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Moving Beyond "Does Active Learning Work?" with the Engineering Learning Observation Protocol (ELCOT)

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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

Active Learning Methods in Action

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Megan Sanders Colorado School of Mines Orcid 16x16

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Megan Sanders is the Senior Assessment Associate at the Trefny Innovative Instruction Center at the Colorado School of Mines. Before joining Mines, Megan worked at the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Instructional Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, where her role focused on supporting instructors in conducting research about student outcomes in their courses. Megan’s disciplinary background is in educational psychology. She earned her PhD from the Ohio State University, and her research focused on the idea of relevance in higher education—how we define it, how students perceive it, and how to measure it—an interest that continues to inform her work.

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Sam Spiegel Colorado School of Mines

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Dr. Spiegel is the Director of the Trefny Innovative Instruction Center at the Colorado School of Mines. He previously served as Chair of the Disciplinary Literacy in Science Team at the Institute for Learning (IFL) and Associate Director of Outreach and Development for the Swanson School of Engineering's Engineering Education Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to joining the University of Pittsburgh, he was a science educator at Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). Dr. Spiegel also served as Director of Research & Development for a multimedia development company and as founding Director of the Center for Integrating Research & Learning (CIRL) at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Florida State University. Under Dr. Spiegel's leadership, the CIRL matured into a thriving Center recognized as one of the leading National Science Foundation Laboratories for activities to promote science, mathematics, and technology (STEM) education. While at Florida State University, Dr. Spiegel also directed an award winning teacher enhancement program for middle grades science teachers, entitled Science For Early Adolescence Teachers (Science FEAT).

His extensive background in science education includes experiences as both a middle school and high school science teacher, teaching science at elementary through graduate level, developing formative assessment instruments, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in science and science education, working with high-risk youth in alternative education centers, working in science museums, designing and facilitating online courses, multimedia curriculum development, and leading and researching professional learning for educators. The Association for the Education of Teachers of Science (AETS) honored Dr. Spiegel for his efforts in teacher education with the Innovation in Teaching Science Teachers award (1997).

Dr. Spiegel's current efforts focus on educational reform and in the innovation of teaching and learning resources and practices.

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Jennifer Zoltners Sherer University of Pittsburgh

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Jennifer Zoltners Sherer is a Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research & Development Center. Her work focuses on developmental evaluation, initiation and development of networked improvement communities (NIC), and improving STEM teaching and learning. Her research interests include distributed leadership, organizational change, and improving teaching and learning through tool design and implementation, professional development, reform initiatives, and curriculum. Prior to receiving her Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University, she was a teacher in Oregon.

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This Evidence-based Practice Paper responds to the call for “a more nuanced approach to active learning” (Streveler & Menekse, 2017, p. 189), required because it no longer moves the field of engineering education forward to ask “does active learning work?” Instead, Steveler and Menekse (2017) suggest it is necessary to pay attention to the particular context, studying which active learning practices best support specific learning outcomes and student populations.

Consistent with this call, we facilitate a month-long faculty professional learning program on Engineering Learning, an intentional design process that helps faculty focus not simply on implementing active learning, but more specifically on appropriately aligning instructional strategies with learning outcomes and assessments (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). To detect changes in faculty teaching practice as a result of attending the Engineering Learning Intensive, we developed the Engineering Learning Classroom Observation Tool (ELCOT; Authors, 2017). In this paper, we describe the context and theoretical grounding for the ELCOT, compare it with existing classroom observation protocols, and, using case studies of two faculty members, illustrate the potential of the tool to enhance our understanding of active learning.

The Engineering Learning Intensive drove the development of the ELCOT, and both the program and the protocol share similar theoretical groundings, including backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), Webb’s depth of knowledge (2007), and Principles of Learning (Resnick, 1999). These frameworks represent some of the material faculty interact with during the Intensive and, as such, guide what aspects of the classroom observers attend to when using the ELCOT. The categories observers code include student organization, student talk, student activity, and instructor activity, each of which includes subcodes. The protocol also captures the instructor’s stated learning objectives for the class and the observer’s judgment of the alignment between the objectives and the classroom activities.

When compared to existing classroom observation protocols, such as the COPUS (Smith et al., 2013) and the RTOP (Sawada et al., 2002), the ELCOT highlights complexities in the implementation of active learning that are not well captured in other protocols. For our purposes, it was better aligned with the aspects of the classroom we wanted to pay attention to: namely, those aligned with what faculty learned about during the Engineering Learning Intensive. Additionally, the ELCOT helps observers attend to the broader alignment between classroom activities and learning objectives, rather than the presence or absence of active learning alone.

To illustrate how the ELCOT provides a more complex picture of teaching practices, we describe case studies of two faculty members who participated in the Engineering Learning Intensive. Each of these faculty members was observed before and after the Intensive, and the ELCOT was able to detect both dramatic and subtle shifts in their teaching practices. Thus, by attending to the specific characteristics and alignment of active learning, the ELCOT helps us move beyond asking whether or not active learning works. Instead, its focus on nuances in context, alignment, and implementation will help continue to move the field forward.

Sanders, M., & Spiegel, S., & Sherer, J. Z. (2018, June), Moving Beyond "Does Active Learning Work?" with the Engineering Learning Observation Protocol (ELCOT) Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30827

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