A New Age of Learning

The new Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction has launched at Tufts, thanks to a generous gift from the McDonnell Family Foundation.
David Hammer

New IRLI Director David Hammer, professor of physics, speaks at the institute’s launch event.

One of Professor David Hammer’s most exciting moments as an educator wasn’t about teaching a student—it was about learning from one.

In 2014, a first-year student in his introductory physics class had answered a question on projectile motion by saying that a shell shot more slowly than another would travel faster and farther from a battleship. “I thought, she can’t really believe that. Why would she say that?” Hammer recalled. The student was clearly intelligent, so what was it about the way she approached learning that led her to the incorrect conclusion?

Four years later, Hammer and colleagues are exploring that question and many others at the university’s new Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), an innovative research center made possible by an $8 million gift from the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation. “When someone comes along and says we’ll give you $8 million to start this idea, people listen,” said Hammer, who was recently appointed IRLI director. “I’m enormously grateful to the McDonnell family. This is happening because of their gift, and it’s fantastic.”

The foundation—a longtime supporter of Tufts’ Center for Engineering Education and Outreach—is particularly interested in supporting research that will dramatically improve education and the way it is delivered, both at Tufts and beyond. Thanks to the foundation’s vision, and its transformational gift, IRLI is poised to do just that in the years ahead.

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IRLI’s launch event on November 28, 2018

“It is exciting to bring together in IRLI two schools and the many disciplines at Tufts with the vision of increasing scholarship in the science of learning and using it to increase student learning in Tufts’ classrooms,” said John McDonnell of the McDonnell Family Foundation.

A joint initiative of the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering, IRLI is the first research center of its kind to focus on better understanding how students learn at the collegiate level—across their courses and other experiences—and what instructors can do to help improve outcomes. IRLI faculty members will do research on learning in their own respective disciplines, grounding their inquiries in what they see every day in the classroom.

It will complement the work of the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, as well as the Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, in ways that will blaze new territory, said Deborah Kochevar, Tufts provost ad interim. “IRLI provides an opportunity for Tufts to create a continuum of inquiry into students’ learning, from instructors focused on student thinking in their courses, to effective ways of teaching, to formal research in learning,” Kochevar said. “We are tremendously grateful to the McDonnell family for its commitment to research in learning.”

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IRLI celebrated its official launch in November 2018 and is already moving quickly. The university has assembled an interdisciplinary steering committee of STEM faculty members, each one the cutting-edge of education research in their respective fields: Hammer in physics, Julia Gouvea in biology, Andrew Izsák in mathematics, and, in engineering, Kristen Bethke Wendell, AG11, the McDonnell Family Professor in Engineering Education.

“IRLI fosters research and scholarship that will have a direct impact on how we educate our students, both here at Tufts and at other institutions. We are delighted and proud that David Hammer, known internationally for his work in this domain, is the inaugural leader of this initiative that is so central to the university’s missions,” said Dean James Glaser of the School of Arts and Sciences. “We are exceedingly grateful to the McDonnell Family Foundation for its support.”

Hammer and the committee are now building a broad community of researchers, instructors, and students who will integrate their work at IRLI with their teaching and learning across Tufts schools, departments, and programs. This integration will start with the STEM disciplines and then expand to the humanities. “The traditional delivery-based model of education is no longer effective enough,” said Dean Jianmin Qu of the School of Engineering. “IRLI will work to develop innovative educational tools and teaching methodologies, grounded in scientific research, that better prepare students everywhere for the future ahead.”

Among other avenues of research, IRLI will explore updated models of interactive teaching and learning, and study how education can adapt to the new technology and new needs of the modern workplace. For an example of what’s possible, just look to Hammer’s first-year student who was confused about projectile motion. With Hammer’s guidance, she was able to change the way she approached physics and evolve into an active learner eager to bring her full experience to bear on solving challenges. And not just in STEM classes, but in all areas of learning: She’s now pursuing a doctorate in engineering.

“What we need much more of is people thinking in creative and evaluative ways that computers can’t think in yet, and people coming up with new ideas and questioning assumptions,” Hammer said. “It’s really inspiring what can happen if we think differently.”