Cognitive and Affective Domains: Critical parallels for effective teaching

Cornell Engineering Peer Educators practice collaborative learning at the cognitive domain level of ‘apply’ while using the ‘receiving’ and ‘responding’ levels in the affective domain.

The Cognitive Domain – Learning as a hierarchy of increasingly difficult cognitive work

Educators use Bloom’s Taxonomy to think about and scaffold the degree of cognitive difficulty in courses and for helping to design activities and assignments appropriate to learning expectations. Cognitive challenge increases as we move ‘up’ the pyramid from ‘remember’ toward the pinnacle of cognitive complexity – ‘create’. Bloom’s taxonomy verb choices help teachers to write learning outcomes objectives at appropriate cognitive levels so that they can be sure they are facilitating learning in which the outcomes match the complexity of the objectives. As a reminder, here is one iteration of the classic but updated Blooms Triangle (with ‘create’ at the highest cognitive level):

Classic representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy with updated organization in which to ‘create’ is now the pinnacle of cognitive complexity.

A learning objective on the lowest rung of the taxonomy – the ‘remember’ level – might read: “by the end of this activity/class session the student will be able to define the 1st law of thermodynamics. If the objective were to be at a higher cognitive level – the ‘apply’ level – the learning objective might read: “by the end of this activity/class session the student will be able to explain how the first law of thermodynamics applies to changes in a system when heat and pressure are applied”

In either case, the instructor can then design  assessments at the level of the stated expectation and ‘backwards design’ appropriate activities or assignments to prepare students to be successful when they come to the assessment.

Bloom’s taxonomy has been through some iterative changes but, effectively, it’s been a really important framework for cognitive outcomes since the 1950s. This organization and development of critical thought processes (or cognitive difficulty) can guide curriculum development and learning tasks for students working with concepts and processes as they build deeper and more integrated knowledge.

The Affective Domain – Learning as a hierarchy  of increasingly complex behaviors

Blooms Taxonomy has a critical parallel: Krathwohl’s Affective Domain. Discussions of the affective domain in teaching and learning are less common than the cognitive domain. This is at least true for STEM learning in higher education.  Although Bloom still gets a lot of the credit for this ‘sister taxonomy’, the general consensus is that David Krathwohl, a close colleague who also worked on the cognitive domain, is the primary author and developer of the affective domain.  Read a good review of both domains and the history of their evolution and authorship here.

Krathwohls Affective Domain
A representation of Krathwohl’s Affective Domain. This is the critical parallel to Blooms Cognitive Domain and is the domain in which the work of making learning ‘stick’ happens

This is the domain in which listening, acknowledging, reflecting, and decision making, using information gleaned at levels in the cognitive domain, can result in value development and perhaps even behavioral shifts.  This is the domain in which learning is contextualized or situated.  While we focus on the cognitive Bloom’s taxonomy for learning objectives and disciplinary structuring, learning is a social and reflective endeavor and the key to helping learning happen is in the affective domain: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing and ultimately characterizing that information are what lead to deep learning and real change.  The cognitive domain describes the development of knowledge through acquiring and manipulating information, and the affective domain describes how knowledge is integrated into the learners’ frame of reference and in a social context. If we explicitly understand both the cognitive domain and the affective domain, and their intersection, we can be intentional about how we use them together to intensify the benefits for learners. 

Powerful Learning explicitly applies both domains through collaborative learning

Since the initial development of these taxonomies (maybe before), an irrefutable consensus has been building in the teaching and learning literature: structuring collaborative learning activities within inclusive and reflective learning environments results in better learning objectives outcomes.

Regardless of the cognitive level of the learning outcome, awareness of and attention to (affective domain) the point at which students are entering into the knowledge arena should be a primary consideration. Once learning outcomes objectives are written (step 1), the teacher imagines a matching assessment that would provide information about how well the objective was achieved – did students learn what was intended (step 2)? Designing learning activities moves the teacher and student more directly into the affective domain (step 3).  This is all about structuring the emotional and cognitive engagement cycle (see our earlier blog for review of cognitive and emotional engagement) through which students receive the information, consider it, discuss it, use it, value it, and make choices about where it fits in their cognitive/emotional map. For short activities, design might include a more linear pathway of activities. For example: groups of students may work independently to master an aspect of a topic or approach to a problem (receiving), and then teach each other the specific piece with which they worked (receiving and responding). The group may then discuss and put together the components, discuss its value and  apply it to a related problem (valuing, organizing). In a long-term project (design development or other task) the work in the affective domain is likely to be cyclical and iterative. As ideas are built, discussed and valued, a new cycle of receiving and responding (reflection) that deepens the learning, improves the project and motivates students would be natural, but should be structured. Developing and sharing specific learning objectives with students, and structuring collaborative and inclusive learning activities have been shown to improve outcomes.  These two Domains of learning are not new, and explicitly linking them is simply a reminder to check the pieces of our practice.  Ultimately, when learners situate the new disciplinary knowledge into their social-emotional frameworks, long-term learning and real student growth are the outcomes.

4 Steps for a Successful Semester – Build and keep a schedule, attend classes, reach out, and believe in yourself!!

Put your ‘Ducks in a row’ 

It takes time to transition to a busy college schedule.  And by ‘time’, we mean sometimes several semesters!  If you don’t feel you are there yet, you are not alone!  We all come to new experiences with different strengths, and sets of experiences.   If you are an undergraduate student in the early days of your college career, this is a practical ‘To-Do’ list with tried and true advice and links to resources to cheer-you-on to a successful start of a successful semester!

Here are some steps and links to help you start the semester right.

1. Build your schedule: Before classes start!

There are ‘old-school’ paper versions, Outlook and Google Calendars, and a million apps to help you organize your time. Time management is one very important aspect of a successful and healthy semester. Among other studies on the benefits of managing time for college students,  Adams and Blair (2019) examined the impact of time management behaviors on Engineering students’ performance. Self-reported behaviors that correlated most strongly with GPA were setting goals and priorities (the building phase) and maintaining control over the time spent on various tasks (the sticking to it phase).

 

2. What to Schedule?: Including your personal wellness and free time

    1. In- Class time – including office hours, recitations, and discussions.
    2. Study time – personal preparation, study groups.
    3. Personal time – mental and physical well-being
    4. Networking or other co-curricular professional development time

3. Attend your Classes!! 

Studies show that students who attend their class meetings are more likely to have higher grades. Even if you feel well prepared for a particular course, attending the scheduled class meetings is perhaps the easiest way to keep up with work. Being introduced to new topics, getting insights from the instructor that might only be shared verbally, getting reminders for upcoming assignments, listening to the questions asked by peers, opportunities for in-class collaborations,  are all ways that attending class can keep you on track and deepen your understanding, even when you feel you understand the material.

“…early and consistent class attendance strongly correlates with academic performance” (Kassarnig et al, 2017)

4.  Stick to your Schedule: The hardest part – and you can do it!

The work of Adams and Blair (2019) with engineering students, generally matched the findings of other studies: Time management supports success! What they also found was that though students were quite successful at building schedules, they were less successful at sticking to them. The perception of control over scheduled time was much more difficult. But it can be done! Take this quick time management quiz to see where you might be able to improve.

Quick read on more good information about time management for college students!

5.  Keep a ‘Growth Mindset’  and reach out for support as soon as you need it.

image of growth mindsetA ‘growth mindset’ is in contrast to a ‘fixed mindset’. A growth mindset acknowledges that you might not be there yet, but with perseverance,  you can, and will get there!  A fixed mindset refers to the belief that the ability to learn or master certain topics is something that is innate and inflexible. The evidence-supported truth is that ones own perception of their ability to learn challenging material actually influences ones cognitive ability to do so. It is a bit like mind over matter! and it is REAL.  Believe in yourself. You are capable of learning things that are challenging! The ability of your brain to learn challenging material can grow!

