Active learning sparks collaboration and understanding

Nick Peters instructing students who are seated in a group around a table.
Nick Peters, assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology, provides guidance to students as they work to identify various plant diseases shown on a handout.

By Amber Friedrichsen

Instructors at Iowa State University strive to see the imaginary lightbulbs go off above their students’ heads when they grasp a new concept. To help students have these “lightbulb moments,” Nick Peters and Elizabeth “EB” Wlezien are introducing active learning to their classroom.

Peters and Wlezien, assistant professor and graduate student in plant pathology and microbiology, respectively, recently became Fellows of the NSF-funded Promoting Active Learning and Mentoring (PALM) Network. This organization helps university faculty implement various active learning strategies in their lectures under the supervision of an experienced mentor. Peters and Wlezien plan to use the program’s support to improve the course they’re co-instructing this semester.

In Plant Pathology 408-508: Principles of Plant Pathology, students learn how to diagnose and manage plant diseases. Different plant species develop different diseases, which can be bacterial, viral, fungal, abiotic, or be caused by nematodes. Memorizing this material is no small task, so Peters and Wlezien wanted to design activities to enhance their students’ identification and critical thinking skills.

“The learning curve is pretty steep, and students can get frustrated when it comes to more difficult diseases,” Peters said. “The goal here is if we practice diagnosing in lecture, they will get more comfortable with the process.”

Before class, students will be assigned a certain category of plant diseases to study. For example, one lesson will cover fungal diseases in soybeans, so students must research the signs and symptoms of frogeye leaf spot, Septoria brown spot and soybean rust. Then during class, students will compare their homework with one another in small groups and create a drawing of each pathogen’s morphology. 

“This will make it less about sitting there and listening to us talk and more about actually getting to practice diagnosing diseases,” Wlezien said. “Hopefully students can carry those skills outside of the classroom as well.”

A survey will be administered before and after each unit to gauge the impact of these activities. While Peters expects active learning will advance academic performance, he also thinks it will benefit students on a professional level. The class represents a range of majors, and each student may approach a question from a different angle. Therefore, it will be essential for group members to cooperate to come to a conclusion.

“There can be a horticulture major next to a forestry major next to an agronomy major, so they will all have their own background and be able to share their area of expertise with one another,” Peters said. “It will help with the teamwork everyone will have to do in the jobs.”

Nancy Boury, assistant professor in microbiology, has been a PALM mentor for two years and encouraged Peters and Wlezien to apply to be Fellows after they expressed interest in exploring new teaching techniques. She became their mentor once they were accepted.

“The PALM Network is trying to normalize the fact that as teachers, we want to engage in active learning and have active classrooms, but sometimes it is hard to get started,” Boury said. “The idea behind mentoring is to have people who have been active in the active learning community work with people at their university or others around the country.”

Elizabeth "EB" Wlezien instructing students in a group activity. Students are seated at a table.
Elizabeth "EB" Wlezien, graduate student in plant pathology and microbiology, talks to students about a group project.

As a faculty member who does not teach plant pathology, Boury was able to review Peters’ and Wlezien’s ideas with an outsider’s point-of-view. She assessed their activities from a student’s perspective, and after some fine-tuning, the trio is confident in the active learning environment taking shape.

“When you do active learning, often times those exercises demand the application of knowledge,” Boury said. “You can Google almost anything and get information, but there is a world of difference between information and knowledge. Active learning allows students to transform information into knowledge, and that is what they are going to be taking with them into their careers.”

In addition to Boury’s guidance, Peters and Wlezien have access to many other resources through the PALM Network. They can attend meetings with other members of the active learning community to discuss different practices and receive funding to attend educational conferences. Eventually, Peters and Wlezien will publish their activities to be used in classrooms at other universities.