‘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!

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

UNPACKING “ENGAGEMENT” IN THE CLASSROOM and some practical suggestions for turning theory into practice ( PART 1 – Individual student engagement)

(Vivienne Liu, Cornell Engineering PhD Candidate and TA Trainer Consultant, contributed strongly to this reflection by bringing the paper to our summer development workshops and sharing her ideas for classroom application)

‘Engagement’ is a term used a lot these days in discussions about successful education experiences.  Learning occurs in a complex matrix which makes it sometimes challenging to understand the outcomes of our practice.  It doesn’t help that we toss around terms of the trade like engagement as if everyone – including ourselves as educators – understands them, particularly out of context!!

This post about individual student emotional and cognitive engagement, is the first in a series of three.  This is the logical start to unraveling some of the mechanisms influencing what happens in classrooms – virtual or face-to-face.

Stay tuned for more about how these two aspects of engagement interact with group dynamics to create the more familiar ‘behavioral engagement’ (Part 2) and, ultimately, trouble shooting some of the complexity that occurs in peer-to-peer and interactions in this complex ecosystem (Part 3).

The Glossary of Education Reform defines engagement this way:

“student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.””

While the term is so broad as to be considered not useful by some researchers, Ashwin and McVitty (2015) maintain that it has many ‘faces’ and is extremely valuable once we, 1) define the context in which engagement is occurring and 2) articulate the goal of creating engagement.  For our purposes, lets limit our discussion to engagement by students for the goal of improving learning outcomes in online and face to face classes.

Many who have spent years teaching in the face-to-face environment have an intuition that teaching online will not illicit the same learning outcomes that we believe occur in in-person classes. In this time of emergency remote teaching for so many, understanding something about creating engagement in general and specifically in the online learning environment is important.

Engagement is influenced by factors both within and outside of our control as learning facilitators. Knowing a little bit more about what results in variation in student engagement will, at least, help us better understand why there can be so much variability in learning outcomes and, at best, suggest some of the strongest empirical connections to learning outcomes so that we might gradually apply them (or, if they are negative, avoid them!). The summary of results from a paper shared here examines the influence of course delivery mode, and does a nice job of incorporating many of the potentially explanatory factors related to engagement.

Manwaring et al, 2017 conducted a multivariate analysis in face-to-face and hybrid model courses to try to understand the factors that influenced the two major components of engagement: cognitive and emotional.  Emotional engagement (EE), is the way a student feels about aspects of the learning process (the affect), and cognitive engagement (CE), is the amount of effort a learner expends on the task at hand.  One study does not the truth make, particularly one with such a small sample size!  But this study trades-off large sample size and examining a few controlled independent variables and indicators, for a detailed look at just about every variable but the kitchen sink!  They survey a smallish group of students (68), but ask for their responses for a large number of individual class meetings the students attended within a semester. Many of the outcomes are corroborated by other research.

Figure 1. Adapted from Manwaring et al 2017. The model the authors used to survey student engagement.

In a nutshell this figure, adapted from the study, illustrates the complexity of the learning environment and names many possible components of ‘engagement’.  Another important point is that level of student engagement is a result of factors specific to individuals (individual level), as well as those influenced by the context (class design and perceptual levels).  Appendix 1 in the publication includes the entire survey instrument, but as an illustration some of the questions on the 5-pt Likert-scale instrument include: How well were you concentrating? Did you feel good about yourself? Were you learning anything or getting better at something? Did you have some choice in picking this activity? How hard have you worked to keep up with this class? How much time have you spent on this class? What else were you doing?

The analysis for this study used Hierarchical Structural Equation Modeling (HSEM).  Here is a link to a fairly short but useful video that explains the way SEM works.

Using the outcomes of this paper, the remainder of this post will be spent creating a paired down, tangible picture of:

  • Which factors appear to create or discourage the two aspects of student engagement?
  • Which type of engagement seems more complicated to achieve?
  • Where is the overlap in factors that seem important for both types of engagement?

and suggesting practical strategies we can apply in our online, face-to-face, and hybrid model courses using this information.  Having said that, in the interest of transparency, the table below is the main outcome of the analysis in all of its detail for those who want more information and to draw their own conclusions.

Figure 2. Table 6 from Manwaring et al, 2017. Presented for full disclosure of all the interesting results including some we won’t discuss in this blog.  This is for those who love data! For the Gender variable 0 = male, 1 = female.