College is the next step It is supposed to be challenging. Finding oneself in need of support from peers or from the course teaching staff is normal and expected.  That is why study groups are a great idea and why support offices and office hours are available.  Everyone needs to share ideas and get new perspectives at some point, and it’s also the best way to deepen your understanding of material. If you don’t know the people who can help, ask an instructor or advisor! Collaboration results in deeper learning.

Here is a fun video to remind you to focus on the fascinating journey and grow rather than shrink from the challenges: The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | Former NASA and Apple Engineer – now Science and Engineering Youtuber, Mark Rober

 

-YOU GOT THIS! Have an amazing semester!

Engineering Learning Initiatives

 

3 TYPES OF ‘STRUCTURE’ CREATE INCLUSIVE COLLABORATION in a student-centered classroom

 

These teaching spaces have been designed or updated to include group seating, rolling chairs, projection and whiteboard access in multiple locations

As we know, collaboration does not typically happen by simply asking students to collaborate. Without structure, students familiar with the still-common passive forms of teaching often default to working independently, or occasionally cooperating with a peer nearby, and then only if they are confident and feel safe in a classroom. Creating the sort of inclusive collaboration that is most likely to improve learning outcomes is challenging, and requires structural scaffolding and diligence on the part of the instructor.

    Structure creates inclusive collaborative groupwork in a student-centered classroom. The key is how we understand and address ‘structure’.

Three components of structure should be considered in order to make effective collaboration happen: 1) Characteristics of the learning space itself and how they are used – “physical space”, 2) the development of community and inclusiveness among learners and between learners and instructors – “emotional space”, and 3) pedagogical choices and their implementation “pedagogical space”.

Structuring the physical space

Recently Colleges and Universities have begun to pay much more attention to the design of physical learning spaces. The two images to the left show classrooms that have been designed or updated for collaborative learning.

Thankfully, the options to teach in spaces that consider student collaboration, neurodiversity, and accessibility, are increasing.  However, there are many remaining learning spaces that were designed for the traditional lecture format in which we must make the best of a bad situation.  Further, and something less discussed in the literature and education blog-o-sphere, is that regardless of the quality of  room design, effective group behavior is not ensured by grouping students in even the most perfect setting without ensuring the other forms of structure are in place. This post shares tips for each of the types of structure, and how to make the most of a tough classroom design situation!

Worst case scenario for collaborative learning and small group discussion – the lecture hall.

There are many different room designs that are amenable to group collaboration. Key aspects of such classrooms are those seen in the images above. Students, when seated, are at small tables so that they face each other and have common working space. The room provides ample space for movement.

The worst case scenario for collaborative learning involves a room with attached seats, no aisle, and all seats facing forward toward a single area at the front of the classroom where a single projection screen is flanked by chalkboard (the only access to writing/collaborative space is this board). These spaces are very familiar in higher education! Here are some workarounds to support collaboration in these environments!

Group seating formation in a lecture hall that is not conducive to student collaboration

If the room is not at capacity you can brainstorm and prescribe seating arrangements.

A group of 4 in a ‘panel’ formation is not conducive to end members hearing and communicating with each other, and often the students default to work individually or in pairs at best.

 

Group structure in a lecture hall environment that improves the chance of collaboration

When students are randomized into groups of 3 or 4, two students sit in the front row, ideally, with a seat between them and the writing desk of the empty seat raised between them. They can use the center desk as the collaborative writing surface (not pictured here). In this seating arrangement, students can face each other such that the one or two people in the row behind sitting side-by-side, make a physical group.

 

In a ‘U’ shaped table formation, simply moving chairs from one side to the other can allow very good group collaboration.

Another familiar seating situation in moderate sized classrooms is long tables, horizontal to the front of the room, or tables that create a ‘U’ shape for large group discussions.

Moving chairs from one side of the table to another or having students in one row of tables turn their chairs around, so they are seated on either side of the long table facing each other, is a relatively easy fix. In general, the instructor should be explicit and possibly show the class a diagram, or the common default is a ‘panel’ formation that does not promote communication among all members.

In a packed lecture hall, instructors can still work creatively to help students form small groups, but the easiest to implement is a paired working arrangement (think/pair/share), which can be very effective particularly if the partnering switches from one side of a student to another.

These are only the first steps to fostering inclusive, collaborative learning. Even in the most modern of classrooms, collaboration will only happen if both the emotional and the pedagogical spaces are prepared and monitored!

Structuring the emotional space

Much has been said about the importance of creating belonging in a learning environment to allow inclusion of all learners regardless of differences in personality, confidence, or other aspects of diversity that we need to celebrate. There is general agreement that this is the primary consideration from which all other scaffolding of the classroom climate flows.  Getting to know each other in a classroom where the expectations for respectful interaction are clear (and ideally developed as a class) will allow trust to build, relationships to form, and engender willingness to work together and a desire to be accountable to one another

Icebreakers are typically fun (can be based on content) activities that are used to build community through developing trust and familiarity among students and between students and instructors.
  • Make an effort to learn students names, and have them learn each others name (and pronounce them correctly).
  • Throughout the semester, include icebreaker activities – build common ground. ‘Identity affirming’ or ‘self-affirming’ icebreakers are those that promote students sharing aspects of who they are, and help create strong community.
  • Encourage the sharing of pronouns and allow it to be voluntary. Instructors should consider sharing their pronouns to model the choice and explain why.

 

Structuring the pedagogical space

Structure assignments that require collaboration.  The outcomes of the activity should require both individual accountability and collaborative interaction. Pedagogical choices should be articulated to students along with expectation for participation.  Well considered learning objectives provide direction  (for students and teachers!) and all these aspects of structure should be constantly monitored.

learning objectives slide
Clearly stated learning objectives guide both instructor and student focus and have been shown to be valuable for student success.
  • Explicitly create groups through a simple, fun form of mixing students.  In a pinch, counting off such that you end up with groups of 3-5 is easy. Mixing matters for inclusion, and having students work with different peers each activity helps create community in the large classroom throughout the semester.
  • Clarify the  learning outcomes for the group activity.
  • Explain how the task involves both positive interdependence and individual accountability, and how you will assess each.
  • Assign group roles or give groups prompts to help them articulate effective ways for interaction.

Best laid plans for knowledge construction using groupwork can fall flat in classrooms with the most modern designs.  Indeed, technology, movable table units, and whiteboards on surrounding walls create an opportunity for effective groupwork! Yet even those settings can become ‘lecture theatres’ without building a community, intentionally grouping students, designing activities that benefit strongly from collaboration. Instructors should articulate and share specific learning objectives, rationale, expectations, and guidelines for collaboration.  And finally, the key: doggedly, doggedly monitor, encourage, and interject just-in-time questions and information during the collaboration.  This is hard work, but the learning outcomes of real collaboration are rewarding for students and instructors!

‘Just-in-time facilitating’: Tips for unpacking problems and guiding collaboration in STEM-focused groupwork

Students working at the whiteboard in a classroom on a common problem

If you are teaching a topic, it is likely that you have a high level of preparedness, intuition, and ability that has been developed beyond the level of many of your learners. Unpacking a complex problem into logical steps, assessing what information is necessary to begin and move forward, and understanding what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ or ‘plausible’ answer may happen almost unconsciously!

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2005) suggest that there are distinct steps, or stages from novice to expert. The highest level of skill  – expert – is marked by ‘intuition’ which is built through time, trouble shooting, struggle, metacognition, and reflection

‘expertise is based on the making of immediate, unreflective situational responses; intuitive judgment is the hallmark of expertise.’ (pg 779)

While some may disagree with the fine points of the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model, they do agree with the general process through which expertise is developed. At this high level of understanding, much of the early conscious decision making has been incorporated into unconscious processes that happen behind the scenes.

