Student Spotlight: Ana DiGiovanni, PhD Student, Department of Psychology

by | Oct 11, 2023

Ana DiGiovanni, PhD Student, Department of Psychology
2023 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching
CTL Lead Teaching Fellow and Senior Teaching Assessment Fellow

Ana DiGiovanni was awarded the 2023 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. In this spotlight, she shares what she emphasized about her teaching in the award process, a focus of her teaching and how the CTL helped her pursue that focus, and her experiences in CTL fellowships. Lastly, Ana shares strategies that she uses in her teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice.

What did you emphasize about your teaching in the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching process? 

Because I believe that effective teaching transcends the classroom, in my teaching statement I emphasized the various ways in which I have engaged in teaching and mentorship at the university. Not only have I co-designed and co-taught a class that helps equip students with tangible research skills, but I also co-founded and helped run a summer internship program in psychology that is in its fourth year, and have also mentored dozens of undergraduate students on research projects throughout the school year. Across all of these different experiences, I try to create a safe and inclusive learning environment that is personalized to students’ needs and emphasizes the bidirectional nature of learning. In all of my teaching and mentorship experiences, I learn as much from students as they learn from me, and I encourage students to have a say in the learning that occurs. Open communication is one of the most important things to me, and I strive to create environments where mutual respect is established. Moreover, in both my teaching and mentoring, I let students know that their personal well-being comes first, and this is reflected in lenient deadlines, ungraded assignments, and a generally relaxed and fun atmosphere that I try to bring into the learning environment. As a person who studies dyadic interactions and social support processes, I think I have learned a lot from my own research and that has informed the approaches I take as an educator. 

What is an important focus of your teaching? How has the CTL helped you to pursue that focus? 

I really try to make my teaching and mentoring fun. I think that at a place like Columbia, students can be so overwhelmed with achieving at a high level; striving for the A+, acquiring that prestigious internship, avoiding making mistakes, and so on. As a result, actual learning can get left behind in pursuit of perfection. I try to get students to let go of this desire to be perfect, and the CTL has given me a number of skills that I think make this doable. I use scaffolded approaches for larger assignments, I diversify the way I grade, I implement many ungraded or low-stakes assignments, and I give students the opportunity to share their opinions and life experiences. Students can be hesitant about some of these approaches at first, but I think that if you constantly “show up” as an instructor, and also try to let go of the need to be perfect yourself, students start to really learn along with you, rather than from you. This sort of approach doesn’t work with all students, and I have had to learn to come to terms with that. Some students like a more traditional instructor/mentor and a more traditional classroom, but I think that overall this approach is one that makes both teaching and learning more fulfilling and impactful. 

You have participated in multiple CTL fellowships—can you describe a couple of highlights from those experiences and how they have impacted your work?

Participating in CTL fellowships has honestly been a highlight of graduate school. I can’t sing these fellowships’ praises enough. One of my favorite things about these fellowships is that I get to meet so many people that I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with. Graduate school can be difficult and being siloed into just your department can sometimes also be a challenge for a number of reasons. As a Lead Teaching Fellow (LTF) and Senior Teaching Assessment Fellow (STAF), I was able to not only work alongside amazing CTL staff, but I also worked with graduate students across a range of departments. I really do believe that transdisciplinary work is the way of the future, and getting to hear insights from so many diverse perspectives has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking and teaching. Especially when you teach introductory classes within your discipline (for me, this would be something like the Science of Psychology), you get a ton of students who aren’t actually majoring in your field – it is in these instances where being able to think through the lens of fields other than your own that you are better equipped to teach students who have different ways of knowing. 

Additionally, what are 2 or 3 strategies that you use in your own teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice?

I have become obsessed with scaffolded learning. So many classes will give you a final project or essay that is worth a substantial portion of your grade, and this can often make students really nervous. With scaffolded learning, you introduce portions of the assignment throughout the semester, and students build on their work while receiving feedback throughout the year. Not only does this reduce anxiety, but it also makes students’ final product markedly better. They also are able to see their own growth in a very tangible way, and I think that this is encouraging for students. 

Another thing I have come to really believe in is spending a significant amount of time designing syllabi for classes. I participated in the Innovative Course Design Seminar with the CTL which was such a fun intensive workshop series. At the end, we all had to submit a syllabus for a class we would eventually teach and then received extensive feedback on it. We were meant to think about inclusive design, creating student-centered syllabi, and making the syllabus engaging, among other things. I ended up using what I created in this workshop series for a class I later co-taught, and we actually had students comment on how much they loved the syllabus. I think that when you spend the time making the syllabus a document that students can refer back to throughout the semester, you reduce the number of questions that you might get about different aspects of the class, ultimately making the workload a bit easier for you as an instructor. 

Last, I think giving students the space to talk to each other is really important. Students sometimes don’t love raising their hand and participating in class, but especially given the long-lasting social effects of the pandemic, students really appreciate it when they are given time to discuss topics with others in class through small-group work. This also gives students a break from having to listen to long lectures, which goes a long way in keeping students engaged.