‘Big picture’ outcomes jump out of the complex table above in answer to our questions. Note that the statistical strength of the relationship of each individual variable for ‘cognitive engagement’ on the left and ‘emotional engagement’ on the right are represented using asterisks (*) in the columns labelled ‘B’. More asterisks = stronger relationships.  Of the 17 total factors represented in the table, asterisks appear next to 12 variables for emotional engagement, and 11 for cognitive engagement.  The larger difference comes in the strength of the relationships. Emotional engagement is highly significantly associated (***) with 9 of the listed factors, while cognitive engagement has only 4 variables that show this level of significance.  Finally, the most significant relationships with respect to emotional engagement are quite evenly distributed across individual, class design and perceptual categories, while cognitive engagement is more a function of factors that are associated with class design and student perception.  The bulk of strong influencers appear to be in the perceptual category for both emotional and cognitive engagement. With respect to the role of mode of learning (online or face-to-face), this study does suggest that cognitive engagement is enhanced in the face-to-face environment, while ‘mode’ has no effect on emotional engagement.

In summary:

  • Both emotional and cognitive engagement are influenced by many factors – they are complex!
  • Emotional engagement may be more challenging to achieve because there are more individual factors with which it is associated.
  • Both types of engagement are most strongly affected by the aspects of student perception
  • The mode in which learning is happening (online or face-to-face) appears to be less associated with how engaged students are than some of the other variables in the study, and is only significant for cognitive engagement

It appears that getting and keeping individual college students feeling interested in a class and motivated to learn is more complex, and less under the control of the teacher, than is getting students to do the work of thinking and learning.  In this study, face-to-face learning was more cognitively engaging than online learning, however, there are many variables that we can work with to combat any loss that occurs either online or face-to-face.

Clearly these two aspects of engagement interact and there is overlap in variables that influence both forms of engagement, particularly in the area of perception (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The overlap in class design and perceptual factors that influence both emotional and cognitive engagement. Intentionally excluded are individual aspects associated with students because they are more difficult to control. Note: Class design variables are bold and perceptual factors are Italicized (this figure displays outcomes from  Table 6 from Manwaring et al (2017) as a Venn diagram to illustrate the most fruitful opportunities to apply in practice to increase ind. student engagment.

Linking research outcomes to practice: What practical strategies can we apply to increase individual student engagement in our online, and face-to-face courses.

The low hanging fruit for practical applications are those factors that exist in the overlap between cognitive and emotional engagement.  Let’s start with the one factor strongly negatively associated with both forms of engagement:


A challenge of online teaching is that it’s hard, maybe impossible, to know what students are doing on the other side of the screen.  In both environments we can apply these practices:

  • At the start of the semester and in each class share your expectation for an atmosphere of mutual respect. Initially sharing yours and asking students to share their ideas of what this means and developing a list of agreed upon behaviors can act as a verbal contract. Refer to the contract at the start of each class when you ask them to please be ‘really present’ for your time together.
  • Studies have shown that sharing research information about why you use certain teaching practices (providing an evidence-based rationale such as Manwaring et al, (2017)) will help with buy-in from students, particularly when you show that it influences their performance and ultimately their grade.
  • Requiring/encouraging/providing regular expectation that students participate in simple (polling, commenting in the chat, annotating on the shared screen) or more complex (think-pair-share , group work, worksheets associated with presented materials) active learning during class (online or face-to-face) will reduce time that students can be multitasking
Ways that one might try to encourage both emotional and cognitive engagement include activities that:

make the materials seem important, help students realize that learning is happening, are more social in nature, and seem related to their lives and situations

  • Provide real-world examples in lecture and/or in homework to show the importance of what they’ve learned and create examples students relate to.
  • Ask students to provide examples of applications for what they learned in the class.
  • Require brief ‘reflection pieces’ (written or audio recordings) either during or at the end of class or in asynchronous discussion threads. Prompts can be broad: “What was the most valuable concept or skill discussed in todays (this weeks’) class?” or specific: “What aspect of (a concept or process) did you understand the best? or where did you get confused?” These are sometimes referred to as ‘1-minute papers’. These can be done by student pairs and include brief discussions, or by individuals.
  • Provide practical examples after concept/theory learning and allow students to work with concepts/problems and demonstrate to themselves what they can do after the learning activity. Such practices can help students see what they are learning.
  • Promote interactions among students by providing chances for group discussions, team-working tasks, peer review process etc.
  • Create group learning activities (with clear roles and scaffolding) that can add a social aspect and support students who are challenged with materials.
    • Note this aspect includes group dynamics explicitly which has its own challenges but still worth it!
  • Begin a class period by asking students to recall and share knowledge gains from previous lectures. This allows students to acknowledge that they are learning (don’t choose obscure factoids but rather large focal concepts😊)
  • A recap from previous lectures related to the material you are going to teach gets students engaged right away just like the recap you might need for your favorite TV shows. Try to help students connect the material with old knowledge or daily life just as this suggestion did:-)

It is worth considering the ‘second tier’ of important factors that relate significantly to one or the other form of engagement as well.  Some of the ideas presented above already hit these topics: such as, provide active learning opportunities interspersed in your course (for more ideas see: Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater…); and, when possible, give students ‘choice’ in:

  • activity
  • form of expression,
  • rules of engagement.