Thus, teaching this material to many novice learners requires a conscious ‘unpacking’ of the problems/material.  The ability to unpack more complex problems may be one of the key features of the peer-educator ‘Super Power’. Being able to take apart the problem that is being shared via lecture, in real time, even if the Professor may have ‘intuited’ and thus not shared some of the sub-text, is incredibly helpful for ones own learning and the ability to share it with peers.  This is not a skill that all learners have.

Lacking the ability to easily ‘unpack’ problems does not mean that one won’t learn the material, only that they are coming into the challenge with a different knowledge-base and skillset.  Keeping a growth mindset is critical! The generic model shared here is a tool to help peer (and other) educators remember to make explicit the steps, to consider the assumptions about what knowledge is needed to move through the process to the solution, and how to facilitate the procedure through the problem using guided questions.

Asking learners to use the model can also enhance their metacognition, make clear the gaps in their knowledge, and kick-start the self-evaluation (metacognitive) processes.

General order of operations for facilitating group work using 'guide from the side' strategies.

Once the educator has helped the learners breakdown the problem and students are working through the problem in small groups (3-5), the most powerful learning will happen when the facilitator acts as a ‘guide on the side’ by practicing listening, asking questions at appropriate cognitive levels, inviting the group to answer their own questions, and by using questioning strategies. This is the most challenging part of facilitating group work.  At first students may resist the attempts the facilitator makes because there is cognitive work involved in answering guiding questions.  If students are new to working in collaborative groups and are focused on solutions and getting there quickly, they may initially find it frustrating to receive a question in response to their questions.  But once this is the expectation in a class, most students will begin to see the value, and become more comfortable with the uncertainty they experience with struggle. A few may never value this process.  The learning literature confirms that the deeper, long-term learning that happens in collaborative group work is worth the effort.

Below is a checklist of tips that can help create a learning environment that will result in the best outcomes for small-group collaborative learning.

  • Tips for Guiding Small Group Discussion – ‘Just-in-time facilitating’

    • Create an inclusive environment in which learners feel they can take risks
      • When you approach a group that seems like they are facing a challenge say something like, “Oh yes! This problem, this is a hard one!” (or, “This is the hardest part of this, I think!”)
        • Seeing you admit that it is challenging will allow them to feel better about the struggle and take the risk of discussing it!
    • Encourage ALL learners to participate
      • Keep the discussion from being dominated by a subset of learners.
        • Allow sufficient “wait-time” when learners or you ask questions. Try to be aware of who is quiet and give them time to prepare to contribute – without singling them out, you can ask, “Is there anyone else who can add to this part of the process?”
        • Intentionally ask the group members to take turns leading parts of a problem or different problems. Explain that the role of the leader is to begin the problem, invite others, and watch that group members are actively listening and sharing equally.
        • Listen actively and non-judgmentally, and encourage learners to do likewise.
      • Build what learners say into the discussion
        • When you are reiterating a question you have heard, try to weave the ideas of the group into the reiteration so they feel heard and valued.
      • Help learners communicate and build on each other’s contributions
        • Model being patient and encourage learners to do likewise.
        • Build what learners say into the discussion.
      • Use mainly open-ended questions or comments
      • Start with, “How is this problem going?”  Follow with, “Is everyone feeling good about it, or would some discussion help?”
      • Then use factual, or probing questions (remember the cycle: a) listen (maybe repeat the question back to all), b) invite the group to answer, c) choose a guiding question, and finally, d) give a hint (repeat).
    • Encourage active listening
      • Modeling this in your group (as above) and inviting the group members to try it when each of them share questions can help group communication be more equitable and bring everyone into the conversation.
    • Foster dialogue amongst the learners and help them to see multiple points of view
      • After someone makes a comment or shares an idea: Wait for the others to think for a few seconds, acknowledge and appreciate the answer, and then ask, “Does anyone want to add to that, or have a different idea?”
    • Probe the learners’ understandings and foster higher-level thinking and discussion
      • Using the probing questions at this point will help foster more process-oriented thinking – higher-order thinking.
    • Help the learners digest what they are hearing
      • In a short session like the one you are working in, a collected short paragraph reflection as the students leave could be really valuable to get the feedback, but also to let students convert experience into understanding through reflection.

Educators, even peer educators, need to deliberately articulate the assumptions, prior knowledge, and process steps that can help new learners into and through a complex problem.  Helping novice learners unpack the problem and guiding from the side with careful listening and probing questions, while the learners share the struggle of trouble-shooting, will result in the best learning outcomes.  It is this process, facilitated with a growth mindset, that helps create equity and inclusion and starts all learners along a path to self-assessment and, with time, expertise!!

Heading ‘Back to the Future’ of the Classroom not ‘Back to Normal’: Reflections on opportunities to benefit from our online experience

Ready or not! Here we go, back into the classroom! Back to teaching in physical spaces where we can see each other by simply turning our heads or wandering over to a corner of the room to offer needed support or direction, rather than popping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms like Samantha on the popular 1960’s TV show ‘Bewitched’.

Let’s go forward to our classrooms, not back in time

Many educators have reminisced about, and longed for, the ability to read expressions and body language that was denied them while teaching on Zoom or another platform. It is difficult to feel like one is on solid footing when a lot of cameras are off and when you are learning how to use a different set of tools to teach through your computer screen.  Now, once again, many will have students gathered in a common physical space! If they come to class, the dilemma of whether or not we can see them is gone.

Overall though, remote teaching has been a mixed-bag with both challenges and silver-linings, depending on who you talk to.  Looking at our own undergraduate peer educators in the fall of 2020 – after a semester and a half of emergency remote teaching- a surprisingly large proportion (42%) reported enjoying online learning because of their ability to create engagement. Getting comfortable with the technology was the biggest challenge, while only 29% and 25% respectively considered collaboration and engagement negative aspects of teaching online.

Creating engagement is difficult any way you slice it, and we have learned some big lessons and  valuable takeaways from our time in the ‘Zoom classroom’.  As we head back into the more familiar face-to-face environment, we should do at least these two things: 1) remember how to use physical space to its best advantage and 2) reflect on what we have learned and strive to keep some of the tools and strategies that can enhance and improve what we do.

Remembering how to work the room

Training undergraduate educators for in-person summer support courses, and working with  TA Consultants to develop evidence-supported teaching and learning workshops and deliver them to new TAs, reminds me that it takes some getting used to to suddenly not have the control panel at your fingertips on your computer keyboard.  Here are some things we have been wanting to do ever since they were denied us.  Why not take full advantage of all the things you’ve been missing!

  • If you’ve transitioned to using PowerPoints, stop at some points and do the work on the board where students can follow and share in the process.
  • Get students using the whiteboards in classrooms or the chalkboard to collaboratively work on problems.
  • Move among your learners/groups when they are working on group tasks
  • Interact with your slides or other media in a real way.
    • point out/laser the take-home messages
    • describe the axes of graphs and interact with figures so students can interpret them
    • ask students to interpret the figures for you before you describe them (think pair share)
  • Embed active, student-centered learning in your class every 5-10 minutes – use variety of reflective, paired, and group activities
  • When you’re using high tech, make sure you have a low-tech plan B. In a classroom, as much  can go wrong with technology as on Zoom (maybe more).  Mix up the ways you have student working in the space (Paper, String and Colored Pencils work too!)

Use what we have learned (through some hardship!) about how to create environments where learning happens best

Not having a captive audience in online learning spaces seemed to highlight the importance of creating engagement and constantly building community so that all students would want/need to engage.  We should remember the creativity and inclusive practices that worked best to encourage student participation online, and not take for granted that being in a physical classrooms means students are emotionally and cognitively present!

