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)

Learning Catalytics–a project co-founded by interactive and educational technology experts Eric Mazur, Gary King, and Brian Lukoff at Harvard University–drew upon what Harvard says is 20 years of advanced research, innovation, and implementation of active learning at the University. Harvard explains that the system engages students by allowing them to use their own mobile devices or computers to answer questions through the cloud that are not simply multiple choice, but instead are open-ended and require critical thinking. In addition to textual responses, the system also supports numerical, algebraic, and graphical responses.

Meanwhile, instructors are able to assess student understanding of class material in real time and can identify, with the help of the system, which areas require further clarification. Learning Catalytics can also group students together for further discussion and practice.

This wide array of features is what drew Pearson to acquire the company  in 2013, as well as what drew Hogan and UNC to Learning Catalytics.

“With Learning Catalytics, it is possible to have students draw their models and submit them,” said Hogan. Now, I can see 400 graphs and can quickly scan for common mistakes.”

“The program also tells me who is sitting where, and how they answered each question,” Hogan continued. “Because students enter their seat numbers, the program can assign them to a neighbor to talk to who has a different answer. This enriches the discussion and means student groups become more diverse… [making] the class feel more like a community.”

In addition to having already spread to the Physics and Astronomy Departments at UNC, Learning Catalytics is now used by a wide array of institutions, including (but not limited to) the Georgia Institute of Technology, Auburn University, The Ohio State University, Cornell University, and even some high schools.

As for any downsides to the system?

“Downside might be how powerful it is and how much data you can get – meaning it can be overwhelming,” Hogan explained.

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