While “challenge” was identified as being negatively correlated with emotional engagement, other studies have suggested that high expectations are necessary for successful learning, thus working to support challenging topics through scaffolded group work, paired activities, or individual feedback and intervention where possible are good alternatives.

Unpacking individual student engagement makes it easier for educators to understand why great pedagogical ideas don’t always work as well as we expect.  It helps us pinpoint what we can work with to get ideas across and create critical thought. We now have some understanding of why, on any given day, those implemented practices may leave us feeling satisfied, even elated, about what happened in our online or face-to-face classrooms – or alternatively frustrated and disheartened.  Optimistically, ‘mode’ of teaching (online versus face-to-face) is NOT nearly as strong a correlate with engagement as other measured variables over which we have some control. There are many ways to continue to work with our own personal strengths and challenges as we strive to improve learning outcomes. As a final note, and an enticement to look for our for the next post in this series, individual student choices, behaviors, and motivations are further complicated by the ‘dynamic’ in the class among members. This is likely particularly true when one makes good evidence-base choices at the course level to facilitate long or short-term collaborative learning experiences.  The plot thickens… But in the meantime…

Happy experimenting!

Manwaring, K. C., Larsen, R., Graham, C. R., Henrie, C. R., & Halverson, L. R. (2017). Investigating student engagement in blended learning settings using experience sampling and structural equation modeling. Internet and Higher Education, 35, 21–33. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.06.002


PRIMING THE CANVAS: Creating inclusive learning environments online

Be even more cognizant of diversity in your online students.

Consider all the ways in which learners can be diverse.  Diverse identities typically come to mind first. Remember also that there is a diversity of ways in which learners process incoming information and a large percent of challenges to learning for students in your classroom are ‘invisible’ (read more on invisible disabilities here).

Even for educators that are as present as it is possible to be in their online learning environments, the nature of the virtual classroom is that it is harder to ‘see’ even the diversity that would be ‘visible’ face-to-face, not to mention the invisible diversity in our students. This reason alone is all the rationale needed to argue for putting scaffolding and guidelines in place at the outset of your course meetings to ensure a welcoming and inclusive online climate.

One of many strengths of Cornell Engineering is its diversity. The College is the most culturally diverse at Cornell and is approximately 50% women at the undergraduate level.  Other important aspects of cultural diversity in the classroom, face-to-face or online, are individual identities such as sexuality, or socio-economic situation.

Each of these aspects of diversity enriches our community. Thoughtfully considering and integrating the experience of a diverse student body into your learning environment will result in the greatest gains, but is not easy. Thus, the care you take in creating a respectful, integrated socially and intellectually inclusive classroom, online or face-to-face, is the key to facilitating great learning!

Opportunities accompany online inclusion

Working online may take some of the pressure off a student whose first language is not English. The online environment can help to equalize participation and allow shy or reserved, or socially anxious students to respond in writing and through asynchronous tasks. The online environment allows expression with some autonomy. If we, especially those of us who are new to online teaching and learning, can focus on the opportunities, we will likely be more successful and convey that positivity to our students, many of whom are unwilling participants in this global experiment as well.

Recognize and avoid ‘Microaggressions’

Caution must be taken to avoid unconscious biases in our wonderfully diverse classrooms. Even subtle unconscious biases can lead to detrimental outcomes for self-confidence, learning, and motivation for those who are on the receiving end. For more reading on respecting and valuing diversity and inclusion in our community and learning environments please visit Cornell CTI – Building inclusive classrooms. Here you will find resources that include practices for inclusivity, suggestions for how to respond to an incident that includes bias or other behavior that influences the teaching environment and students in it.

Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults that potentially have harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group” Sources: Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000.

To avoid microaggressions:

This link will take you to an excellent pdf about microaggressions and how to avoid them.

This link will take you to an article that has excellent advice for responding to microaggressions in the classroom.

