Research, Innovation, and Pedagogical Excellence: Exploring the Future of Higher Education

Photo: Steve Zylius/ UCI

When the Anteater Learning Pavillion (ALP) opened its doors in fall of 2018, it marked the start of an educational revolution at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). As the first facility in California designed with active learning principles in mind, the ALP comprises 55,000 square feet of learning space optimized for meaningful student engagement and productive collaboration. It is home to two active learning lecture halls, ten active learning classrooms, and three computer labs. The ALP also boasts six tutorial rooms as well as several reservable study rooms and informal study spaces where students can meet and collaborate. 

With several years and $67 million invested, the ALP represents UCI’s commitment to transforming the student learning experience, redefining the standards for college instruction, and supporting progressive educational research. The ALP offers a glimpse into the future of higher education. 

The research conducted in the ALP is already informing UCI’s plans for the future. As UCI prepares to welcome students back to campus after a year of remote learning, the data collected prior to COVID-19 is laying the foundation for how classrooms and courses can be designed to accommodate the transition. Thanks to the ALP, its researchers, and faculty partners, UCI can continue to offer the high-quality education that students deserve.

On the Cutting Edge of Educational Research

The opening of the ALP marked the start of an intensive two-year study overseen by the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) to determine the impact that the ALP had on the teaching and learning experience at UCI. Led by principal investigator Dr. Brian Sato (DTEI Faculty Director and Professor of Teaching for Molecular Biology and Biochemistry) in collaboration with several members of the DTEI team, the study involved observing over 250 courses hosted within the ALP and collecting over 19,000 survey responses from students and faculty.

One of the lead researchers on the study, Dr. Mathew Williams (Principal Analyst for Learning Environments at the DTEI), explains that the study looked to answer several broad questions, including:

  • What teaching practices are faculty using, and how did they decide on those specific practices?
  • What role do classroom design and technology play in those decisions and how faculty implemented them?
  • How are students responding to the teaching practices and to what extent do they view them as beneficial to their learning?
  • How are their responses and their learning experiences influenced by the physical environment?

A major focus of the study was to examine the impact of incorporating active learning into the classroom. Mathew says:

“Active learning is a broad collection of teaching strategies designed to engage students in the kinds of mental processes and interactions that lead to deeper, more meaningful learning. Strategies range from short reflection prompts and application questions during a lecture to more complex inquiry-based activities that take up full class sessions. Repeated studies have shown that these strategies not only lead to higher overall learning gains, but also give students an opportunity to strengthen their analytical and creative problem-solving skills, which we know are necessary to tackle the ambiguous and novel challenges that we face in the 21st century.”

So far, the study has yielded interesting results. Based on observational data of a large sample of courses, the researchers have estimated that approximately 61% of courses held in the ALP leveraged frequent active learning strategies, compared to the 45% of courses held in traditional classrooms. Additionally, faculty survey responses reveal that teaching in the ALP has positively impacted their ability to practice active learning, engage students, and develop positive rapport with students. 

The study also shows that students have had a positive response towards classes held in the ALP. Students reported that the design of ALP classrooms has encouraged them to experiment with new learning strategies and contribute to class discussions more than classes held in traditional classrooms. Student respondents also agreed or strongly agreed that the ALP should serve as a model for future classrooms at UCI.

Recently, the DTEI researchers created an infographic illustrating a small but representative sample of the data they have collected so far. The team intends to share their additional findings and more in-depth analysis of the data through future communications and peer-reviewed publications.

The Impact of COVID

Unfortunately, like much of the world, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the study to a halt. As UCI transitioned to a remote campus, in-person course observation and data collection were paused at the end of Winter Quarter 2020—just one quarter before the study was slated for completion.

Despite this setback, the researchers at the DTEI are keeping plenty busy. “With over 19,000 survey responses across 130 courses, we have a lot to work with as far as assessing the broad areas we set out to study,” Mathew explains. “We have also identified several specific areas of interest that we’d like to explore further  through smaller, more focused studies and experiments.”

The DTEI team also ensured that the ALP was put to use during this time, partnering with other UCI departments to transform the ALP into a safe remote teaching facility during the early weeks of the pandemic. Faculty and graduate students have been able to use the classroom tools and technologies to create lecture videos, record demonstrations, and hold live remote classes. As public health conditions permit, the ALP also serves as one of UCI’s primary facilities for in-person courses. While most faculty have adapted to remote teaching in their own spaces, the ALP has been instrumental in supporting the transition and remains a valuable resource for those who need access to classroom spaces to prepare and deliver their courses.

Active Learning in a Remote Setting

Though UCI has announced that in-person instruction will resume for Fall Quarter 2021, UCI will remain remote until the end of Spring Quarter 2021. To help faculty and students continue to make the most of the remote teaching and learning environment, Mathew offers some of his best advice.

For faculty, he recommends balancing the creation of content and course videos with the development of activities that provide students with multiple opportunities to practice course concepts, apply them to relevant problems and scenarios, assess their own learning, and get feedback from others. He also highlights the importance of giving students guidance on the most important concepts and skills to learn. This way, students will have an easier time focusing on and directing their own learning toward the most critical elements of the course. He explains:

“Prior to the pandemic, faculty had invested significant effort into crafting the classroom experience and incorporating active learning. And our research demonstrates those efforts were successful in many areas. The good news is that even though it may look and feel different, many of those same principles translate well to the remote world. It can be tempting to invest all of our time into producing content, but as with face-to-face lectures, even the best videos alone cannot cause students to learn. Students need to actively engage with concepts, relate them to prior knowledge, practice applying them in different situations, test their understanding and assumptions, and get feedback from others. The role of faculty in designing and facilitating activities around these processes is just as important as the expertise they share through instructional videos.”

For students, Mathew encourages them to try to space their coursework throughout the week rather than do it all at once. He also suggests students be open to trying new learning and study strategies if what they are currently doing is not yielding the outcomes they want: 

“It’s natural for us to believe that what has helped us be successful in the past will continue to work well in the future. When a disruptive event like a pandemic comes along, it changes those parameters and can challenge our sense of what works and our expectations for success. My best advice to students is to trust yourself and your ability to adapt to the situation. It’s also important to note that our intuition about what helps us learn is often more about what’s familiar than what will be most effective. Be open to trying other approaches if you aren’t getting the outcomes you want. Many research-based strategies that can help can be found on our website.”

For more information about DTEI and their research, visit its website here. For more information on the ALP, visit its website here. Faculty looking for remote teaching support can visit the DTEI Teach Anywhere site here. Students looking for assistance with remote learning can visit the DTEI’s Learn Anywhere site here.