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POGIL in the Classroom: Using Active Learning Strategies to Re-energize Post-tenure Faculty
Maintaining post-tenure faculty’s enthusiasm for teaching can be difficult for any number of reasons; the most common are comfort with existing teaching methods and a lack of time. However, renewing tenured faculty’s excitement about teaching can be very rewarding, especially for the students in their classrooms. One way to motivate faculty to invest in teaching is to turn the focus from faculty-centered to student-centered learning.
At Capital University, a new provost and his team placed an emphasis on student learning in all aspects of student and academic affairs. They provided available data on student learning to faculty and charged them with providing evidence that students were meeting the outcomes of the programs. Data that showed the percentage of students earning D, F, W (withdraw), or I (incomplete) grades in a particular class and among specific student populations were particularly illustrative of the shortcomings in some of our teaching strategies. For us, openly talking about student learning and using data to demonstrate the gaps among different student populations were powerful ways to motivate faculty to get excited about teaching again.
To emphasize student learning, classes need to be more focused on the learner. Student-centered active learning is a great technique that can be daunting, but once professors are trained in how to incorporate it into their courses, they become enthusiastic about the learning they see in their classrooms. There are many ways to implement more active, student-centered learning. A large meta-analysis of various active learning techniques showed that any form of active learning is better for students than traditional lecturing (Freeman et al. 2014). In particular, “highly structured active learning”—in which instructors guide students through preparing before class sessions, actively participating in discussions and activities, and completing low-stakes weekly assessments of their learning—has been shown not only to improve student performance on exams but also to decrease the achievement gap between students from privileged and nonprivileged backgrounds (Haak et al. 2011).
At Capital University, one way to reenergize post-tenure faculty was implementing active learning across disciplines. One of the authors of this article, Tracey Arnold Murray, had already implemented Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) strategies in her courses, so this was a natural form of active learning to disseminate at Capital. In addition to having someone on campus who was using the method, POGIL had a number of advantages over other active learning methods, as explained below.
The POGIL Method
POGIL is a student-centered learning philosophy built upon the learning cycle and constructivist theories, which view learning as something that students construct rather than receive from a faculty member. Students in a POGIL classroom work in small teams (three to five students) on material that has been designed to allow them to construct their own understanding of the topic. One key to a good POGIL activity is the presentation of a “model”—an image, data table, figure, graph, or short section of text—that the students “explore” to start the activity. Exploration questions that direct students’ attention to important points in the model then lead to questions that ask students to start “inventing” a concept, or whatever idea, theory, definition, or relationship that the activity is covering. Once the questions help establish the concept, students are asked to apply that idea to a new situation, completing the learning cycle (Farrell, Moog, and Spencer 1999; Simonson 2019).
In addition to content, POGIL activities and classrooms are intentionally designed to build certain process skills, also called soft skills, that include management, communication, teamwork, problem solving, information processing, critical thinking, and metacognition. All students have specific roles that allow them to practice one or more of these process skills, and the roles rotate through the team. As a result, each student gets the chance to develop the skills that go along with each role. Questions are also worded to encourage the development of process skills by directing students to have a team discussion before writing their answers or to write reflective explanations of their answers. These intentionally designed activities and the structure of the POGIL classroom allow students to be aware of their development of process skills. This is something that sets POGIL apart from other active learning methods where this may be expected of students but is not necessarily a visible emphasis of the class.
In addition to POGIL being an example of the “highly structured active learning” highlighted by Haak et al. (2011), The POGIL Project () is a national nonprofit organization that hosts faculty development workshops at national meetings, at individual institutions, and at disciplinary conferences to help faculty learn how to implement the philosophy in their classrooms and how to improve the implementation once they begin. At these workshops, instructors have the opportunity to develop as POGIL implementers, share their experiences and data with other faculty, and facilitate workshops to teach others to use POGIL in their own classrooms. This creates an active “community” of POGIL practitioners who can answer questions, provide feedback, give ideas, and work together to improve student learning across the country. This continuing faculty development and community are part of what has made The POGIL Project so successful.
