Brian Forrest: Active Learning on Campus and Online

Brian Forrest

Dr. Brian Forrest, Department of Pure Mathematics

Dr. Brian Forrest, together with his wife Barb, developed his first online course when most students were using dial-up. An innovator in online learning, Forrest notes that at the time, the software and infrastructure for creating online courses were not yet fully in place. Despite this, Forrest always recognized the potential in taking higher education online. He sees in online learning an opportunity to increase student engagement.

For Forrest, Professor of Pure Mathematics, active learning is key to student engagement, both online and on campus. Bridging the divide between learning mathematics and doing mathematics, he says, is crucial—and while he acknowledges that this form of active learning is what most mathematics instructors want to see in their classes, he also recognizes the challenge that enacting this sort of learning can involve.

Active learning, Forrest says, is key to motivating and challenging students. When planning a class, Forrest strives to get inside the minds of his students before thinking about course content. He asks, what motivates the students in a particular course? What will they find interesting and challenging? Forrest believes that engaging students through what he calls “learning-by-doing” taps into their motivation and desire to learn. Not surprisingly, this awareness of the value of active learning percolates into his course design. He urges instructors to recognize assignments not purely as assessments, but as deep learning opportunities. Linking course content—lectures and readings—to assignments in meaningful ways allows Forrest to forge clear links between what might feel like passive learning on the one hand and the active practice of mathematics on the other hand. He points to the moments when students sit down with assignments as opportunities to engage them in targeted, deep learning.

When asked about the differences between online and on-campus learning, Forrest hesitates. Ultimately, he believes that the overarching principle stays the same: that it’s important to first recognize what an instructor wants students to take away from a course, and then to implement a strategy to help them get there. In other words, aligning learning outcomes, assessment, and instruction is key.

And, according to Forrest, online learning offers unique opportunities to do just that. A common misconception about online learning is that once a class is developed not much remains for an instructor to do, including interacting with students. But when teaching online, Forrest often sees the number of interactions among students and instructors grow. On campus, he might spend 10-12 hours a week, including lecture hours, on a typical course. Online, Forrest might find himself engaging with students closer to 25 hours a week. By the end of a course, he might have participated in nearly 3,000 interactions on discussion boards and through email.

This commitment to student engagement comes across loud and clear in students’ responses to his teaching. Forrest received the Distinguished Teacher Award in 2000 and the Canadian Mathematical Society Excellence in Teaching Award in 2007. A former online student notes, “Not only has Brian expertly and masterfully created a rich online mathematical journey, … he has been consistently patient and generous in helping us along the way.”

Read more Teaching Stories

Tip Sheets

CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one succinctly conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include: