Students adjust as Penn embraces SAIL

Whiteboards line every inch of the walls, and projectors cast the professor's image in all directions so that students can see her from the round tables in their Towne Building classroom. Later, students chatter and work on problems in groups as professors and teaching assistants walk around, demonstrating problems on the boards.

This isn't your typical college lecture - it's the new teaching method rolling out at Penn called Structured Active In-Class Learning, known colloquially as SAIL.

Even the mention of SAIL can incite fiery opposition among students, some who loathe that the teaching method that can result in extra hours of work outside the classroom. In many SAIL courses, students watch video-lectures or do readings at home - traditionally classroom activities - and then come to class for discussions or to work on problems.

SAIL's poor reputation among students has transformed as the number of SAIL classes continues to grow. Now, at a time when Penn is insistently promoting the new education method and even investing money into new SAIL classrooms, opinions among students are divided: a growing number are embracing the practice, but a vocal portion of the student body remains opposed.

Bringing SAIL to Penn

Four years ago, "active learning" would have earned you blank stares on Penn's campus. Now, there are at least seventeen courses whose professors embrace the label.

Center for Teaching and Learning Executive Director Bruce Lenthall connected the trend back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's physics department, which began experimenting with active learning about a decade ago. He said perceptions of the classes dropped drastically, but that the data revealed sharp increases in student learning.

The first SAIL classes were implemented at Penn in 2012 and were introduced by a group of pioneering professors including Paul Heiney, Masao Sako and Donald Berry, Lenthall said. He noted that some professors were using innovative teaching methods that involved aspects of active learning far earlier.

The surge in active learning is owed in part to the catalyzing effect of the Association of American Universities' $4.7 million Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative grant, awarded to Penn in 2013 to develop teaching in STEM fields. The funding from the grant coincided with a surge in interest in the SAIL method of teaching, Lenthall said. Still, he noted, the change can't be traced to the funding itself.

Though early-adopting faculty members were galvanized by the research, which largely shows SAIL's success in increasing learning, its rollout on campus was far from smooth, with some students reporting negative perceptions of their classes. Lenthall said the initial negativity was expected. A Daily Pennsylvanian analysis of SAIL courses found that eight of 13 identified SAIL courses had higher difficulty ratings than the corresponding departmental average for the semester. Three of six professors in the DP analysis who switched to SAIL saw a decrease in the course quality rating for their class.

"Nationally, when institutions make this kind of conversion, they see the course evaluations drop. That's an expectation," Lenthall said. "We see that over time a few things happen. One, faculty develop expertise and they figure out how to get better. Two, students expectations change."

Some professors and faculty believe student enjoyment may not be the ultimate yardstick by which to measure courses.

Undergraduate chair of Penn's Math Department Tony Pantev, who has helped introduce several SAIL calculus courses in the past three years, said he has found that students who take SAIL math for introductory courses learn just as much and are more likely to enroll in advanced math courses.

"One thing we saw in these active learning classes is that even though the students resent them more than the regular math sections, they actually don't learn less; they perform equally well on the common finals," Pantev said.

College freshman Andreas Nolan, a student in "Oceanography," agreed that enjoyment and learning don't necessarily go hand-in-hand when it comes to his classes.

"It's definitely helped me learn. I don't know if I enjoyed it as much, though," he said.

Part of the rollout of SAIL has involved the growth of active learning classrooms, many of which use larger spaces, round tables and whiteboards - all qualities that facilitate working in groups instead of only watching a lecturer.

Over the past few years, Penn has repurposed several spaces to work with the new teaching model. Rooms in David Rittenhouse Laboratory, Towne and even Van Pelt Library have been converted into spaces where professors can easily integrate active learning into their teaching.

Even still, not all SAIL classes benefit from these spaces - some SAIL classes are still held in traditional lecture halls, despite emphasizing group work, since access to space has not kept up with demand from professors. Rebecca Stein's popular "Introduction to Microeconomics" course, for example, is still held in a lecture hall despite requiring regular group work.

The first new space built specifically for active learning will be a room in the new NBS building, which is slated to open in the Fall

Students weigh in

College sophomore Alisa Feldman took Stein's ECON 001 class in the fall. She watched video-lectures on her own time and then did group-work in class, with the help of professor Stein and the class mentors - upperclassmen who have taken the course.

"It was good because you can't really just be lectured in econ. You really need to have an understanding of the concepts to draw the graphs and do the math," she said. She added that though she liked that her class used SAIL for economics, she didn't think it would work well in all types of classes.

The original frustrated mentality among Penn students faced with SAIL courses has begun to change. Feldman and many others who have found their way into these new learning environments argue that SAIL helped them learn more - and helps them learn more efficiently. The data backs up their sentiments. A DP analysis found that seven of 13 courses identified as SAIL had higher course quality ratings than the average course in their department that semester.

Engineering sophomore Shawn Srolovitz, who took "Intro to Bioengineering" in a class that used some aspects of SAIL, said he appreciated the way the class was taught and thought it enhanced his understanding of the challenging material.

"I really enjoyed the class," he said. "It was very problem-olving focused so it worked really well. It was very obvious that [the professors] were very thorough and thoughtful in all the activities we did. In that sense it was very successful."

Srolovitz supported the claims of pro-SAIL administrators and professors. He learned more in the SAIL classroom than he would have in a traditional course, he said.

"Having the professors and the TAs walking around was helpful," Srolovitz explained. "I'd get feedback right there rather than struggle with it at home."

Comparing classes before and after SAIL

Though Penn does not identify which of its courses follow the model of SAIL (structured, active in-class learning), the Daily Pennsylvanian was able to identify 17 SAIL courses through conversations with department heads. Here, you can see the ratings for some of these classes before and after they transitioned to using active learning techniques in their classrooms. The data examines the classes of particular professors who adopted the SAIL model, so data is missing for any semesters they were not teaching.