Here are some practical reminders to help create an inclusive climate in the online learning environment:

  • Re-read carefully your written instruction and scenarios: the written medium (as in online posting) is one that is more open to interpretation than speaking to students in a face to face environment where body language and eye contact can be critical cues.
  • Know students’ names and how to pronounce them. Review your class roster. You will have more difficulty seeing your students online, and thus it will be even more valuable to review the roster with pictures of the students. Avoid slang and idiomatic expressions in written and spoken language for improved understanding.
  • Beginning of your semester, and regularly thereafter, provide opportunities for students to get to know each other online through activities that are intentionally structured for that, or through opportunities for students to work in ‘breakout rooms’ on constructing knowledge, and ask that they begin with a fun introduction of themselves.
  • Breakout rooms are inherently social. Some students with social anxiety may find them stressful.  Encourage camera use so students can see each other, but also allow cameras not to be used if it feels uncomfortable for any participant (this can apply to all synchronous zoom meetings).  Additionally, allow participants opportunities to respond in writing rather than speaking in breakouts if it will reduce anxiety.
  • Speak clearly and naturally, at moderate speed. Remember, some students are taking notes as you speak, just as they do in face-to-face class. Remember that English is not the first language of all your learners.
  • Deal with issues of disrespectful behavior (and microaggressions) in any student interactions ‘off-line’ but immediately, e.g. the instructor may choose to email a student with concerns.
  • Keep your own tone clear, concise and polite during written and oral feedback to students.
  • Provide students the opportunity to work in mixed groups (with respect to language differences) to help each other as often as possible.

Remember compassion for yourself, your students, and the whole community

No one saw this coming, and you are not expected to be an immediate expert in online teaching and learning!  Setting the stage by creating a welcoming and inclusive environment is the key to being able to try some new engaging techniques using online tools and practices.  Remember too: always keep a growth mindset for yourself as you grow your skillset, and the learners in your class. Help them keep that same mindset for their own challenges!

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: How to use lecture effectively and make more space for active learning (face-to-face and online)

All the focus (and accumulating data) on the value of “active learning” and “student-centered” practices for retention and higher order thinking skills, could leave the majority of educators with a more traditional experience feeling frustrated and confused and at a loss about how to change things up. This frustration might be compounded by the fact that for the near future, this will, to some degree, need to happen in a new environment – online.

While times are gradually changing, lecture is still the dominant mode of information delivery in higher education.  For most faculty members, teaching assistants and peer educators, an entire educational experience has been spent sitting in lectures.  Sometimes we listened with rapt attention to an excellent lecturer, and sometimes we nodded off early in the morning or fought with our closing eyelids when we didn’t sleep enough the night before, or were listening while a not-so-excellent lecturer droned on like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Success in our traditional education systems has been essentially synonymous with success in the lecture environment.  Faculty and teaching assistants might reasonably ask:  If it worked for me, why change it? However, US Census Bureau numbers in 2018 state that only 13% of Americans have a degree beyond the bachelors level.  The point is that ‘we’ in higher education represent a fairly narrow slice of the population.  More and more studies show that learning is a complex psycho-social-neurological process and there are broad norms of reaction for what motivates and engages learners and what results in retention and integration of information into knowledge and skills.  Improving learning outcomes for all students takes a toolbox with a variety of tools to choose from.  Lecture is one of these tools. Universal Design for Learning (UDL https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/designing-your-course/universal-design-learning) is the overarching directive for creating inclusive and successful learning environments. In simple terms it means considering the broad array of learners’ needs, mixing it up, and strengthening our strategies to get ALL students feeling welcome and involved. This creates equity and improves overall learning outcomes.

Rather than a focus on replacing lecture, this post will discuss situations in which lecture may be exactly right teaching tool, share some of its limitations, and suggest ways it can be introduced or followed by active learning practices that allow students to take ‘transmitted information’ (from lecture or reading or video) and interact with it and with each other.  Finally, we will provide some practitioner ideas and tools, and share some resources for making this happen in the face-to-face and online environments.

The best use of lecture

Lecture is one important option for disseminating information to large audiences, and covering the most information in the least amount of time. It does not allow processing of information for higher order thinking, nor the reflection, application, and linking of concepts. Here are some great uses for lecture:

  • Introducing new concepts for the first time.
  • Just-in-time lecture chunks can be used as an intervention to clarify complex topics or explain difficult ideas when it is clear learners are not getting the right ‘take-home’ message.
  • Summarizing a topic or showing a ‘synthesis’ of various bits of information from multiple sources.
  • Providing a rationale and/or learning objectives for the material and topics being studied, linking it to current or relatable topics of personal interest for the learner audience.
  • Helping prioritize topics or ideas in terms of importance.
  • Engaging, passionate lecture chunks can build interest. Enthusiasm goes a long way to generate interest in many learners: it is contagious.
(Some ideas adapted from https://ctl.iupui.edu/Resources/Teaching-Strategies/Tips-for-Making-Lectures-More-Active)

Why are lectures alone, not terribly effective for retention and development of higher order thinking skills?

