Faculty Spotlight: Alfredo Spagna and Eunjoo Byeon on Re-Imagining Psychology Lectures as Spaces for Active Learning and Collaboration

by | May 20, 2020

Alfredo Spagna headshotAlfredo Spagna, Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychology and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Neuroscience and Behavior, wanted to create a class environment that closely resembles a real-world research setting where collaboration and cooperation are key to discoveries. As a recipient of the Innovative Course Design award, funded by the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Innovation, Alfredo designed the new course Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology to help fill a gap in the Psychology department’s existing curriculum and foster this kind of collaborative space and thinking. 

Working closely with the CTL and Eunjoo Byeon, a student in the School of Professional Studies’ post-baccalaureate program in Psychology, Dr. Spagna used a blended learning approach to emphasize active and critical thinking skills to help prepare students for future research. In winter 2020, the course enrolled 40 undergraduate students, most of whom are sophomore or junior Psychology or Neuroscience and Behavior majors. 

We caught up with Alfredo and Eunjoo to talk about the process of designing a blended or “flipped” course from scratch, how the class is going, and how this approach had some unintended benefits during the abrupt shift to remote teaching during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

 

 

Describe the blended/hybrid learning approach. What activities, tools, or strategies have been particularly helpful for student learning? 

We wanted to encourage students to develop their own knowledge base and to apply it to collectively solve problems. Therefore, we replaced the conventional in-class lecture with online learning of the most important material from the textbook, which students watched outside of class. This freed our in-class time for small and large group discussions as well as for individual activities. The online activities lay the groundwork for in-class activities, and involve watching short video lectures with transcripts and timestamps, answering quizzes on that week’s content, and reading literature and classic neuropsychology case-studies. 

In-class activities we developed include various active learning components that can be flexibly adapted and incorporated by the Teaching Team, which includes myself, Ms. Byeon, and two other TAs, Basak Akdogan and Andrea Fields. Such activities include using Poll Everywhere, the Audience Responses System that prompts knowledge-based questions, group discussions about the case-study assigned for that week, and interactions with guest speakers working in the related field of neuropsychology.

Having a combination of ways to engage with the course material and ideas has been beneficial for students with different strengths and learning preferences, and has given all students a chance to be included. For example, the short videos allow students to go at their own pace through the technical and foundational knowledge; they can re-watch, they have the transcripts, they can make their own notes and study guide. For students who come into the course confident in their own learning and study habits, we found they really enjoy and respond to the guest speakers. They like the interaction with lecturers and people from other universities who share what they are doing. Those were the students that asked a ton of questions, and even asked for their emails to follow up after class. And then there is a third type of student who enjoys the in class discussion component.

Overall, we’ve also found that students have embraced the weekly knowledge checks and Poll Everywhere questions. I think that’s because students like to see where they are, and how their understanding of the course material actually levels with what the course requires of them. It gives them very low stakes, but important information. 

 

How has the implementation process been?

This is a new course we developed from scratch, so the process of creating a new hybrid course has been really interesting. To make sure that the implementation was smooth and that every component was actually achieving what we imagined in the development phase, the Teaching Team has been meeting once every week right after class to share our thoughts and go over what worked, what didn’t work, and what we should change

It was a great learning experience for me, as an instructor, to receive constant feedback from the TAs, as well as from our students, about potentially new strategies to improve in-class and online learning.

One benefit of such a modular approach is that we can review student performance and progress each week and for each activity. This allowed us to continuously adapt and improve our class, and to identify areas that we should spend more time on. 

 

This is a new way of teaching for you, but also for your students. How did they react to this new approach?

They were scared at first, but now many of them just love it. We have so much time to spend in class for high-level discussion. They are not only learning the usual textbook material, but also are developing creative skills to apply this knowledge to solving practical problems. Moreover, they are learning to do this in a collaborative environment, which is something I’m sure they will find useful in their future career paths.

We have learned that communication is especially important to success in this type of class environment. Setting up the expectations and explaining very clearly how the course is structured and how they can achieve their best potential is key.

This graphic shows the structure of the flipped course, and outlines the different modes of engagement that students participate in throughout the semester. This was made available to students in the course syllabus, in CourseWorks, and discussed during the first day of class. It has been updated to reflect University impact from the Coronavirus.  

 

Do you have any advice for other faculty who are considering blending their courses?

First thing: it’s totally doable! The main thing that I’d recommend is MANAGE YOUR TIME. Planning the course is time-consuming, and creating the material for the delivery can also be challenging as it adds on your workload of the previous semester (or during summer months). But then, the delivery portion of the course is just amazing, because in every class we have all the time to create new content and to think critically about the material. 

The interactive nature of the hybrid course makes it easier to track individual students’ progress, which is incredibly rewarding and helpful to see. It’s just amazing, and looking at the creative process of the students’ minds is something that I find very rewarding. Totally recommended!

Being flexible and open to feedback is also helpful. We asked students for feedback and made changes based on that. For example, we heard that the more animated the videos were, the easier it was for students to follow along; they equated animated parts of the videos with having more importance, so as we produced more video content we kept that in mind. We also experimented with the discussion format, style, and management as we got a better sense of the dynamics of the class and as students got to know each other as the course progressed. So just being willing to adjust and being ok if it starts off a bit slow is important.  

 

Everyone has been impacted by the move to remote teaching and learning. What has that move looked like in the context of this course?

The way we thought about the course in general was so flexible that we could really re-imagine how things worked immediately. You can do Poll Everywhere, you can do discussion, you can watch a video; you can change everything on a day to day basis. I think it can work online. Most of the content is asynchronous and then class time is used for the higher level work that the students enjoy. 

Compared to the other classes I was teaching, this one has given me the least stress. Because I knew that the textbook content was covered in the online portion, I didn’t have to worry that my students weren’t going to learn anything because of the current situation. 

Another thing that has gone smoothly with the transition is administering our assessments. Because the focus shifted from testing textbook knowledge to discussions and higher level problem solving, we are less concerned about trying to control academic integrity. It’s difficult to cheat on the exams because they’re geared toward higher level and critical thinking abilities. And we already have a measure of basic recall through the knowledge checks online and Poll Everywhere questions in class. We know what they know.   

Based on the success of the course in the online format, Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology has been approved for the Summer term. We are looking forward to continuing to work with Dr. Spagna and Ms. Byeon to develop and evaluate this new approach.