  • Intentionally build community everyday in your classroom. Do not assume that being in person will result in community!
  • Continue to craft structured learning activities that require collaboration and that allow application and retrieval of content information.
  • Clearly articulate learning objectives and share them with students
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your students to bring their laptops/devices and continue to use work on shared documents
  • Use asynchronous discussion boards to supplement your in class time, gather feedback, generate discussion.
  • Continue to use animation in power point slides if you use them, to give students one step, or concept at a time
  • Use polling technology to practice retrieval of information and gather ideas and feedback
  • If it makes sense provide videotaped lectures or record the audio from your lecture so students can revisit it
  • Now that you’re familiar or comfortable with being on a camera try sending weekly short 2 to 3 minute videos but reiterate the most important points that students should be focused on or you’re learning objectives for that week

As we were when moving into COVID-forced remote teaching, we are now in another transition. After more than a year of changes and a steep learning curve, students – especially new students – in our institutions may face a whole new set of challenges that we will need to help them to overcome. What we have learned by educating through a pandemic about intentionality, creativity, options for modes of engagement, feedback and compassion, assessment that focuses more on process than product, are all skills and strategies that will continue to be extremely valuable as we move back into the classroom and forward into the ‘new normal’. Best of Luck to everyone!

Cornell Engineering Tutors: Exemplifying the Benefits of One-on-One Support


Dhruv Sreenivas

 

“I enjoyed helping other people out, and tutoring also helped me get a stronger hand on the material, which actually helped me in courses I took later on in college.”

We are sending off seven ‘21 graduating Engineers with our utmost gratitude for their exceptional support mentoring students in the Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) tutors-on-call program.  Thank you Acacia Tam, Dhruv Sreenivas, Lynn Jeannoute, Michael Richardson, Sijia Liu, Stephie Lux, and Veronica Nobrega for your talent and compassion and a combined 32 semesters tutoring and 852 tutor appointments!  These ELI tutors supported engineering students in 14 challenging core engineering courses.  They participated in 3 tutor trainings and small group check-ins each semester to prepare for and grow in their role as one-on-one peer educators.

Tutor Training

Sijia Liu will move on to work in New York City as a software engineer!

Trainings focused on active learning strategies for tutors to use in their meetings with tutees.  Tutor community building is important, so when shared dinner during tutor trainings was no longer possible due to transition to online- tutors made connections in a smaller group training format and formed bonds in break-out rooms using the online zoom platform. Throughout this transitional time, ELI tutors relied on one another for support and shared best practices.  Even with success mastering online tutoring, it will be exciting to be back to in-person tutor appointments in the fall.

“I like meeting people and sharing my studying strategies with those eager to learn and improve. I really enjoyed the time being an ELI tutor.”

Benefits for tutees and tutors:

Acacia Tam will pursue a Master in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University.

A key component of all of our peer education programs is the focus on evidence-based practices. Peer education is no longer something that happens on the margins of higher education where ‘at-risk’ students enroll in or are assigned tutorial support.  These days peer education is an opportunity for all learners who anticipate or discover the need for a little more clarity on a particular topic, or a longer-term investment of time to deepen understanding of challenging conceptual or technical knowledge (Latino and Unite, 2012). These opportunities happen with groups of learners, typically associated with a certain course, or as one-on-one interactions through tutoring.

“I loved tutoring for ELI! It was always so rewarding to see that I had helped a student better understand a concept or prepare for an exam. Additionally, it made me happy to see that I could pass on some of the tips and tricks I had learned while taking the class to other students. Finally, I loved meeting new people whether in person or online! It made me feel more connected to the Cornell community!”

Tutoring requires all the components of other student academic support including collaboration, retrieval (pulling information out of students rather than putting it in) and open-ended questions to generate reflection, metacognition and critical thought.  There are some unique opportunities in this valuable type of support.

The Role of ‘Coach’

The very personal nature of a tutor session creates a great opportunity for tutors to mentor and coach students regarding practices that generally improve student outcomes. Research has shown that helping with study behaviors was a significant factor improving student outcomes (Gurung and McCann, 2011).

Lynn Jeannoute

“The classes I tutored were geared towards mostly freshman year students and I know how hard it can be transitioning from high school to college, so I especially valued not only being able to assist in their coursework but being able to give them general advice on how to study for exams and stay on top of their work and things like that.”

As coaches, our undergraduate tutors: keep a growth mindset, listen to student challenges, and suggest various ways to overcome them. They ask the right questions, inquire about preparation for evaluations, suggest study practices, encourage, and give specific feedback. Research on the role of peer coaching in higher education suggests that some effective strategies are: being nonjudgmental, listening, shared accountability for the interaction, and asking questions (Ericksen et al 2020).

Stephie Lux is headed to the National Institutes of Health, where she accepted a Cancer Research Training Award to study tumors with a surgical oncologist.

“I can very effectively help others break down an academic problem, and I have also found new ways to be creative when communicating and teaching. Beyond developing my teaching skills, I made several lasting friendships with students I tutored and with  other tutors. ELI Peer Tutoring was a very important part of my Cornell Engineering experience.”

As peers, tutors help build community one student at a time by developing acquaintances and friendships, finding common ground, sharing empathy, working together on a level playing field, and sharing academic and social challenges.

The quotes shared by these tutors exemplify the practices that make tutoring a very powerful form of academic support.  Mentoring students who are just learning to navigate busy schedules and challenging assignments, building community, and breaking down complex ideas using active, collaborative learning, are practices that benefit both the tutor and tutee.  We are so grateful for the hard work of these graduates.  In the past year tutors had to become comfortable working with their peers remotely due to COVID-19.  We are so proud and grateful for the difference ELI tutors made for students finding their way during this very unusual and difficult past year!

Sources used and further reading:

Eriksen, M., Collins, S. Finocchio B., and Oakley J. 2020. Developing Students’ Coaching Ability Through Peer Coaching. Journal of Management Education, 44: 9–38
Gurung R.A.R. and McCann, L.I. 2011. How Should Students Study? Tips, Advice, and Pitfalls
(https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-should-students-study-tips-advice-and-pitfalls)
Latino, J. A. and Unite C.M. 2012. Providing Academic Support Through Peer Education.
New Directions for Higher Education, 157:31-43. DOI:10.1002/he.20004

 

THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT, THEY GOTTA WEAR SHADES! AEW Facilitators Graduate after Teaching Through a Pandemic

At the close of the Spring 2021 semester we are saying so-long and good luck to 14 Academic Excellence Workshop (AEW) facilitators! These graduates hail from 8 different engineering programs and together they represent 70 semesters of teaching and 72 AEW workshops during their undergraduate careers.  It bears mentioning that all of these facilitators, whose education experience had been completely in-person, not only transitioned their learning to online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also very successfully transitioned their teaching to online for the past 3 semesters. We honor and share gratitude for each one of them and their work that was so clearly driven by passion and perseverance, to give back and support their Cornell Engineering community, during this difficult time!

Evan Austin Cornell Engineer grad 2021Evan Austin, Materials Science and Engineering graduate

Evan is a veteran AEW facilitator:

“Over my last 7 classes teaching (Math)1920, I have really come to appreciate and align with the ELI goals of promoting collaborative and active learning. The learning science research that goes into all the trainings and the AEW program are certainly not for nothing, I have seen the impacts first hand!

…The AEW program has been a source of light in my college career”.

In his last semester his students thanked him for “creating this fun and positive AEW environment!” and one mentioned the critical importance of having ‘Bob the Burrito’ included in the problem-based worksheets. And while we may never know the context in which ‘Bob’ entered the worksheets (some things are best kept secret!), we are indebted to Evan for his creative and open approach to his work and his teaching.  Evan awaits his assignment in the Peace Corps as an Agricultural Volunteer in Guatemala, continuing his legacy of building community and helping others.