Even teaching assistants and peer educators find the allure of sharing their knowledge as lecture irresistible. Among other reasons for this are that they 1) have been personally successful in this familiar format, and 2) that they really learn the material by explaining it to others (lecture).  The first of these rationales underscores the need for sharing peer-reviewed research outcomes with larger sample sizes and greater diversity of learners to help underscore that personal experiences, while important, are anecdotal and should not be the basis for our pedagogical choices as educators. The second is the strongest argument possible for incorporating active learning into classrooms.  Active, student-centered learning creates situations where learners explain what they know to other learners or to the professor and, in doing so, they learn better. For many learners, studies have shown that the information retained from lecture compared to interacting with course materials in other ways is significantly lower.

This quote from Schmidt et al, 2015, pg 14, is one basic explanation for why lecture may not be as effective as we would like it to be as a teaching tool:

“Implicit to conventional lecturing is the idea that information can be directly transmitted from one person to another. The other person then stores the information as communicated by the sender, and what is transmitted is remembered, provided the receiver pays attention. This is a misconception because the human mind does not work as a receiver. Students have to do something with the information to enable them to remember and use it in the future.
 They have to be able to elaborate upon the information using their prior knowledge, to rephrase the information in their own words, to discuss the information with other students or with the teacher, to explain what is learned to others, to apply the information to a problem. All these activities help students storing the information in memory for long-term use. This is because our memory is constructive.” https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2015.11.010

Lecture is a tool in the toolbox, though more and more studies show its limitations for inclusive learning.  Let’s consider how lecture can be reduced, ‘chunked’, and integrated with an array of active learning tools.

Engaging students while introducing or summarizing topics or concepts

  • Before a lecture chunk – Ask students to access their notes from last lecture and review concepts, complete a calculation if that is the nature of the material, and be prepared to share brief summaries, answers, and ideas (follow up with lecture clarifying the concepts, solving the problem, before moving on).
  • Before a lecture chunk – Create a prompt for students to discuss to generate ideas or determine their pre-existing knowledge about a new topic (follow up with asking pairs or groups to share out their ideas and then summarizing with a short lecture on the new topic)
  • Between two lecture chunks – Use an electronic or other sort of anonymous poll (low stakes) to get students thinking about a topic, or reviewing old material. These can be used at several points in a class but best not to overdo any one thing
  • After a lecture chunk or set of short lectures – Have students create mini-concept maps using topics and terms to help them articulate the connections among ideas discussed.
    • Best done with pairs or small groups (sitting next to each other, or in breakout rooms online) to share what they remember. This creates a learning opportunity.
    • Time for this will vary depending on how deeply one wants the learners to go, or how large the topic.
    • In the online environment, breakout rooms on zoom or other venues take a bit more time to get into and out of, so one must account for that. (Follow up with prepared lecture and take-home points.)

Creating buy-in from students and incorporate their interest and feedback into the learning environment

  • Before starting a class – Invite students to share their interest or lack of it in the topics you will cover. Challenge them to share their reasoning. Be sure they differentiate between things they enjoy, and things they believe will have value to them.
  • Before you begin a course or the set of topics –  Share the course learning objectives explicitly with learners and have them read, discuss and share their own additional goals that might be ones you could also facilitate (this can be done online between synchronous classes early in the semester or on an objective by objective basis .

Getting students working with each other and the content, on the content

  • After a lecture ‘chunk’ – Have Students Apply or Restate Content (can be done individually, and are very strong in small groups or pairs)
    • Ask students to write down at least one possible, real-world application for what they have just learned.
    • Ask students to create an explanation of a concept in their own words
    • One Sentence Summaries. At the end of the discussion/lecture chunk, have students summarize the overall concepts in a one-sentence format: Who did what to/for whom, when, where, how, and why?
  • Before or after lecture chunks –  there are so many ways to do this, with and without providing prompts or materials.  There is overlap here with the first part of this blog section ‘engaging students while introducing or summarizing…’.

For more specific suggestions, access this great link with some additional, detailed tools for getting student working together in various ways. No sense reinventing the whole wheel here. https://ctl.iupui.edu/Resources/Teaching-Strategies/Tips-for-Making-Lectures-More-Active)

Collecting feedback from your learners

All the following are versions of the ‘minute paper’ that asks students to reflect and share what they learned, what they did not quite learn, and how they felt about what they learned. At the close of the class time, ask students to share (either on paper, or on a discussion board of the LMS or other communication media) before they leave the class:

  • Something they learned
  • Something they need clarification on
  • What was most interesting for them and why
  • What is a question you have about the material
  • How well did we meet the stated learning objectives for this class? (Likert-scale with required rationale)

(Some ideas adapted from https://ctl.iupui.edu/Resources/Teaching-Strategies/Tips-for-Making-Lectures-More-Active)

Transferring these practices to online 

The COVID epidemic and new education models (both online and hybrid courses) make it imperative that we also discuss these course design planning opportunities for online teaching and learning. Remembering this emergency situation means faculty are working to adapt the materials in place for face-to-face courses so that they can be delivered remotely and in some cases in a hybrid version of the same. This is not the same as taking months to fully develop all the structure that supports an online course.

