Active Learning Community of Practice’s focus this year is on diversity and inclusion

Clinical Assistant Professor of Nursing Susan Modlin, the faculty facilitator of the Active Community Learning of Practice for 2019-2020. Susan Modlin, clinical assistant professor of nursing, says the Active Learning Community of Practice helps faculty “define how they see active learning and how they see it in their classroom.”

Even though Susan Modlin first heard of active learning at a conference in the late 1990s and has been using active learning techniques for more than 20 years, the clinical assistant professor of nursing admits that she still finds active learning hard to define.

“One of the things I’ve learned is to think of active learning as a kind of storytelling,” says Modlin. “I share my story, or my knowledge, from my perspective. Active learning is allowing students to have a voice in that process, so it becomes not only me telling them a story from my perspective, but that they get to participate and see that story from their experience.”

In Modlin’s courses, that student experience can take the shape of classroom discussions, clinical exercises or service learning opportunities – anything that helps her students meet her course’s objectives.

This year, Modlin is taking that same approach to serving as the faculty facilitator for the Active Learning Community of Practice (ALCoP), a monthly meeting of faculty who gather to share ideas, explore active learning strategies and discuss student outcomes. Instead of focusing solely on techniques or practices, meetings this year will focus on diversity and inclusion, and how active learning can enhance both in the classroom.

The next ALCoP meeting, on September 24, will feature a discussion of interactive tools designed for facilitating diversity and inclusion. The event is open to faculty, staff and professional students; click here for more information and to register.

Below is an edited conversation with Modlin, who encourages faculty interested in active learning, or even those just in need of a place to discuss teaching ideas, to attend one of community’s monthly meetings.

Q: Active learning is broadly defined as form of learning that lets students take an active role in the learning process, but the actual practice can take on many different forms. How do you build a community of practice around something that is hard to define?

 “I think that’s the exciting thing about ALCoP, we’re helping people define how they see active learning and how they see it in their classroom. The bottom line, as I see it, is that ALCoP is about supporting faculty. It gives them a forum to hear what other people are doing and get supported for what they’re doing. And that’s how I grew with using active learning, it was by realizing that those ideas I have aren’t so wacky; they really are helpful for helping students to learn.”

Q: So it’s about finding the teaching style that best suits you?

“Yes, and  then we look at how you can evaluate if what you’re doing is actually making a difference with students, because that’s the bottom line. The idea that ‘I like teaching this way’ or ‘I don’t like teaching this way’ – that doesn’t really make a difference to the students. So we talk about outcomes: What is it that the student gets out of active learning, and is it actually beneficial?”

Q: I think sometimes faculty are reluctant to embrace active learning because it’s foreign to the way they were taught, or it’s seen as making a drastic change to the way a course is structured. Does attending ALCoP require that kind of commitment?

“I think the nice think about ALCoP, or any of the other community of practices or faculty support groups on campus, is it really is designed to get you thinking about how you can make some changes, but you don’t have to make them all, or even make any. It’s a place to get ideas, so that maybe you can start by putting some things that are active learning into your course and seeing how that works for your students. And ALCoP allows you to network with other faculty who have tried something similar, so they can help give you ideas and give you support to try something new.”

Q: Speaking of something new, this year’s focus seems to be less on active learning techniques, instead focusing on how to impact “diversity and inclusion” through active learning.

“If faculty are teaching about culture or teaching about diversity there’s a question about how do you do that in a way that’s inclusive. With active learning, you’re letting everybody talk, but is everybody talking? Or are there people who are quieter than others, voices that aren’t being heard? So we’re going to be looking at people who are doing active learning in these areas, and what works for them and what the challenges are. They’re also going to be talking about service learning as a form of active learning, where students experience something outside of the classroom and then applying it as a part of active learning. We have a tendency to think of things like active learning, or service learning or experiential learning as these separate buckets, but really they are all intertwined and can be beneficial to explore together across pedagogies.”

Q: That sounds like the making of a fairly fascinating discussion, but if that’s not enough to draw faculty to an ALCoP meeting, do you have any other reasons?

“I think ALCoP provides mentoring for active learning so if you want to explore something besides traditional teaching there are people there who can share what has worked or not worked for them. It’s a safe place to ask questions and to think out loud, ‘what would I do if…’ or ‘how could I do this…’ I think the fact that ALCoP is multi-disciplinary is really helpful. Sometimes at a university or within a department there becomes a culture that makes people think ‘We only teach this way ...’ But having people get outside of that and come to ALCoP and hear what other disciplines are doing can really be helpful to get perspective on what you are wanting to try.”

Writer: Dave Stephens, technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue, 765-496-7998, 

Last updated: September 16, 2019