Alexis Mottram, Chemical Engineering graduate

Alexis has honed her skills and supported her peers as a facilitator for 6 semesters!

“I have loved my time as an AEW facilitator, thanks so much to everyone in the program!”

This comment from a student expresses one of the super powers of peer education:

You make me feel valid for struggling and messing up because you don’t hide the fact that you know exactly how it feels. Your story of surviving STEM at Cornell and your moxie to be your true self no matter what make me believe that I can make it though another topic, another test, and another three years even when it seems a little daunting

Alexis will be starting work in an oncology research lab at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. We are so grateful for the dedication exemplified by Alexis!  We know this young professional has a bright future!

Apoorva Agarwal, Chemical Engineering graduate

Apoorva is another 6-semester facilitator. In addition to the work as a facilitator Apoorva has had a leadership role for the past 2 years as one of our AEW Co-leads.  In this important role she has collaborated to develop and lead trainings, collect and evaluate assessment data to improve the efficacy of the program, and supported new facilitators and others with independent conversations and meetings.

“I will miss the AEW program and my experience within it dearly and I hope to stay in touch after graduation. I wish nothing but the best for the future of AEWs and ELI in general. I know AEWs will continue to thrive and make an impact on countless students. Thank you so much!”

Her dedication, skills, and service to her team have been remarkable, and noted.   Well organized, hard working, dedicated and poised were just some of the words that were repeated by the other facilitators to describe this engineer’s leadership characteristics.

Her students shared these words of thanks:

“Your teaching was excellent, and I feel it greatly helped my performance in the class”. “You have been a great AEW facilitator and have really helped my understanding…”

Makaya Chilekwa, Chemical Engineering graduate

Yet another amazing 6-semester facilitator, Makaya is identified as an excellent facilitator by her students and her patient understanding and clear and concise approach will be missed!

“I greatly appreciate your help as an AEW facilitator, I feel like I have such a better understanding of the material and feel more confident in approaching problems and asking questions!!” “I think most of us felt like we had a guardian angel …”

Makaya will be honing her skills by taking a gap year working as a Research Assistant at MIT before going to grad school!

Michael Richardson, Engineering Physics graduate

“I’ve appreciated being a facilitator”.

Michael is another talented, constant, dependable 6-semester facilitator who will be missed for his sense of humor, easy goingMichael Richardson 6 semester facilitator graduate nature and really excellent skills for keeping his students engaged in the work at hand. Here is just some of what his students said:

“You are a wonderful facilitator, and your effort and enthusiasm shines through your words. I enjoy your jokes during the AEW, which always lights up the mood.” “…and don’t forget about how many kids you’ve helped!”

Michael Richardson Engineering Physics grad sp 2021“A great math teacher and mentor! I know you will do well in your career. You have mentored our AEW incredibly well and were always friendly and kind”

 

 

Michaela Bettez, Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate

Michaela, is also a veteran 6-semester facilitator who students appreciated for her mentorship as well as her ability to review and guide learning of complex material.  We are so grateful for her long dedication and commitment to the AEW Program!  Here is what her students had to say about her:

Michaela Bettez 6 semester AEW Facilitator“I was intimidated by taking an AEW at first but you made the class feel very welcoming and casual. I also really appreciate that you gave us tips for other classes.”

“Thanks Michaela! Your Math sessions have been very helpful, and manage to hold my attention even at night on a Monday!”

Michaela’s next step is enrolling in the MEng degree at Cornell, and then finding a job for the Spring!

Emily Care, Chemical Engineering graduate

Emily had a 5-semester run as a facilitator, and in addition to the work of facilitator, in her last year sheEmily Care 5 semester facilitator and Co-leader worked as the other Co-lead for the AEW team. We value her thoughtful sharing of ideas, collaboration on developing objectives aligned with AEW program goals, and willingness to evaluate program feedback and move us forward.  We are so grateful for her leadership and ability to grow and improve the program with Apoorva over the year. An excellent collaborative leader!

Of the many words to describe Emily’s style and strengths facilitators shared these: Caring, kind, strong, friendly, reliable, and organized

Her students shared these gratitudes: “You are an incredible facilitator and I have appreciated your AEW very very much!!”  and “I appreciate you always going above and beyond to help me and everyone understand the material 🙂.”

Emily will be moving to Tainan, Taiwan to work for TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) as a process engineer.

Jessica Chen, Computer Science graduate

Jessica also shared her skills and experience for 5 semesters.  We are so lucky that she used her time and talent to work and collaborate with us. Here we can see that her commitment to student learning involved building the community in which the climate was welcoming.  Her leadership skills shone through for the students she supported:

“I was able to laugh and enjoy connecting with others while gaining a much better understanding of difficult topics like recursion. Thank you so much for making the class so enjoyable and helpful. You are a wonderful leader.”

You really helped me combat my fear for coding :)”

Jessica will be working as a software engineer at PayPal in San Jose, California! And trying to spend as much time as possible with family and friends before she moves.

Lucy Huang, Chemical Engineering graduate

Another 5-semester facilitator, Lucy is known for her organization, and her clear written and spoken communications with her students. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to peer education and your students. Here is what they had to say:

Lucy Huang 5 semester facilitator“Thank you for being encouraging to everyone! Also, I liked the drawings you included in lecture”

“Thank you so much for being an AEW facilitator!”

Lucy will be moving on to a position as a Project and Improvement Development Engineer (PIDE) at Infinium in New Jersey!

Lynn Jeannoute, Chemical Engineering graduate

Lynn is another one of our strong Chemical Engineering representation who has taught for 5 semesters. She has collaborated to build community in our AEW facilitator team and strengthened the connections and served her students. Here is what her students have to say:

“Thank you for being an AEW facilitator. Learning this challenging material from a peer really helped my understanding”

We are so grateful for her dedication to this work and wish Lynn the very best in her future as a Chemical Engineering graduate!

 

Sijia Liu, Computer Science graduate

Sijia also worked with students and supported learning for 5 semesters. Colleagues observed that she and her cofacilitator fostered emotional connection with their students and often asked for feedback on what the facilitators should focus more on to make support stronger. Her students said:

“Your teaching was excellent, and I feel it greatly helped my performance in the class.”  and “Good at explaining the topics that are confusing”.

We join her students to show our deep appreciation for all she did for the students in her AEWs.

Veronica Nobrega, Chemical Engineering graduate

Veronica is another member of the large group of Chemical Engineering students who have a long history with facilitating AEWs.  It is a big commitment, and we are thankful for the time and effort she used to improve the learning experience of her peers. Her students sent her off with a big thanks!:

“Thank you for everything this semester!! Best of luck in the future!”

We join her students in wishing Veronica the best of all possible futures! Thank you!

Acacia Tam, Biomedical Engineering graduate

Acacia was with the program for 3 semesters as a facilitator and we only wish it could have been longer. This thoughtful peer educator was able to mix clear explanation and creative opportunities for her students to enjoy in her AEW sessions. Here is a strong tribute that exemplifies the feedback from  her students:

“Thank you for putting effort to clarify things, making them understandable and enjoyable as well! A teacher like you is the heart of the educational system! “You light up the way! You are appreciated!”

Acacia is planning on doing a summer internship in Singapore for a patent law firm and then going to Boston University for her masters degree!