For any change in teaching pedagogy to “stick,” community is important. Studies have shown that if instructors have a community of like-minded implementers with whom to share, they are more likely to implement change and are more likely to stick with and expand that implementation (Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein 2011; Kezar, Gehrke, and Bernstein-Sierra 2018). Recently published data also show that students in active learning classrooms do learn more than their peers in traditional lectures, but these students feel they have learned less (Deslauriers et al. 2019). This means that faculty may need more support from their community to implement student-centered strategies when there is student resistance to using active learning.
Since Murray was the first POGIL implementer at Capital, that community came from outside the university: biochemists who were implementing POGIL in their classrooms at institutions across the country. She was part of a group that met seven times in ten years to work together on materials, assessments, and data to improve the implementation of active learning in college biochemistry. In addition, Murray became active in The POGIL Project, attending the organization’s yearly national meeting, and she became a facilitator for POGIL workshops. Her involvement provided the necessary community as she implemented POGIL in her classes, and attending the national meeting became the most “invigorating” thing she did each year to stay excited about teaching and learning in her classes.
Capital University's Experience
As faculty at Capital were getting more information about student learning and achievement gaps in their classrooms, an increasing number of colleagues became interested in using active learning strategies. However, they faced some barriers, including a lack of experience with active learning and the absence of funding to travel to POGIL workshops. To combat these barriers, Capital’s provost agreed to provide the necessary funding for five faculty to travel to a workshop to learn how to implement POGIL in their classrooms. Of these faculty, two were pre-tenure and three—Christine Anderson, Paula Federico, and Leigh Johnson—were post-tenure. All were in STEM fields; two faculty members were from biological and environmental sciences, two were from mathematics, and one was from health and sports sciences. Murray (chemistry and biochemistry) also attended the meeting as a facilitator for The POGIL Project. The provost’s financial backing sent the message that the institution was supportive of new teaching strategies, with the understanding that fully implementing the methodology in the classroom and getting students on board with the changes would take a few semesters.
Attending this workshop gave the faculty the necessary training to begin implementing POGIL in their classes. Anderson and Federico attended the workshop shortly after coming back from sabbaticals, and they returned to campus with more enthusiasm for teaching after a break from their responsibilities. Both had tried activities for certain topics in class before and had been excited by the results. Getting more formal training on how to effectively use active techniques and how to write activities for better student learning and process skill development was very helpful. Johnson already had incorporated active learning into her classes because of a background in math education. Seeing how other faculty were using specific roles to make sure all students were engaged in the activity allowed her to improve her implementation of active learning.
Each post-tenure faculty member who attended the workshop has implemented more POGIL activities in her classes. Using published materials that include POGIL activities designed and tested by experts (Moog and Farrell 2017), Murray began implementing POGIL in general chemistry, which was not a class she had taught using POGIL prior to the workshop. Johnson has been modifying existing activities in her statistics classes using the POGIL framework. Federico has been able to use published POGIL activities for Calculus I (Straumanis et al. 2013) and is slowly adding more each year, with plans to write some for courses that do not have published materials. Anderson’s courses also do not have published activities, so she has been writing a few each year to add to her classes. The existence of published materials for some courses is beneficial because faculty have access to previously written, quality activities to use in class. Faculty were able to implement more POGIL activities into classes when there were available materials. When inspiring faculty enthusiasm for change, it is important for them to know that it will take time to completely convert a class to a new style, especially if faculty need to write their own materials. However, even small changes can have an impact. For example, after just eight days of POGIL activities during the semester, more than 50 percent of students in Federico’s Calculus I class agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “figuring out the concept through the activity helped them retain the information better compared with just listening to lecture.” After completing just one POGIL activity focused on statistics and graphing, Anderson’s students responded qualitatively that they “preferred this way of learning over lecture” and “enjoyed working in a group.” In addition, 89 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that they “felt more comfortable with data analysis than they did prior to the activity,” and 63 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they “were glad they learned about statistics or graphing this way instead of sitting through a lecture.”
