Purdue receives $2.3 million federal grant to study active learning

September 30, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University has received a four-year $2.3 million federal Department of Education grant to study why active-learning strategies help student retention, success and completion rates.

The grant, which was announced Tuesday (Sept. 30) and begins on Wednesday (Oct. 1), is through the DOE's First in the World Program, which seeks to improve postsecondary educational persistence and completion.

"There has been a lot of discussion in higher education about student-centered teaching and learning, about making instruction more engaging, and improving the learning environment through active learning," said Chantal Levesque-Bristol, director of the Center for Instructional Excellence at Purdue and a professor of educational studies. "No large-scale, controlled, scientific study has been done in education to look at why active-learning models have been successful. We know they work, but if we don't know why we can't replicate the positive results."

Purdue already has successfully transformed 120 large-enrollment courses as part of its Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation (IMPACT) program, where more group work and active student-centered learning replace lectures, and about 300 courses are projected to be redesigned using this model by the 2016-17 academic year.

Purdue President Mitch Daniels said the highly competitive First in the World grant validates the efforts Purdue has made in creating the curriculum of the future.

"This absolutely confirms our impression that Purdue is well out front in the development of teaching methods for the next-generation college experience," Daniels said. "This work led by Dr. Levesque-Bristol will inform our work at Purdue, but will also be extremely valuable for our 11 partners in the University Innovation Alliance, where we are looking at the best way to enhance learning for low-income and first-generation students. The more we learn about why active learning works, the better we will be at enhancing the success of all students.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "After receiving nearly 500 applications from around the country, we're excited to announce Purdue University will receive a First in the World grant, funded for the first time this year. Each grantee demonstrated a high-quality, creative and sound approach to expand college access and improve student outcomes. We are confident these projects will have a positive impact on increasing access and completion and help us reach President Obama's 2020 goal, to once again have the highest share of college graduates in the world."

Levesque-Bristol said she would examine active learning through a research project called Success Through Transformative Education and Active Mentoring. It will focus on science, technology, engineering, agriculture and math, or STEAM, courses. She said researchers would look at different active-learning strategies and identify the factors that make some more successful than others.

"The framework that I'm using is the 'self-determination theory' by Deci and Ryan," Levesque-Bristol said. "According to the theory, students learn best when they feel competent, autonomous and connected. Autonomy in this case does not mean independence; it's volition or choice. For example, students tend to feel autonomous when they're given choices and options about how to perform or present their work. Autonomy for students also means they're engaged in learning.

"We'll also look at the impact of active-learning strategies on motivation. If students are motivated and engaged they'll be retained, they will earn better grades, and they will graduate on time."

Levesque-Bristol said the study would build on IMPACT, the program that aims to change the way key foundation, large-enrollment classes are taught. From a student perspective, IMPACT classes incorporate new learning strategies and technologies to make courses more "student-centered," for example, by replacing large lectures with more group work and active learning.

"We'll do this based on the success of IMPACT. We'll use the infrastructure of IMPACT - the faculty and students, the management team, the advisory board, and the professional development and assessment teams - in doing course transformation, and do it in a more intentional, rigorous and scientific manner," she said.

Levesque-Bristol outlined how the study will work.

"STEAM courses, with multiple sections, will be selected after consulting the department, deans and faculty. The sections are equivalent at the start of the study, but then one section will become the control section and the other will become the experimental section," she said. "The experimental section will undergo an IMPACT transformation, and the control section will be taught as usual. Pre- and post-test assessments, constructed by faculty and measuring faculty-identified learning outcomes, will be administered in the control and experimental sections.

"In addition, a student perception survey, including the basic psychological need measure (autonomy, competence, relatedness) and motivation measure, also will be administered pre and post in the control and experimental sections. Results will be compared for the control and experimental sections and examined in aggregate. We expect basic psychological need satisfaction and motivation to be higher in the experimental section, which in turn would impact learning outcomes and grades."

According to the White House website, the First in the World competition began when President Obama proposed an investment of $55 million “to support public and private colleges and nonprofit organizations as they work to develop and test the next breakthrough strategy that will boost higher education attainment and student outcome, while leading to reduced costs.” 

Writer: Greg McClure, 765-496-9711, gmcclure@purdue.edu 

Sources: Chantal Levesque-Bristol, 765-496-6424, cbristol@purdue.edu 

Mitch Daniels, president@purdue.edu

Denise Horn, assistant press secretary in U.S. Department of Education, Denise.Horn@ed.gov 

Related news release:

Department of Education release: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/department-awards-75-million-first-world-grants-24-colleges-and-universities

Related video:

Purdue Active Learning Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V20ufq2nQ3E&feature=youtu.be

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