Sophie Arzumanov, Operations Research and Information Engineering graduate

We only had Sophie on our team for 2 semester. We are lucky to have worked with her and only wish we had more opportunity to collaborate. Sophie exemplified the growth mindset as a facilitator. She tried new things and grew her natural skills as an educator in two short semesters. Her own words tell a great story:

“I enjoyed my interactions with AEW my facilitators so much that I decided to become a facilitator myself and give back to the program. It was through being an AEW facilitator that I discovered my love for teaching. I wish I had been a facilitator for longer! I encourage everyone to become a part of the AEW program, because no matter where you’re at with the material, it will benefit your learning and sense of belonging within Cornell Engineering.”

Sophie’s students also said these things about her work:

“It’s amazing how a facilitator can make all the difference between being completely lost in a course, and feeling that you have a solid grasp of the topic.” and “Sophie has been so kind and helpful and can make any topic easy to understand!”

Sophie will move on to be a Business Analyst at McKinsey & Company in Chicago!

Thankfully these long-term peer educators have left us with suggestions and thoughtful feedback as they move on to the world outside of Cornell.  We are excited for the new facilitators that will work with us and take the places of these amazing long-term peer educators, and we will miss their collective wealth of experience and knowledge. We know that we at ELI have benefitted from their involvement and only hope that the leadership skills they have gained as AEW facilitators will serve them will in their chosen professional futures.  Many Many thanks to all of them. May you take your skills and passion out into the world and make it a better place!

Lights! Camera!…Cameras? Navigating the Complex Issue of Visual Connection in Zoom

Frank Castelli and Mark Sarvary love to teach. At a research institution well known for its groundbreaking disciplinary research, this duo is also hard at work in the classroom applying best practices in active and inclusive learning for a large Investigative Biology course. The class illuminates the process of science through life science topics. It is a big class: typically, over 300, mostly Freshmen, students.  One hour of lecture per week prepares students for a three-hour lab.  Sarvary (the course’s Director) and Castelli (co-instructor and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Active Learning Initiative educational research post doc) have worked closely over several years, implementing iterative changes in the face-to-face classroom in an ongoing quest to improving learning outcomes. The team – including another post-doc, 12 graduate TAs and an equal number of undergraduate TAs – strives to keep students active and engaged with each other and the course content: the way learning happens best. Suddenly, COVID-19 hit.

What they Saw

Things changed dramatically. In their course, as in many others, COVID-19 meant shifting to emergency remote (online) teaching. “Engaging” with students took on a whole different meaning. Teaching an experiential lab-based course requires interaction and involving students with each other and with course materials. It wasn’t long until Castelli and Sarvary and their team of teaching assistants realized that students appeared to be ‘turning off’ (cameras). How much of that included ‘tuning out’ was unclear.  In spring of 2020, few students knew how to navigate this new Zoom learning space, and the teaching staff were in the same uncharted territory. Those who had their cameras on were frustrated at being among the few visible in internet space, and the teaching staff were challenged to intuit understanding through the few visual cues available across computer screens – limited in the online environment, even when cameras are on! Building connection and creating inclusion enhances learning. Seeing the faces and expressions of those in one’s learning community has benefit for teachers and learners.

What They Did

Rather than waiting-out COVID in hopes that the pandemic would end quickly, they decided to get out in front of it and gathered information in Spring 2020 that could be used to understand factors that influenced students’ camera-use behavior.  Gathering data from students would help them respond in an evidence-based way in the Fall semester. Data is power, and for Sarvary, it is peace of mind. “That’s why I personally appreciate the outcomes of this study…because now we know something about this…and we can move it a bit to the side because there are still so many unknown elements” he said.  While being clear that they didn’t have all the answers yet, Sarvary added “but at least now we can use evidence-based teaching to improve the situation.”  Since December of 2020 when their resulting paper was published, it has been flying off the virtual shelf. Castelli noted a lot of interest in tweets, blogs, various news outlets and interest in interviews.   The publication (Castelli FR, Sarvary MA. Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecol Evol. 2021;00:1–12) is rich with background literature and practical suggestions for their teaching staff and others looking for support for the same, common, challenge.

In a nutshell, the reasons that cameras are turned off are complex. Some of the reported challenges are those that teaching team can help with, and others not so much. As the authors say in the paper, while the general categories that emerged in their research are instructive and can likely be fairly broadly inferred, the relative importance of these different reasons will vary from student population to population, and teachers should begin the quest of improving online interaction by gather their own student feedback.

What They Found

For this Investigative Biology course, 276 students responded to survey questions (88% of the class). The largest percent of students were concerned about their appearance, being distracted by seeing their own image, or the feeling of being in a visual spotlight, as reasons for keeping cameras off.  Novice remote learners may not have considered the best practices of ‘remote workers’ who keep routines that include dressing for work and good hygiene. For some, the intense feeling of scrutiny by a camera and seeing themselves reflected on the screen is disconcerting. Among the next most common reasons were related to the possibility of having other people or things appear behind them and being concerned about who or what is in the background in the remote location. Castelli and Sarvary’s data show that some of these concerns were more common in underrepresented minority (URM) students.  The authors used the National Science foundation definition of URM which includes historically underrepresented in science and engineering: African Americans, Alaska Natives, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, Native Pacific Islanders.

Table 3. Excerpted directly from Castelli and Sarvary, 2020.

These findings cast light on potential inequalities in a forced remote learning world. Thus, the recommendation is that students should neither be required to turn on cameras, nor be made to feel shame if they choose not to.  Next, some students reported not wanting to distract their teachers or be disrespectful to their teachers or classmates by having their faces appear on screen.

Communicating the hope that students will keep cameras on, using humor and providing reasons, can go a long way in improving camera use.  Finally, 28 students offered the perspective that cameras off was the ‘norm’. Normalizing camera use in students, for whom this is the only reason to have them turned off, might go a long way in getting a critical density of visible faces in the online learning space.

How They Used the Research Outcomes

Now, past mid-spring semester 2021, the team has one and a half fully online semesters under their belts. Sarvary reflects that “Right when this whole switch happened… I remember how much we struggled and were stressed – can we really do this?” he added, “now looking back, I am super surprised where we are and how the technology existed, but we just had to start using it.”  In answer to a question about which strategies they have tried, Castelli’s answer is “Everything, we are trying everything that we suggest in the paper.” This team has been working hard to walk the fine line between encouraging and pressuring students. “It can be hard for anyone to request without demanding or without putting unnecessary pressure on students” says Castelli who now provides his teaching team with a slide for the start of each lecture with a different humorous meme and a message encouraging cameras on, including some rationale. He does this because it “provides a script so instructors can read and not make mistakes that might sound like pressure.”

Two example message are “teachers can better pace when they can see your face” and “students report that having cameras on makes class more enjoyable.”  When students were invited to make the memes themselves several different students used the familiar ‘Bernie Sanders once again requesting donations meme’ in the creation of their memes – imploring students, with humor, to consider turning on cameras.

 

Changes to the Canvas course website (course learning management system) include information and etiquette for online learning including suggestions for preparing one’s-self and a location when taking an online class. A section on ‘How to Add Privacy to your Zoom Calls’ includes links to local familiar virtual backgrounds and natural areas in town and information about how to use them in Zoom.  These suggestions can help alleviate some of the anxiety for students who don’t have places to feel comfortable or private when they are in class.

Other ideas the authors are considering include asking students to have a profile picture on file in zoom to add warmth. If a student is not comfortable turning on a camera, at least the person’s image fills the otherwise empty black box.  In short, the new practices seem to be working, and without the data yet to back it up, the lab instructors are reporting higher camera use than last semester and positive changes in the online environment!

Long-term Lessons: What to Keep?

