South Alabama Launches New Active Learning and Engagement Initiative to Support Student Success

Posted on August 27, 2015
Joy Washington

The first ALISA project cohort faculty members are, from left, Dr. Brad Swiger, Leigh Delaney, Sonna Farmer, Dr. Ed Lomax and, seated, is Dr. Cris Hollingsworth. data-lightbox='featured'
The first ALISA project cohort faculty members are, from left, Dr. Brad Swiger, Leigh Delaney, Sonna Farmer, Dr. Ed Lomax and, seated, is Dr. Cris Hollingsworth.

“We want our students to learn more deeply and experience greater success in the learning process.”  With this statement, Dr. Sue Mattson, manager of course development services at the Innovation and Learning Center, summarizes a new initiative approach to teaching that’s coming to the University of South Alabama. 

Numerous studies and research have shown that students learn more when they actively engage in the learning process. With that in mind, the Active Learning Initiative at South Alabama, known as ALISA, has been launched to change the way students engage with course content both in and outside the classroom. A select group of faculty will lead the initial effort this fall in several courses.

“There is convincing and current research evidence that active learning increases conceptual understanding and performance,” said Dr. Jack Dempsey, director of the Innovation and Learning Center, or ILC, and USA Online, and professor of instructional design and development. “Active learning reduces the failure rate in undergraduate courses when compared to traditional lecturing.”

University leaders have identified five institutional priorities, to include: student success and access, enhancement of research and graduate education, global engagement, excellence in health care, and University-community engagement. The ALISA project supports student success and access.

The faculty cohort members were selected to participate in this program based on an application and selection process, which was initiated during the 2014-2015 academic year.  Each course presented by the five selected faculty members will receive a $10,000 award to fund either a course design or redesign and development. The cohort will meet on a weekly basis during the fall semester to build understandings about best practices in engaging students and to develop prototypes for their improved courses. They will refine and pilot components of their new designs during spring semester 2016, with first “roll-outs” to occur in the summer. Ultimately, ALISA aims to have whole courses adopt the new designs to benefit the maximum number of students.

The faculty members of the first ALISA project and their courses are: 

  • Ms. Leigh Delaney-Tucker, senior instructor of biology 101, life sciences,
  • Ms. Sonna Farmer, senior instructor of math 112, pre-calculus algebra,
  • Dr. Cris Hollingsworth, associate professor of English 216, Survey of British Literature II,
  • Dr. Ed Lomax, assistant professor of education, micro computing systems in education, EDM 310, and
  • Dr. Brad Swiger, assistant professor of biomedical sciences, human anatomy and physiology,  BMD 114.

“We are grateful to the first cohort of faculty who have stepped forward to be involved in this new educational initiative at USA,” said Dr. David Johnson, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “We spent several years preparing for this launch, and based on extensive research, we know that active learning increases student performance.”

“ALISA came about as a result of an extensive analysis by the Eduventures research firm that recommended we centralize instructional design and course development support for strategically important courses in order to increase quality,” Dempsey said. “Dr. Johnson and I traveled to the Purdue University campus to observe their IMPACT program, a University-wide redesign initiative that has seen great success. We spoke with the faculty and staff, and we were very impressed with their program.”

Dempsey said ALISA would not have been created without University support.

“A quality initiative like this doesn’t just appear out of nowhere,” Dempsey explained. “The evidence-based ideas, the project management process and staffing and the support of the University administration and faculty have to work together. Of course, none of this would have happened without Dr. Johnson encouraging his academic affairs divisions to be proactive.”

Managing this process will be the newly-hired Mattson.

“We know active learning works,” Mattson noted. “As the members of the faculty cohort work on this project for the next couple of years, we know the strategies will be different from course to course, and we know one size does not fit all. However, I am 100 percent sure that at the end of this pilot, the ALISA project will help students have a successful academic experience.”

Mattson said the success of this project aims to shift the learning culture at South Alabama.  “The challenge for faculty will be to manage the change process, but with support along the way, we know this project will be beneficial for our students and faculty.”

Prior to the creation of the ALISA project, Dempsey and his ILC staff helped faculty transform courses to better teach students in blended and online courses. This also included the help of Dave Walker, instructional video specialist, and Melissa Ferrell, distance learning specialist II. Additional staff support includes Jeff Davidson, USAonline manager; Dr. Gurupreet Khalsa, faculty development services coordinator; Jason Smith, learning technologies systems analyst; Gabrielle Kahanamoku, distance learning specialist; and Angie Summersgill, secretary V.

The ALISA project also includes support from:

  • Academic Affairs
  • Institutional Effectiveness and Institutional Research
  • Student Academic Success and Retention
  • University Libraries

Dempsey will retire Sept. 1, and Dr. Brenda Litchfield, professor of instructional design and development in the USA College of Education, will serve as interim director of the ILC and USA Online. Litchfield has been a member of the USA College of Education faculty for 25 years. A national search is underway.

“I appreciate Dr. Litchfield’s willingness to serve as interim director of the ILC and USA Online,” Johnson said. “I am confident she will be able to provide the leadership necessary to continue the progress made by the ILC and USA Online under Dr. Dempsey’s guidance.”

The mission of the ALISA project is to improve academic success, student retention, and help students graduate with a degree from South Alabama. For more information, visit,

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