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Is Unaided Active Learning an Effective Teaching Method for Those with Learning Disabilities?

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Alternative Teaching Methods

Tagged Division

Engineering Technology

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Paper Authors


Jennifer A. O'Neil Rochester Institute of Technology

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Jennifer A. (Mallory) O'Neil received her B.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2008 and Purdue University in 2012, respectively. In 2016 she joined the faculty of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she currently holds the position of Assistant Professor of Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Technology. She currently teaches undergraduate courses in the thermal fluid sciences and introductory engineering courses. Her research interests are in the area of spray physics, focusing on nebulizer devices for low-resource settings.

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Martin E. Gordon Rochester Institute of Technology

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Martin E. Gordon, PE, DFE is Professor and Undergraduate Program Director in the College of Applied Science and Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He has been recognized for his excellence in teaching and dedication to students at RIT. A Registered Professional Engineer (PE) and Diplomate Board Certified Forensic Engineer (DFE), Marty has 36 years of engineering experience. He is the current president of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers and was selected to be the 2018 “Engineer of the Year” by the Rochester Engineering Society – one of the oldest regional engineering societies in the United States. Gordon is the founder and President of Gordon Engineering, PC. Marty has consulted or provided Forensic Engineering expert testimony in nearly 150 cases in state and federal court – he is considered a national expert in traffic crash analysis and reconstruction. Marty holds a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering, an MS degree in Mechanical/Systems Engineering, an MBA with a concentration in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources all from the University of Buffalo. He is a PhD candidate in RIT’s Engineering PhD Program, and is completing his dissertation in transportation and highway safety.

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Abigail Gordon Clarence Central School District

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Abigail Gordon obtained her B.S. and M.S.ed. from Daemen College in Amherst, NY. She is currently a special education teacher in the Clarence Central School District. Abigail works as a special education consultant teacher for second and fifth grade. Many of Abigail's daily roles include front loading her students on lessons that they will later see in their mainstream classrooms. She has become an expert in this field and has been involved in efforts to modify the elementary age front loading technique to other age groups of learners.

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Brian Scott Rice Rochester Institute of Technology

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Dr. Brian S. Rice is an assistant professor in the Manufacturing & Mechanical Engineering Technology (MMET) department and he also teaches in the Biomedical Engineering (BIME) department at RIT. He joined the MMET faculty in 2016 after working in applied research at Lockheed Martin, University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics, and Eastman Kodak Company. Dr. Rice specializes in using Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) techniques to develop mathematical models that accurately predict empirical data of electromechanical systems.

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Gary De Angelis Rochester Institute of Technology

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Currently a Lecturer at RIT, with a total of 27 years experience in college-level education (mostly as an Adjunct). Gary holds a BS/MS degree in Plastics Engineering from University of Massachusetts at Lowell and has 34 years industrial experience working for Delphi Technologies in Rochester, NY as a Senior Plastics Engineer.

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The benefits of active learning are well-understood and supported by research [1]. However, active learning can be a nightmare for students with learning disabilities and there is little evidence that it is inclusive to these individuals.

Learning disabilities affect a person’s ability to receive, store, and process information, along with retrieving and communicating information [2]. A common characteristic found in students with learning disabilities is that they require extra time to assimilate information from a lecture. Consequently, an active learning activity can present challenges when it requires immediate recall of new information. There is an immediate need to understand the potentially damaging effects active learning can have on this group of students who already face challenges in the classroom and are underrepresented in STEM education.

This preliminary work seeks to determine if active learning is more effective when students with learning disabilities are first front-loaded with information. Frontloading is a form of teaching that uses engaging strategies to introduce and scaffold material for students. During this process, students are intentionally exposed to vocabulary, concepts, and skills that they will learn later in the lesson. Numerous studies in K-12 show that frontloading assignments is critical for students with specific learning disabilities because it allows them to see the context of the lesson ahead of time. The literature is void of frontloading in post-secondary education STEM fields. It is hypothesized that by combining frontloading and active learning, the resulting hybrid will become a more beneficial teaching method for students with learning disabilities.

The work proposed here is being implemented into a core engineering course typically taken by freshman. To increase student engagement and retention, active learning has been a key component of the course. To test the hypothesis, frontloading materials are being implemented weekly. Specific focus is being placed on how and when to frontload. How frontloading will be executed is being driven by lesson content. Frontloading techniques currently used in K-12 classrooms being adapted in this study include KWL charts, anticipation guides, group discussions, concept webs, and brainstorming.

An ideal investigation would include an experimental group, students with learning disabilities who are frontloaded, and a control group, students with learning disabilities who are not frontloaded. However, since there is a variable number of students with learning disabilities enrolled each semester, a statistically meaningful sample size cannot be guaranteed. Instead, all enrolled students are being frontloaded. A focus group comprising of student volunteers with learning disabilities will be formed to obtain qualitative results.

The overall effectiveness of the investigation will be assessed via videotaped student focus group interviews. Students with learning disabilities will be identified through the Student Disability Services office. Using a focus group as opposed to individual surveys has many potential benefits. A focus group can be a powerful tool for gaining information not accessible in individual interviews. For example, interactions between group members may stimulate memories and ideas that would not have surfaced in an individual interview [3].

References 1. National Academy of Engineering, “Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century,” National Academies Press, November 2005. 2. Gonzalez, Fernando, “For Some, Active Learning can be a Nightmare,” ASEE PRISM, 2016. 3. Van Note Chism, N., Douglas, E., and Hilson Jr., W., “Qualitative Research Basics: A Guide for Engineering Educators,” NSF Rigorous Research in Engineering Education Grant.

O'Neil, J. A., & Gordon, M. E., & Gordon, A., & Rice, B. S., & De Angelis, G. (2018, June), Is Unaided Active Learning an Effective Teaching Method for Those with Learning Disabilities? Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30736

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