Harvard’s ‘active’ system helping other universities improve outcomes

Learning Catalytics, an active learning system developed at Harvard, has led to big improvements for students at the University of North Carolina


Some students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill have been improving their test scores by more than 3 percentage points on average in the past year, and it’s largely the result of a Harvard-created software that emphasizes active learning.

The software, which is called Learning Catalytics, was implemented by Professor Kelly Hogan, the Director of Instructional Innovation for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Senior Lecturer in the Biology Department, in her non-majors Biology class in the fall of 2013.

Though Hogan had used similar systems over the years, she was explains that she was drawn to Learning Catalytics because of the diversity of questions to ask students, the ability to easily implement outside content, and the fact that it creates a digital seating chart for students that allows them to interact with a more diverse group of classmates when completing team-based assessments.

“Learning Catalytics makes it easier for me to implement active learning, so it adds to my effectiveness as an instructor and the success of student learners,” Professor Hogan said.

Active learning, which is defined as “a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content,” is becoming a popular teaching tool, as instructors say it allows them to directly assess how well students are grasping new material.

In a large lecture hall like Professor Hogan’s with over 400 students, active learning can be crucial.

“Once I began implementing [active learning] techniques, I never looked back,” said Hogan. “I loved that I got to hear from students and learned what they didn’t know. It really shaped my teaching very quickly as I learned how to set up better learning activities the more I was armed with data…these techniques are much more inclusive.”

However, Hogan found that many early active learning systems, such as clickers, which only used to accommodate multiple choice questions, did not present diverse ways to hold all students accountable and truly assess whether or not they understood the material and how big a part they played in completing group work.

(Next Page: Going beyond traditional active learning)