The best things about face-to-face learning are what make the best remote teaching and are even more critical in the online environment.  More than face-to-face teaching, facilitators should prioritize:

Clearly stated and consistent expectations

    • What do you expect of students with respect to showing up, engaging in discussion boards, working in groups or participating in online chats, breakouts, polls or other tools. (the caveat here is that for those still working from family homes or other living spaces, flexibility and compassion are paramount – this is not an easy balance, but really matters).
    • What are the learning objectives for the semester, and for each topic or class meeting
      • Studies have shown that sharing learning objectives with students help them know where they are expected to go, and what they are expected to learn.
    • What can be expected of you as the learning facilitator
      • When will synchronous lectures or discussions be held.
      • What options are there for make-up times.
      • What are the options for learners in different time zones.
      • When will assignments will be posted and due.
      • How different activities and participation will be incorporated into the grade.

Varied options to communicate, listen and reach out – the human component is harder to get across in online learning and is what students who choose face-to-face learning miss the most!

    • Let student know when you will be available
      • Be sure students know when and how they can reach teaching staff and be sure that teaching staff adhere to being there.
      • Have both synchronous and asynchronous options regularly for learners to check in, and for you to reach out and ask how it is going
      • Prioritize this more than you might do in a face-to-face scenario, when students can stop after class, come early or find you more easily to ask questions.

Opportunities online for providing feedback, challenges, and ideas

  • Feedback can be about
    • Content – how well learners are understanding different topics
    • How they are doing with the online environment.
    • What learners are having trouble with and what might help them (accessible google docs work well for this, as long as they are monitored weekly)

A variety of ways to be active and engaged during synchronous zoom or other real-time teaching platform

  • Here is where we circle back to the middle of this post “Planning for active learning in your course” and put them to work as you chunk up the lecture portion and add these options in using zoom tools (chat, breakouts, annotating, white boards) or other add-ons like poll everywhere (easy download and links to power point).

This blog (link below) has excellent and practical tips and elements for structure of your online learning environment. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2020/4/student-centered-remote-teaching-lessons-learned-from-online-education

If active learning is new to you, remember, there are many ways to include simple practices.  Start slow, try one, see how it goes.  Once you find out what works for you, add another.  Don’t give up.  Study after study has shown the value of including opportunities for engaging students through active learning. This engagement is even more critical for online learning. Be warned that quite a bit of research has shown some students are resistant to it, while at the same time showing that it promotes higher scores and deeper learning!  The change to active learning is as challenging for students at first as it is for facilitators. Ultimately, we know that lecture is tried and true and has value.  Adding in these other pieces will improve student learning and can happen gradually.  So, take baby steps and there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater!

The College of Engineering at Cornell has webinars and helpful tools as well (https://www.engineering.cornell.edu/MTEI/information-teaching-remotely) as does the Center for Teaching Innovation ( https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/engaging-students). Don’t forget the Zoom website as well.



Four Undergraduate Researchers Share their Work and Illustrate the Indisputable Value of the Experience

 “My research experience taught me how to organize and complete my own experiment. I was able to follow my curiosity and learn all aspects of experimental design.”  – Daniel Pyrek, Environmental Engineering
“The research experience with a great mentor, … was one of the most valuable learning opportunities at Cornell.”- Hyoann Choi, Biological Engineering


For undergraduates, doing research with the guidance and support of a qualified mentor is one of the most engaging and impactful learning opportunities available. Participating in well-mentored authentic research, exposes students to all levels of cognitive difficulty: remembering facts, explaining concepts and theories, linking them together and, ultimately, applying those more complicated constructs to a novel problem. In some cases, this results in the creation of new conceptions and products. Very often, it results in the development of practical skills, and new research questions and /or hypotheses – all excellent outcomes for both mentor and student!

Reading the literature, proposal writing, presenting one’s own idea development to a supportive research team, preparing iterative written drafts of papers and posters, are aspects of the research process that integrate evidence-based education practice: reflection, metacognition, and feedback. Ultimately these clarify thought processes and improve communication skills.