And so we come to the million dollar questions, as campuses wrestle with how and when to transition back to a face-to-face learning model: What have we learned that we can carry forward to improve learning outcomes? After all the worry and work and acclimation to this new model for learning environments, Sarvary and Castelli are emphatic about the silver linings that have resulted from the process. They are starting even now to turn their attention to returning to face-to-face instruction with a new model that includes remnants of the COVID online experiment. “The thought I wake up with every morning is, ‘what are we going to keep from this when we return to in person teaching?’” Sarvary says the answer to this question is the work of the whole team as they anticipate the return to face-to-face teaching in the fall. “We (all the instructors who had to face these challenges) came up with so many great ideas. We need to learn from this… to really sit down and evaluate if there are some elements here that we can use to make our teaching better going forward?”

“This experience reinforces the idea that being explicit is a valuable thing in teaching,” says Castelli. “Our research really showed that social norms play a role in what happens in the classroom, and that students have different lives and challenges and we must consider them.” The opportunity to create inclusion in any classroom should become a greater focus in all learning environments.  Even those who love to teach can find a place for recorded lectures to use as a time-flexible resource. Online chats and discussion boards can create a way to link students to each other and course material between face-to-face lectures, get feedback on how a class went or where students were confused, or can be a component of a ‘flipped’ teaching model so that students come to class prepared to work together with the material.  A remote option for student check-ins with the teaching staff, or group meetings, might be a convenient and efficient option on a large campus.

This unplanned exercise in trial-by-fire, has brought to the forefront some very important aspects for every type of classroom. “And these are something we think about all the time now,” said Sarvary. “I told my staff: ‘Thinking hard about what we have learned and what we can keep, this is your homework!’”

 

Becoming Teachers: Engineering graduate students reflect on their diverse professional journeys at Cornell

Prologue

Teaching is a calling. It’s a calling that can be awakened at different points in one’s experience. But once awakened; evidence-based teaching practices must be cultivated. Part art and mostly science, the research that informs the best teaching practices is as wide and diverse as any. When a passion for teaching finds itself lodged in the heart of a creative, critically thinking, Engineering graduate student, it is incumbent upon us to provide a network of increasingly responsible leadership opportunities to help illuminate that path. Cornell engineers who find themselves with such a passion have opportunities in the College (ELI) to begin their leadership growth, and the University (CTI) to practice and broaden those skills. The path is not easy and it’s not always clear, as the authors of these 4 vignettes confirm. The best teaching applies the same practices as great leadership. These leaders of tomorrow need networks, expanding opportunities, and mentors. These inspiring stories show that it can be done, and that we have begun to build institutional networks and collaborations that benefit graduate students like these.

 Celia A. Evans, Ph.D., Associate Director, Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI)

Colleen at the boardColleen

My first TA position in graduate school was the spring semester of my first year. While trying to settle into my research group and take a class of my own, I was also supposed to help third year engineering undergraduates learn the difficult subject of Process Dynamics and Control, and it did not go well. Unlike when I was a TA as an undergraduate, these students did not know me, and I could have better expressed what my role was within the teaching team. My undergraduate department was smaller than the chemical engineering school at Cornell, with only six main faculty members, which created a close community. I always appreciated my undergraduate professors, and a potential career in academia is part of the reason I went to graduate school, but I did not comprehend how much prep work they had to do before class to be effective!

As a graduate TA, my responsibility was assisting with homework, which required reviewing textbook sections, completing the assignment, and thinking through where the trouble spots would be for the students. This small aspect of the course still took several hours per week. The sentiment for graduate students is often that research is the only priority, and being a TA is not an opportunity, but a burden. This perspective is damaging to the undergraduates, who have unprepared or apathetic TAs, and to the graduate students, who do not realize that being a TA is a chance to learn a subject more deeply, practice effective communication, connect with others, experience being in a position of authority, learn management skills, and test information retrieval to answer unexpected questions, among other things. These skills are all transferable, because there are teaching opportunities in every career, such as mentoring, engaging with clients, and presenting to multidisciplinary teams. Once I realized this, I embraced being a TA and pursued more opportunities to learn about best practices for pedagogy.

This led me to seek out the CTI Fellowship and the ALS 6015 ‘Teaching in Higher Education’ course.  Developing teaching portfolio components for these programs was a great exercise, because it showed me how my perspectives on teaching and diversity in the classroom are really based on my everyday interactions with people. I am seeking a position in industry as a next step, but I know that I am better prepared because of my experiences with teaching in graduate school.

Doğa

A few years ago, my friend asked me to take an online course in teaching with her. I had TA-ed once before—instructed labs, graded, held office hours—and gotten “good” evaluations from students. I said “yes,” not because I thought I needed to take the course, but because I like learning new things. However, that course showed me, a person who always thought of themselves as a “good” teacher, that I knew nothing about teaching. I also learned that not knowing may be okay as a graduate student, but if I wanted to be a better teacher, I needed to learn more.

My teaching style, until this point, had been similar to those of my undergraduate professors: mainly, uninterrupted lecturing. I realized that the only reason I graduated college is because I was able to learn from the “traditional instruction” style, which is not how everyone learns, or should learn. In fact, studies show that students learn best when they actively interact with the material and through a variety of ways (videos, readings, examples…). The more I learned about teaching, the more I wanted to learn; I attended several of CTI’s GET SET Workshops and took more courses. In the end, I have decided to get a teaching-related job when I graduate.

Photo credit: Michael Suguitan, psychomugs.com

As an engineering PhD student, what will put my job application ahead of other candidates is the teaching knowledge and experience that I have developed. I had already covered the former, but getting enough experience was challenging. At an R1 university, it is sometimes hard to get as many quality teaching opportunities as we want, simply because we are expected to spend most of our time doing research. For this reason, in addition to TA-ing every semester, I applied to ELI’s Teaching Assistant Development and CTI’s Fellowship Programs.

In these programs, I have had the opportunity to develop my own teaching workshops and train both graduate and undergraduate TAs using state-of-the-art education research.  One thing I am very grateful about being a part of Cornell’s teaching community is the help and feedback I receive. For example, I was TA-ing and taking the Engineering Teaching Seminar (ENGRG 6780) course in Spring 2020, when all teaching had to transfer to online. It is a reflection-based course, and every week, I was reflecting on some aspect of my teaching I was struggling with. The instructor’s kindness and guidance helped me tremendously, and I went through that semester learning more about teaching than at any other time in my life.

Jason

I will never forget my first graduate teaching memory at Cornell. During my first year in the biomedical engineering PhD program, I served as the graduate teaching assistant (TA) for an undergraduate Thermodynamics course. Despite having years of undergraduate teaching experience, I remember the disaster that was giving my first lecture. I was deriving equations for a ‘Carnot cycle’ problem when a student pointed out a mistake. I froze up and did not recover, largely due to the anxiety that was imposter syndrome fueled with having an entire classroom’s eyes watching my every move. It was a completely different environment than what I was familiar with back at my undergraduate institution.

As an undergraduate TA, I was used to facilitating peer learning sessions for dozens of my classmates, many of whom I knew from other on-campus activities. When I was the graduate TA for Thermodynamics, I struggled with learning how to effectively navigate the new power dynamic with the students in my course while concurrently adjusting to a new state, institution, and lab environment!

Coming into Cornell, I knew that I was primarily interested in pursuing a tenure-track faculty position with a focus on both research and teaching. However, it was at that moment in the classroom when it genuinely seemed (to me) that I was not fit to teach in academia and that I might need to find a new career path. As dramatic as that was, it was truly a humbling experience that led me to seek out CTI, first as a participant of the Teaching Portfolio Institute, and now as a CTI Fellow to further expand and refine my pedagogy.

Attending the Teaching Portfolio Institute genuinely transformed my perception of what teaching in higher education could look like. Designing a syllabus, crafting teaching philosophy and diversity statements, curating a teaching portfolio—all of these components were new concepts to me as a second-year PhD student at the time. However, the exposure and advice I received from the institute facilitators, all of whom spanned various disciplines across Cornell, motivated me to apply for the CTI Fellow program and became instrumental in helping me identify an action plan and seek out additional resources to further my training with the long-term goal of becoming a tenure-track faculty member.