Going to the POGIL workshop as a team established a community of active learning professors at Capital. Johnson noted that seeing faculty in the halls or copier room for just a few minutes provided a motivational boost to keep implementing the change—especially when other demands on faculty time made that difficult. Furthermore, the opportunity to present POGIL findings together at meetings kept all of us moving forward and feeling excited about continuing our implementation of POGIL strategies. All of the faculty who attended the original POGIL workshop have collaborated on the dissemination of our experiences at two conferences in the ensuing years (Murray, Johnson, and Beard 2019; Murray et al. 2019). This collaboration allowed us to share and discuss our student data and encouraged us to support each other in furthering our implementation.
An unexpected bonus we noticed at Capital is that as more people on campus begin to implement active learning, the students start to experience POGIL in more than one class. For example, students who had Murray for general chemistry might then have Federico for Calculus I and then have another POGIL-trained professor in a genetics class. Because students are seeing this teaching style in more than one situation, they are becoming more accepting of it. Students also have experience with the teaching strategy and method of learning, so each time they see it, they take less time to become accustomed to it, and the students are more successful. Having more colleagues who are implementing active learning not only helps the faculty build community, but it has also lessened student resistance to the method. Some students even seem to prefer this method of teaching over regular lectures. As an example, since Murray began implementing POGIL in both semesters of general chemistry, hers has been the only full section of the second semester of the course. Students knew that the class would be taught using the POGIL method and were excited to take chemistry using that learning style.
A provost-initiated emphasis on student learning and decreasing gaps in DFWI rates among certain populations led to the financial support of faculty development in evidence-based, student-centered active learning. The resulting training and community building caused a real change in faculty teaching practices at the university. We continue to implement POGIL activities in more of our own classes and to encourage our colleagues to implement POGIL and other active-learning strategies. As students repeatedly encounter the POGIL method, we have noticed a decrease in student resistance and an increase in their preference for classes taught using active methods. We have also observed an increase in our own focus on and excitement about teaching that has reinvigorated our classrooms and our feelings about teaching.
To learn more about The POGIL Project, visit www.pogil.org
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Henderson, Charles, Andrea Beach, and Noah Finkelstein. 2011. “Facilitating Change in Undergraduate STEM Instructional Practices: An Analytic Review of the Literature.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 48: 952–984.
Kezar, Adrianna, Sean Gehrke, and Samantha Bernstein-Sierra. 2018. “Communities of Transformation: Creating Changes to Deeply Entrenched Issues.” The Journal of Higher Education 89: 832–864.
Moog, Richard S., and John J. Farrell. 2017. Chemistry: A Guided Inquiry. 7th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Murray, Tracey Arnold, Leigh Johnson, and Megan Beard. 2019. “Introduction to POGIL.” Presentation at the Ohio Undergraduate Education: Inspiring Practices for Student Success Conference, Columbus, OH, February 2019.
Murray, Tracey Arnold, Christine Anderson, Megan Beard, Paula Federico, Jennifer Larson, and Li Feng. 2019. “Introduction to POGIL”. Presentation at the Ohio Project Kaleidoscope Conference, Dayton, OH, May 2019.
Simonson, Shawn R., ed. 2019. POGIL: An Introduction to Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning for Those Who Wish to Empower Learners. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Straumanis, Andrei, Catherine Bénéteau, Zdenka Guadarrama, Jill E. Guerra, and Laurie Lenz. 2013. Calculus I: A Guided Inquiry. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Tracey Arnold Murray, Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Paula Federico, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Physics; Christine Anderson, Associate Professor, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, and Merl and Margaret Primmer Distinguished Professor in Biological Sciences; and
Leigh Johnson, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Physics, and Harvey and Marian Stegemoeller Endowed Chair in Computational Studies—all of Capital University