Jaqueline Wong does UG research“In addition to learning about environmental chemistry, computational toxicology and laboratory skills, I found myself becoming a much better written and oral communicator.” – Jacqueline Wong, Environmental Engineering 
“I have grown in my ability to gather information, develop experiments, and analyze and convey my results concisely.” – Rebecca Green, Materials Science and Engineering

Mentored undergraduate research is a powerful coalescence of practices, the gains from which create critical thinkers and life-long learners and can jump start motivation and spur college students into their specific career directions.

“I learned “to learn”. Every learning requires patience and consistency. I believe that the learning ability as well as the knowledge and technical skills I developed through the experience will be a firm foundation for my subsequent career path to graduate school.”Hyoann Cho
“Undergraduate research has strengthened my belief that affordable access to safe drinking water is a fundamental right, and has furthered my interest in pursuing a career in environmental engineering” – Jacqueline Wong

Through our Undergraduate Research Grants program, Engineering Learning Initiatives is committed to facilitating the tremendous learning opportunities of an undergraduate research experience for as many Cornell engineering students as possible. Each semester and summer, engineering undergraduates and their mentors submit joint proposals that are reviewed by an academic committee. The College supports as many projects as possible through a variety of funding sources, including gifts from college alumni and from corporate partners. This year the program supported 98 undergraduates, from across all engineering majors, in faculty-mentored research.

Typically the students have a chance to share their research with the college community at a spring poster session in Duffield Hall. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, we were unable to hold the poster session this past spring. Thus, students missed this valuable opportunity to celebrate the outcomes of their research effort and dedication and showcase their projects.

Here we highlight four spring 2020 graduates who opted to share their research outcomes and  experiences for this post. These undergraduates, working to clean up the environment at home and abroad while studying materials science and environmental engineering, and to advance medical research through biological engineering, are some of the great examples of young innovators heading into the world and workforce from Cornell Engineering. They have tested the waters of research and discovery, and persisted through challenges and setbacks, with the guidance and support of their mentors. They are ultimately prepared to continue on from their time here at Cornell, to bring their convictions and skills to bear on the vexing problems of our society and our world.

What follows is an introduction to each researcher, a brief reflection of the research experience, and a link to follow to the abstract and additional research material. We invite you to follow the provided link to read and leave comments for these newly-graduated Cornell Engineers and their mentors on each page!!


Jacqueline Wong, Environmental Engineering

Jaqueline Wong does UG research


Title: Exploring the use of biochar to remove target pesticides from drinking water in Honduras

Mentor: Professor Damian E. Helbling, Civil and Environmental Engineering

“Through the ELI program, I investigated how biochar can be used as a low-cost adsorbent for pesticide removal in drinking water treatment plants in Honduras… It has been an absolute pleasure conducting research through the ELI program, learning from role models in the research group, and becoming a mentor to future undergraduate researchers.”

See Jacqueline’s abstract and more about her research by clicking here


Rebecca Green,  Materials Science and Engineering

Title: Synthesis of Monodisperse Spinel Oxide Core-Shell Nanoparticles

Mentor: Professor Richard D. Robinson, Materials Science and Engineering

Funding from corporate partner, Phillips 66.

“This project was an excellent introduction to laboratory work, especially colloidal nanoparticle synthesis, and data analysis. I have grown in my ability to gather information, develop experiments, and analyze and convey my results concisely.”

See Rebecca’s abstract and more about her research by clicking here


Hyoann Choi. Biological Engineering

Title: Optimization of small-intestine-on-chip

Mentor: Professor Esak Lee, Biomedical Engineering

“Especially, biological research needs tremendous patience and consistency in the face of multiple failures and ambiguity.  Although this may sound exhausting, the process is actually very fun and satisfying once you have a supportive mentor and colleagues. That was my case. I am pretty excited for it!”

See Hyoann’s abstract and more about her research by clicking here


Daniel Pyrek. Environmental Engineering

Title: Cayuga Lakes Harmful Algal Bloom problem: Rapid field monitoring toolkit

Mentor: Professor Ruth Richardson, Civil and Environmental Engineering

“This project will have significant implications on how communities test lake water for the harmful Microcystis cyanobacteria. This experience was incredibly rewarding. I will never look at lake water the same way!”



