While active learning has a long history at Niagara University, the conscious promotion of it as an explicit part of the university’s educational vision is relatively recent. The Committee on College Teaching and Learning, the principal faculty group working on this effort, grew out of an initiative launched by Dr. Susan Mason, then Vice President for Academic Affairs, in Spring 2000. Inspired by the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Dr. Mason used a series of faculty meetings to encourage participation in this nationwide project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
The following summer Dr. Mason appointed an ad hoc committee to advance the scholarship of teaching effort the three most recent winners of the university’s Excellence in Teaching award: Drs. William Martin, Rita Pollard and Paul Vermette. With the addition of a few more interested faculty members, this ad hoc group began defining its role in the project. Wary of setting itself up as a panel of experts, the group proposed that it be considered a steering committee for a Committee on College Teaching and Learning (CCTL) that encompassed the whole faculty. Building broad ownership of this program among the full faculty has continued to be a primary concern of the steering committee which recognized from the start that without that sense of ownership the entire effort would fail.
After defining itself and its role, the committee, under the leadership of Dr. Martin, took as its first task brainstorming ideas to encourage the implementation of more active learning activities by more faculty, the rigorous examination of the results of those activities, and the sharing of those results in both formal and informal settings, on-campus and beyond. Drawing on the work done by teaching centers on other campuses as well as its own ideas, the group proposed a series of faculty colloquia on teaching and learning, an annual regional conference that would attract faculty from other institutions, and the creation of a summer research grant dedicated specifically to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Working with Dr. Mason, the CCTL began to implement its program, inviting faculty to propose colloquia topics, creating criteria and a plan for the evaluation of summer research proposals, and planning its first annual active learning conference for Spring, 2002, which featured Dr. Craig Nelson, a national Professor of the Year.
The progress made in its first two years had taken a toll on the energies of the small CCTL, but the group and the active learning initiative was about to enter a new chapter. In the spring of 2002 the CCTL achieved a new status as it was given a formal role in the university’s 2002-2005 Strategic Plan. Specifically the committee received a charge “to play a leadership role . . . in assisting students to become more active learners [and] . . . to build a learning community of faculty who are committed to exploring, developing, and implementing active learning/teaching strategies at the university.” Along with this more formal recognition of the committee’s role, the strategic plan laid out directed that the CCTL steering committee be expanded to include faculty representing all five of the colleges in the university as well as the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Coordinator of Instructional Technology, the Director of University Mission, and two students.
For the most part, the Strategic Plan simply institutionalized the existing goals and activities of the CCTL. However, it provided increased resources and increased accountability. The plan also introduced a new program element, a number of active-learning grants designed to provide an incentive for faculty to initiate active-learning experiments in their classrooms and share the results as scholarship of teaching. These new grants not only increased the support for classroom research on active learning but also seemed better suited to the practical concerns of faculty engaged in this type of research. However, the annual Summer Research Grant dedicated to active learning and co-administered with the University Research Council continued to be awarded.
The implementation of the changes for CCTL introduced by the Strategic Plan began shortly after the arrival of a new Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Bonnie Rose, who quickly elevated the status and spirits of the CCTL. She hosted weekly meetings of the expanded CCTL and made available clerical support that lessened the burden on faculty members. The creation of the active-learning grants and the process for selecting the winners of the first four learning grants absorbed much of the CCTL’s energy in 2002-03, but the committee managed to sponsor several programs such as two faculty-led active-learning workshops that fall, its first series of faculty book club sessions, and its second annual conference.
During 2003-04 CCTL, at the invitation of Dr. Rose, participated in the articulation of a revised academic vision statement for the university. It was in this process that the focus on “active learning” evolved into the emphasis on “active, integrative learning” that now guides the committee. As the first group of learning grant winners conducted their projects in class, the committee prepared for an expansion of the program to fund sixteen new learning grants by revising the criteria and the review process and holding a workshop for faculty interested in submitting proposals. Faculty prepared for the third annual active learning conference in March by participating in a series of book club meetings, discussing Active Learning in Secondary and College Science Classrooms, co-authored by our conference presenter, Dr. Joel Michael. The impact of this engagement with Dr. Michaels can be clearly seen in the definition of active learning that this taskforce ultimately adopted. In the same year, CCTL sponsored two other presentations, one on an integrated theory of learning and another on electronic portfolios.
By the 2004-05 academic year the learning grant program had reached maturity as the winners of the first grants sharing their findings with other interested faculty in a series of “Teaching/Learning Conversations,” the so-called TLC brown bag lunches. The CCTL continued to refine the learning grant program to promote more effective active learning course-based research and particularly the meaningful assessment of that learning. By this point some of the results of the work supported by these grants and other research inspired by the initiative were beginning to be presented at statewide, regional and national conferences. The learning grant program was seen as an important part of building a learning community among faculty. CCTL looked at ways to connect current, past, and potential learning grant recipients with each other, with CCTL members, and with the rest of the faculty. Once again the preparation for the annual spring active learning conference included an opportunity for faculty and academic support staff to read about and discuss the upcoming topic, in this case, the challenges posed by “the Millennial Student.”