Professor Ivana Hughes Shares Small Teaching Changes with a Big Learning Impact

by | Sep 29, 2017

Professor Ivana Hughes

Ivana Hughes, Director of Frontiers of Science and Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Chemistry, will be featured in an upcoming faculty panel at the Center for Teaching and Learning on Thursday, October 5 titled Small Teaching Changes, Big Impact: Science Faculty Report on their Practices.

All members of the Columbia community are invited to attend. Participants will learn about active learning strategies being used in Columbia University classrooms, engage in conversation with the faculty panelists, and share their strategies with colleagues.

Ahead of the event, Hughes shares a few small changes she made to her teaching that led to big impacts on her students’ learning.

What do you teach at Columbia? Tell us about your classroom environment.

I teach and direct Frontiers of Science. As the director of the course, I work with the course faculty on the development of the curriculum, which is delivered in two formats: a large lecture for about 550 students and small seminars for about 20 students each. I also teach my own seminars. Students in Frontiers of Science are by and large first-year students in Columbia College, although we have some General Studies students each semester, as well as a handful of second-year Columbia College students.

What teaching or learning challenge did you encounter while teaching your course?

One of the biggest challenges (and joys!) of teaching Frontiers of Science is having a mix of students across the spectrum of preparation in the sciences. This is a challenge because one wants to ensure that they are not boring well-prepared students, but at the same time, not scaring away those with less preparation. However, this challenge also presents an enormous opportunity to have students learn by working together. This kind of interaction benefits not only those seeking help, but also those who provide it. As every teacher will undoubtedly confirm, you can only be sure that you truly understand something after you have explained it to someone else. This is a message we seek to convey to students, and put into action both inside and outside the classroom.  

What small changes did you make to address this challenge?

I will describe two changes, one that we have implemented course-wide in Frontiers of Science, and another that I utilize during small group work in my own seminars.

The first change pertains to a program we started about a year ago, and which we call the FroSci Ambassador program. After a couple of weeks in the course, when students have had a chance to dig into the course material and complete a few assignments, we ask for volunteers to be FroSci Ambassadors. These students feel comfortable with the course material, and volunteer to make themselves available in their dorm at a specified time during the week to help peers in the class with class assignments and questions about content and/or skills covered in the course. We advertise those hours by email and on our Courseworks Calendar (and social media). We have received very positive feedback from students who have been involved thus far. We started the program based on feedback from a group of students we met with to discuss the course.

The second change pertains to how I run some of the small group activities in my seminars. There are times when my students are working in pairs to solve problems that may come easily to some, and be very difficult for others. So rather than have pairs that breeze through the problems, and pairs that don’t know where to begin, I put a question to the class: “Who thinks that the task before them will be easy, and who thinks that it will be difficult?” Then I pair students up such that students who think that the task will be easy can now help those who think that the task will be difficult. The room typically buzzes with excitement.

Interested in learning more strategies for forming effective student teams? Register for our upcoming workshop, “Team-Based Learning 101: Group Work that Works” on Monday, October 2 at noon in Butler Library Room 212.

Why was this small change effective?

Both of the above changes take advantage of the collaborative and teamwork-based model of learning, as well as the students-as-teachers model. Students receiving help take ownership of their own learning and find learning from peers comforting and non-threatening. Students providing help feel valuable, and recognize that the process strengthens their own learning and understanding.  

Related Resources

Stockwell, B.R., Stockwell, M.S., and Jiang, E. (2017). Group Problem Solving in Class Improves Undergraduate LearningACS Central Science. 3(6), pp. 614-620.

Barkley, E.; Major, CH.; Cross, K.P. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.