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Structured, Active, In-class Learning at the University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania is supporting faculty in making use of Structured, Active, In-class Learning (SAIL) in their teaching. SAIL classes begin with the related premises that students benefit from learning by doing and that class time should be used to help students learn to work with material. To that end, class time is built around highly structured activities, in which students work to solve problems, interpret data or evidence, apply concepts or otherwise engage in real practices in the discipline – often the most difficult part of learning for students. To facilitate that learning, this work is frequently done in groups, with instructors circulating and guiding the process. In preparation for that in-class work, instructors may provide out-of-class materials or assignments for students to process prior to class. Evidence suggests that, if done well, this method of teaching can improve learning for students of all backgrounds, and ability and preparation levels.

To support faculty in developing SAIL courses, Penn has launched several initiatives:

  • The SAIL Seminar. Run by the Center for Teaching and Learning, this faculty group meets monthly, bringing together instructors interested in SAIL to explore best practices in this approach to teaching.
  • SAIL course development grants. In recognition of the time and effort required to transform a course in this way, Penn is annually offering five course development grants for faculty interested in reimagining their classes. These grants particularly target introductory courses that are traditionally lecture-based.
  • SAIL Teacher Assistant (TA) Training. To prepare TAs for the distinct requirements of teaching a SAIL class and to provide them with development for their future teaching, Penn offers TAs in SAIL classes with a five-session workshop.
  • The development of active-learning classrooms. Penn is creating classrooms specifically for these kinds of courses. This has required rethinking how to use existing space and being flexible in designing new spaces. In 2012 Penn had no appropriate rooms; by 2016 Penn expects to have half a dozen rooms. 
  • Support for faculty interested in making out-of-class recordings. Although not all SAIL classes include materials for students to view outside of class, Penn is building a clear support system and technology package for faculty who wish to do so, and has a team in place to create high-quality recordings of scientific demonstrations. 
  • Efforts to understand the impact of new teaching practices. As faculty experiment with these teaching practices, Penn has staff available to help faculty better gauge how effectively their strategies help students achieve the goals those faculty set for their classes.

For more information visit UPenn's Center for Teaching and Learning website.