Thais

In my third semester as a PhD student at Cornell, I was assigned as a Teaching Assistant for the Feedback and Control Systems class. I was responsible for conducting Discussion sections, in which I summarized key points of the lectures and answered questions from the students. Even though I had previous experiences teaching science and engineering to undergraduates and high schoolers in my home country, Brazil, this was my first time teaching in English. I learned English by watching YouTube videos and, therefore, I was not confident about my communication skills. As the semester here at Cornell went by, I realized that no matter which country I was in, class I was teaching or language I was speaking, all the students trusted me to teach them something new and important. It was my job to give them my best and fulfill their expectations.

Thais presents at a Robotics conference

So every day before the sessions, I would practice what I needed to say to the students by myself. I worked as hard as the students to help them understand the difficult concepts of this class. At the end of the semester, I was awarded the Sibley Prize for Excellence in Graduate Teaching Assistance based on feedback from students. I was thrilled by such recognition and decided to improve even further my teaching and communication skills by becoming a CTI fellow. Organizing the workshops and participating in the meetings as a CTI fellow has helped me to better communicate a variety of subjects to a diverse audience. I particularly enjoy interacting and networking with grad students from different fields during these events. It is refreshing to hear and learn from people with different backgrounds and interests other than mine.

Epilogue

These diverse voices showcase how varied, yet similar, teaching experiences can be even within the same college. The Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) Fellows are passionate about teaching and engage with their peers across campus to explore innovative teaching practices. This passion is evident in these four CTI Fellows. What began with Engineering Learning Initiatives’ (ELI) training to be successful TAs in their discipline, has clearly been transformative. Their diverse teaching and learning experiences in their engineering departments led them to seek out additional support through ELI and CTI graduate programming to further develop their teaching skills. This culminated in their interest in joining the CTI Fellows Program to learn more about teaching, mentoring and leadership through their work with graduate students and postdocs from across campus. Each of these stories share a common thread of exploring the various opportunities available at Cornell. By taking advantage of an opportunity to network with their peers from across disciplines, these four fellows have begun an exciting journey in their professional development as future leaders in their fields.

Derina S. Samuel, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI)

 

 

 

 

 

WISDOM FROM UNDERGRAD PEER EDUCATORS: Hard-won tips for online teaching

One and a half semesters of mostly online teaching down, and at least one more to go in this COVID-altered academic world. As a growing part of the team supporting student learning outcomes, undergraduate peer educators have worked very hard, received training, and honed their skills as facilitators of engaged, compassionate, and student-centered online learning.  EVERYONE has had to shimmy up the learning curve to make this last 9 months ‘work’.

At Cornell Engineering, our Academic Excellence Workshop (AEW) facilitators began their transition mid-spring semester when they were asked if they wanted to stay on as undergraduate educators and do their work in the online environment.  All 44 of them agreed that they wanted to stay on and help in the most difficult time one might imagine as a college student.  By the end of the spring semester 2020, these dedicated young educators had learned so much, faced challenges, and had made a difference for their peers!  By the end of Fall 2020, some with 2 semesters online facilitating and training under their belts and some with just one, they used the tools of this new trade – breakout rooms, whiteboards, annotations – to share their hard-won trusted tips.  This post will share their sage advice, simply copied from the whiteboard, collated and briefly annotated.

The most common bit of advice was about being comfortable saying “I DON’T KNOW”: 

The first rule of collaborative learning facilitation  – the teacher is not required to hold the answers to everything. As peer educators, knowing this allows the time to reach out to other teaching staff on matters of specific process or content. Even more importantly, and this takes some degree of confidence, not knowing the specific answer frees up space to develop ideas together, to involve the group, brainstorm processes and different possibilities with your students. And yes, ultimately we want to provide the right set of details, so a follow up with the group or class after consultation is always the way to end. In the online environment, an online discussion board is a great way to get that closure and feedback when the answers come after the synchronous session is over.

A close  second category of advice was related to CREATING a WELCOMING, OPEN and FRIENDLY ENVIRONMENT:

Peer educators, who have been on the other side of the screen more recently than some of the more experienced teaching staff, know exactly how crucial these bits of advice are! This is even more true in the online environment, where it is easier to be anonymous, harder to feel connected, and where students can be easily distracted away from what you are facilitating.

Learning student names, doing activities to get to know them and help them get to know each other, goes a long way to creating a space where they want to be, feel noticed, and hopefully begin to trust each other enough to be part of the discussions you want to facilitate! While it carries its own different set of challenges, one of the most powerful things about being a peer educator is that you are one of ‘them’. As such, you are approachable and, should be, compassionate.

A little note of self-care here:

Even though your energy goes a long way to creating a climate, ‘checking in’ includes you.  This whole time period is extremely energy demanding, and so while you try and bring your best game as a peer educator, give yourself an out when YOU need it.  Ask for help and think of ways to take the pressure off yourself as well.

The third most offered advice was about how to “WORK THE ROOM” in a zoom session:

In the online environment you can’t just look across the room and see who needs your help, or interject a helpful question or hint.  Being present and moving from breakout room to breakout room as students are working in groups, lets you intervene and redirect, or even invite others into the conversation. It goes without saying perhaps that these spaces have to be clearly structured before you move your students into them so they don’t spend time spinning their wheels!

Reminding about expectations for teamwork, taking turns to contribute, and the idea of ‘take time, make time’ just before sending your students off to breakouts is helpful. The online environment can create some useful anonymity for shy people (working through the chat and asynchronous discussions) but breakout rooms can be stressful for shy people and frustrating for all, if they are not structured.

A fourth bit of advice: Don’t assume your students are all on the same page and following everything you are facilitating.  GET FEEDBACK:

Just as improving learning outcomes requires giving students regular and honest feedback, so becoming a better peer educator (or any educator) requires getting feedback about how it is going for students.  Feedback can be general – about the perceived success of activities you try- and it can be more specific – about whether they understand what you are trying to get across to them. Feedback can be solicited in the middle of a class, at the end, or in the interim between when you see each other using online discussion boards.

Active learning strategies like ‘think-pair-share’ (using chat in a small class online) as well as polling or clicker questions, can be used at any moment to get students sharing and asking and answering each other’s questions. Asking students, in teams (breakouts), to apply a bit of lecture material to a problem or question helps the group move closer to the same level of understanding. They can also share group feedback afterwards.

Asking students, in teams (breakouts), to apply a bit of lecture material to a problem or question helps the group move closer to the same level of understanding. They can also share group feedback afterwards.

The 5th and last piece of advice from our experienced online peer educators (there is more…..) is FACILITATE COMMUNICATION and THINKING, DON’T JUST GIVE THE ANSWERS:

This is one that is at the crux of collaborative, student-centered learning. Being comfortable with silence is hard in the classroom, but at least you can watch to see if the wheels are spinning. Reading body language and facial expression is so challenging online, and if cameras are off, so are all bets.

But it is even more critical to be comfortable with silence with the lag time time that occurs on zoom, and with the difficulty of knowing whether students are thinking and preparing to answer. Give time for answers to come into the chat.  Give time for students to figure out the technology for how to annotate the whiteboard or your presentation when you ask.  In breakouts, really encourage cameras on (knowing there are legitimate reasons in some cases students aren’t comfortable with them on) so that you can make eye contact and have a better sense of the level of understanding, and so that you can support at the correct level (a question? a hint? maybe sometimes even the answer). If you end up giving the answer, ask them why the answer you give is the/a right one.

Remembering to enact this set of 5 tips in your classroom will take any educator a very long way to being successful in the online environment. Bravo peer educators, we could not do without you! And best of luck in Spring 2021!