A new form of learning has taken sail at Penn in recent years, but negative student feedback suggests stormy seas ahead.
Structured, Active, In-Class, Learning courses, or SAIL courses, which emphasize self-reliance in education, have become a typical part of Penn students’ schedules. These courses force students to work through problems and learn concepts through independent learning instead of following an instructor’s lead to the answer.
Operating on the theory that students absorb concepts better through group problem-solving, SAIL method courses were first offered in STEM fields and are expanding into business and even humanities courses.
Penn received a $500,000 grant in 2013 from the Association of American Universities to implement the teaching method, but many students have found their courses to be lacking.
“The idea of working in groups makes sense, but the actual implementation didn’t complement that too well,” Wharton freshman Nico DeLuna said of his Math 110 class, adding that students were graded on homework that they had to complete prior to learning the concepts.
“It was frustrating because we basically had to teach ourselves,” DeLuna said. “We could have learned in a much more efficient way.”
Math 110 was a pilot SAIL class that math professor Robin Pemantle said was probably his most unpopular course, though he added that students’ learning was not compromised.
“Any first course would have bumps in the road,” Pemantle said.
However, he believes the SAIL method of teaching will address the problem of some students not truly understanding the concepts they are learning and help them develop math communication skills.
“Students want it to be comfortable like it used to be. Changing that without warning is going to cause shockwaves,” Pemantle said. “We are in it for the long game.”
With increasingly available technology contributing to a rise in online courses, Pemantle said that a growing number of his colleagues post videos of their lectures online. He prefers to engage directly with his students and said that SAIL facilitates that.
“If I’m doing something where I could be replaced by a video, then how am I really delivering value?” Pemantle said.
Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning Bruce Lenthall agreed that popularity is not necessarily the best means for judging the courses’ efficacy.
“One of the things that was really impressive about the Fall [semester] that we saw was that whether students liked the courses or not, they said they learned a tremendous amount by explaining their ideas to their peers,” Lenthall said.
Although, Lenthall added that the courses have room for development, calling them “a learning experience” for each professor.
Despite some negative reactions from students, some actually worked to bring the method to Penn. The Student Committee for Undergraduate Education has been a force behind the SAIL method for over a year, and SCUE advocated for its continued expansion in its recent 2015 White Paper.
SCUE chair Lucas Siegmund said that SAIL classes typically receive mixed reviews for the first several years at a university until student adapt to the course structure.
However, dissatisfaction is not stopping the SAIL method’s expansion across disciplines. New courses utilizing the structure this semester include Latin American history and Rebecca Stein’s Econ 001 class, a widely popular introductory course.
Modern Constitutional Law, a humanities course taught by Roger Smith piloting the SAIL method this semester, is leaving a positive impression on College freshman Sebastian Cevallos, despite the mixed reviews among calculus students.
Cevallos said that although the course requires substantial preparation, he enjoys the interactive format. Students watch a video lecture, read a court case and come to class ready to argue their opinion one way or another. At the end of class, Smith gives a clicker poll to visually demonstrate how the in-class discussion shaped students’ opinions.
“You could see how people changed their opinions [through debate] and how that may mimic the Supreme Court’s decision,” Cevallos said.
Yet, a cloud of dissatisfaction hovers over students discussing SAIL courses across campus. One freshman, who requested to remain anonymous, is displeased with her calculus class last semester.
“I feel like I’m paying $60,000 a year to teach myself,” she said.
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