away from lectures and incorporating active learning will engage minds, but you can’t just have active learning alone. You also need to foster a sense of psychosocial “comfort” in the classroom.

How do you create this sense of psychosocial comfort?

ET: This is one of our avenues of active investigation! We’re exploring the hypothesis that students need this sense of psychosocial safety — knowing, for example, that their professor cares deeply about their success. What we’re trying to emphasize in the Science piece is that, by this theory, you need to do both: Students learn best in the types of collaborative environments that active learning methods can provide, and you also need to create an environment where students feel supported and feel that instructors care deeply about their success.

More research must be done to test this “heads and hearts” hypothesis, but we believe this could be key to bringing equity into STEM undergraduate education. It could go a long way toward improving equity in higher education classrooms.


Read the full Q&A in UW News.

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