Nolan, a freshman in the College who took SAIL "Oceanography", said the new structure actually saved him time outside of class, rather than causing more work. His class was helpful at teaching him the material, which prevented him from having to spend hours on it on his own, he said.

"I don't think there was a time where being in a SAIL classroom was ineffective at teaching me something I couldn't have taught myself," he said.

Students also said SAIL was helpful in keeping them on track with learning their course material, preventing spacing out during long lectures or pre-exam cramming.

College freshman Madison Kahn, also a student in "Oceanography," said the active learning portions kept her more focused in class on the assignment and on learning the material.

Similarly, College freshman Michael Chen said the active learning format of his PHYS 150 class keeps him from skipping class because he knows his time will be well-spent.

"If it were a traditional lecture class, I would probably skip the lecture all the time and just do the work at home," he said. "Because we have problems in class to do that are good practice for the homework and exams, I basically go every single time just to get the extra practice in."

Murky waters

Call it SAIL or don't, but there are many different forms that active learning takes in Penn's classrooms.

Lenthall, from CTL, emphasized that many courses use some form of active learning, like discussions or in-class problem solving, but that the term "SAIL" specifically designates a higher degree of active learning to the point where most of the learning in class is active rather than passive.

Earth and Environmental Science Department undergraduate chair Alan Plante agreed, calling active learning a "spectrum" rather than a yes or no designation. He does label his classes as SAIL classes, he said, but he has integrated forms of active learning into his earth science courses years before the SAIL method was in vogue at Penn.

On a given day, Plante could incorporate clickers, small-group conversations and worksheets. Some of his labs have included working with weather data from Philadelphia or water samples from the Schuylkill River.

Plante said he has no doubt the "active" parts of his class - which he said are often taken by non-majors trying to knock out a graduation requirement - help his students learn the material better.

"I've always been sort of somewhere in the middle," he said. "I'm not directly a recipient of SAIL funding, and I've not specifically tagged my classes at SAIL, but I've always felt in my teaching that the more active students are during lecture the more engaged they're going to be with the material. The more passive they are, the less they're going to get out of it."

The rollout of SAIL and the resources offered by CTL have shown other faculty members the benefits of being more creative in their teaching styles, Plante said.

"I think what the SAIL project has done," he explained, "is sort of prompted faculty to really think more broadly about what the lecture is and what's the most effective way for students to actually learn."

A lack of transparency

College sophomore Johanna Matt-Navarro arrived at her class to find that she had unwittingly signed up for a SAIL course - twice in one semester.

During her second semester at Penn, she had enrolled in both MATH 104 and ECON 001, introductory courses that had adopted the SAIL format without alerting students who were planning to enroll.

Matt-Navarro, a reporter for 34th Street, had joined the economics class a few lectures late, and the SAIL format made it too stressful to catch up. She dropped the class. Then she looked to switch out of her SAIL math section, but none of the other sections fit into her schedule. She worked her way through the semester, finishing up with a low opinion of the class.

The University itself doesn't label courses as SAIL on PennInTouch, Penn's course registration website. Lenthall attributed this to the difficulty of drawing a line between traditional and active learning teaching styles and a reticence to box in professors or stifle innovation with bureaucracy.

"It's very much something that we're not trying to standardize," Lenthall said. "There isn't some magic switch where you say this is a SAIL class and this isn't."

For students who already have a negative perception of SAIL, accidentally enrolling in a SAIL class is a complication that has only served as aggravation.

"I get that students want as much information as possible in signing up for a class," Lenthall said, "but we can't label every innovation."

It's up to individual professors or departments to label - or, in many cases, not label - their courses for students planning to sign up. For example, Penn's Math Department uses labels to distinguish SAIL courses, but most SAIL courses don't, leaving students to find by word of mouth or on the first day of class.

College freshman Alden Terry was another student who enrolled in a SAIL version of Econ-001 without knowing it. She said it would have been helpful to know that the section she had chosen had a SAIL structure, which required students to watch video-lectures on their own time.

"One of the only downsides to SAIL is that it just took up a lot of time," she said. "It definitely required more work than a normal class."

Learning to learn with SAIL

Expanding SAIL at Penn has involved weighing student perceptions with hard evidence of student learning - a choice that's not always easy to make.

"If satisfaction goes up when a faculty member makes this conversation, it's easy to say yes, great, that's wonderful," Lenthall said. "If students are less satisfied, faculty say, "OK, I really need to believe that this is in my students' best interest.'"

Plenty of students remain unconvinced by the SAIL model. Wharton freshman Michelle Jaffe, a student in MATH 104, said she was frustrated by the emphasis on independent learning as well as what she described as the repetitive nature of in-class review.

"For me, I think the problem that I have is that you are almost expected to learn the topic on your own … You go into class the professor expects you to understand the topic beforehand," she said. "I'm paying all this money for tuition, and I'm not being taught by my professor."

The SAIL method is a 180-degree turn for many college students who have learned to expect a wildly different educational environment. Naturally, adjusting does not come easily for many.

Nolan said his SAIL course made him nervous because it so completely violated his expectations of a college course.

"I wasn't used to coming to class and being expected to complete work. I've always passively absorbed the material that was being taught," Nolan said. "For awhile, definitely at the beginning, I felt a lot of anxiety before coming to class because I knew I had to do work, but that's sort of lessened throughout the course of the semester."

He acknowledged that while his opinion of the class was lukewarm, his dislike may stem from discomfort more than anything else.

"I prefer traditional lecture right now, but I wonder if I were to be exposed to more SAIL classes if I would end up liking it more," he said.

Julia Bell and Michaela Palmer contributed reporting.