See Daniel’s abstract and more about his research by clicking here

A Peer Educator Reflects on Personal Decisions, Challenges and the Importance of Inclusivity in the Transition to Online Learning when COVID 19 Changed our Worlds

Graduating Engineering senior, Camelia Wu, considered her options when it was time to decide where to live after the Cornell Campus was closed due to COVID 19.  She chose to return home to New Jersey.  Though she lived off campus, and could decide to stay in Ithaca, she was without a vehicle, friends were all in isolation, and so she decided that the best option was working on her final college disciplinary work and on facilitating AEW workshops from her parents’ home. As we all did, college students had a lot to process very quickly.  When Camelia was asked via discussion thread to create an analogy about what it felt like, as an AEW Facilitator, to transition your workshop sessions to an online mode.  Here is what she wrote:

“(it was like)…when I first moved to the United States. After moving, I needed to get used to a new lifestyle with a different language, food selection, friend group with different backgrounds, and so on. I had to find a new flow in my social and general everyday life. It was kind of like how I used to have a good flow for how to conduct the AEW sessions in person, but had to find new online teaching tools to achieve a new flow in the virtual AEW sessions. Both involved a lot of flexibility, empathy for others, and curiosity to explore new things.”

Living at home, reconsidering everyone’s roles, thinking about internships that are likely to be substantially reduced or altered, if not completely cancelled, and considering job options as a graduating senior are a few other personal/professional concerns. These say nothing about the lost social aspects of college and being a senior: the celebrations, the kudos, the final presentations and the all-important ‘goodbyes’. Camelia shared some of her own sadness and how she attempted to cope with the abrupt nature of the transition:

“This fast transition made it kind of sad for me because I am a graduating senior, so it was disappointing to leave campus without being able to do everything that I had planned. I had been pushing off a lot of things, but I now regret that decision. It also cut short my time with my friends, some of whom I was not able to meet before leaving. Before I left, I decided to at least write a message, make a card, or leave something for my closest friends at Cornell to show them my appreciation and hopefully reminisce on some of the good memories…”

AEW facilitators have a rare opportunity to share thoughts about this emergency online transition to teaching and learning.  Facilitators are undergraduate students and experiencing their own course transitions, in addition they are peer educators struggling to stay positive, flexible and apply best practices for online learning in their AEW sessions. Camelia appreciated that students and instructors were respectful and used icebreakers that allowed students to share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds. The game encouraged students to also be inclusive and find common ground.

As a student: she expressed thanks for her professors who were role models for the transition to online teaching practices.

“… It gave me a lot more respect for the professors who were trying to deal with this transition. In fact, some of my amazing professors were an example to me when I had to provide this transition for the AEWs…”
“ I felt that some of the professors were even sadder than we were for the missed class time and senior celebrations… they had to suddenly readjust the course to completely virtual classes. Overall, I appreciated their genuine effort and still learned a lot.”

As an AEW Facilitator: Learning the names of people in her AEW workshops, (and pronouncing them correctly) was a practice she used in her own peer education to make all feel included regardless of their different backgrounds. Camelia also shared other practices she and her co-facilitator, Matt Ziron, used to address engagement and create inclusivity in the new teaching venue:

“Being respectful and flexible to students who are under different time zones. For example, this may include using different contact methods, recording course material, or posting material in multiple places to make sure everyone has access.
“We sent out a few surveys and polls to find out best times, how to share the course material, deliver the lecture portion, and use Slack. The responses gave us a lot of direction for what to do.”
“… There was overall a very open and accepting environment and going online did not change that. One specific situation that Matt and I had to deal with was one overseas student with limited access and a different time zone. We tried to be flexible and discussed with her alternative ways to participate, recorded the lecture portions, and posted the AEW material in multiple places to make sure that she had the proper access. As a result, based on what she said in the email communication, she was able to stay updated”.

Finally, Camelia considered the occasional poor practices she experienced and why these actions make students feel uncomfortable and promote exclusion rather than inclusion. For instance, when students or the TAs are more familiar with one another and start going about some everyday conversation.

“inside jokes or personal conversations … may make other students feel left out or unhappy that it seems off topic. They are still important to address to build relationships with the students and help them on a more personal level, but it should not take class time from everyone else or suggest favoritism.”

As if there wasn’t enough work to do, Camelia and her peers on the eboard for a student organization called the Language Expansion Program decided to keep meeting to maintain that community for students who wanted to continue to share language learning.

“… I found these conversation hours very relaxing and enjoyed sharing jokes in different languages and fun facts about those languages. I think my zoom training as an AEW facilitator helped me learn how to better organize and set up these language meetings.”

Finishing her reflection on a happy note, this extra commitment turned out to be one of those personal social activities, albeit remote, that provided Camelia with some of what was lost when the physical community was no longer available on campus and she chose to head home to New Jersey. It eased the stress and feeling of disconnect from her home at Cornell.  This was, and is, a challenging time, and also one of immense growth, especially for graduating seniors who are both students and peer educators.  This resilient young professional learned how to negotiate new circumstances, to experience and facilitate inclusive learning in a new environment, and very successfully complete her college career. Congratulations Camelia, and thank you for your insights!