Social sciences researchers at CWRU integrate active learning, technology in ”flipped” classroom approach

Headshot of Mandel School faculty Megan Holmes
Megan Holmes

As part of a larger initiative to promote active learning at Case Western Reserve University, researchers from the social work school participated in a yearlong project to integrate active instruction and academic technologies into their courses.

The use of interactive technology and technology-based peer-to-peer active learning was considered a natural fit to teach clinical practice skills in social work—techniques designed to recognize students’ diverse learning styles and promote the hands-on application of skills in classroom and field settings.

Researchers, led by Megan R. Holmes, an assistant professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, implemented the following innovations:

  • A foundation methods practice course was “flipped”—students viewed online lectures and instructional videos at their own pace before meeting for class, allowing classroom time to be reserved for collaborative work and case-study exercises to engage students and deepen their understanding.
  • Google technology was used in both foundation and advanced masters courses to: help bridge the gap between field and classroom work through case study discussions with community practitioners via video conferencing; create an online and in-class learning community; and promote student collaboration.
  • The integration of newly designed interactive classroom learning spaces and collaborative technology to promote a shift toward active learning.

The new approach is described in the Clinical Social Work Journal article “Moving from the Flipcharts to the Flipped Classroom: Using Technology Driven Teaching Methods to Promote Active Learning in Foundation and Advanced Masters Social Work Courses.”

In summer 2013, Case Western Reserve built two active learning spaces designed to promote collaboration, small group exercises and problem solving. In contrast to typical classrooms with technology mainly for the instructor’s use, these rooms provide several large computer screens for students to use, software to collaborate in small groups and share their work with the class, movable furniture and multiple writing surfaces, which promotes active learning and collaboration.

An example of an active learning in-class project is writing up the psychosocial characteristics of a case study client and assessing the individual’s needs that can guide the social worker.

Teams of students work on assessments using a shared Google document, with each team contributing a portion of the material. And in real time, teams can read what other groups have contributed and learn from it, Holmes said. And when class is over, each has a template to use as a guide in new client assessments.

“Without spending time lecturing, students are freed to experience and practice skills they need as social workers,” Holmes said, “and they collaborate with others and learn from the process.”


Student feedback through course assessments and evaluations indicated that that some enjoyed the variation of group activities and that such activities produced a sense of classroom community. Based on feedback from 46 students in two social sciences courses:

  • Students liked the flexibility of moveable, comfortable seating.
  • They liked the ability to collaborate using the large screen displays.
  • Students also noted the importance of multiple electrical outlets for them to charge their personal devices, often a challenge in more traditionally designed classroom space.
  • However, some students were initially somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of new technologies used in the courses. Two comments included that both unfamiliarity with Google Drive or being a non-traditional student required a little more “hand holding to understand the technology” and “struggles to access the electronic/computer information.”
  • The students felt that once they understood how to use the technologies, they were helpful, but the beginning of the course did create some anxiety.
  • The feedback provided by these students, along with the data supporting the benefit of using these applications, have led the program to incorporate technology training in the student orientation.

Elizabeth M. Tracy, the Grace Longwell Coyle Professor in Social Work and associate dean for research and training at the Mandel School, combines traditional lectures enhanced with technologies to draw students into the learning experience for the required “Theory and Practice Approaches in Direct Practice Social Work” course.

“Since most students bring their laptops to class, it just makes sense to actively use this technology during class time in ways beyond taking notes,” said Tracy, who also contributed to the article.

Lori Longs Painter, field faculty in social work, used technology to connect students with field instructors in the community so they could get expert advice on case study assessments and interventions.

Holmes, Tracy and Painter are among 24 faculty members in the past two years who received Active Learning Fellowships. Faculty members make a year-long commitment to attend workshops and design a course using active learning techniques and technologies. The Information Technology Services (ITS) active learning workshops help faculty understand active learning and how to integrate the method into teaching, said Tina Oestreich, an ITS faculty support and academic technology leader at Case Western Reserve.

“The Active Learning Fellowship is part of an effort to transform the culture of teaching and learning at CWRU, with new learning spaces being part of the effort,” Oestreich said. “The goal is to help faculty to think more deeply about their own teaching practices, provide recognition for faculty’s participation in the fellowship, communicate their efforts to their departments, the university and beyond and provide an additional avenue for academic research.”

Holmes, Tracy, Painter, Oestreich and doctoral candidate Hyunyong Park, from the Mandel School, contributed to the research.