Student Spotlight: Jessie Oehrlein, PhD in Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

by | Aug 11, 2021

Jessie Oehrlein completed her Ph.D. in Spring 2021 in the Department of Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics at Columbia University and will be joining the Mathematics Department of Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts as an assistant professor in the fall.  During her time as a doctoral candidate, Jessie served as a Teaching Assessment Fellow (TAF) for the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) from 2019–2021. Teaching Assessment Fellows work closely with the CTL, faculty, and each other to support and assess teaching initiatives, and specifically, to analyze the impact of course redesign efforts of teaching projects proposed by faculty and funded by the Office of the Provost.

In this spotlight, Jessie discusses why she applied to the fellowship program and what she learned from it, including the benefits of working with interdisciplinary teams and peers. She also shares helpful teaching and assessment strategies for instructors that she has incorporated into her own classroom. 

“…as a TAF, the assessment skills I’ve learned from my peers, whether those were skills they already had from their disciplinary backgrounds or ones they developed from their projects, have given me a wider toolbox for understanding what’s happening in my own classroom than I could have developed on my own.”

Jessie Oehrlein, PhD in Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics
Role at the CTL: Teaching Assessment Fellow (TAF), 2019-21

What motivated you to apply for the Teaching Assessment Fellowship?

I had spent the previous two years as a regular participant in the CTLGrads Journal Club, in which we read and discussed scholarship of teaching & learning and discipline-based education research literature. I was interested in trying out being on the other side of that. When we try something new in our classrooms, how do we know how it went? What aspects might we be interested in measuring or exploring, and how do we do that well? In Journal Club, we often talked about whether we believed the studies we read, and I had started to develop opinions about what made the studies convincing to me. But it was entirely from the point of view of a reader and educator, not someone actually using these education assessment and research methods. So I applied to the Teaching Assessment Fellowship initially with two goals: to deepen my understanding of teaching assessment work so that I could read the education research literature in a more informed way, and to learn and gain experience in applying assessment methods to evaluate what I was doing in my own classroom in the future.

You have participated in the TAF program for two years. What have you enjoyed most about your work in this program?

I’ve loved working collaboratively with interdisciplinary teams. My main two projects as a TAF (the CTL’s Inclusive Teaching MOOC and a course redesign for Mechanical Engineering Lab I) both had larger teams of folks who really wanted to be involved in the assessment process. So I got to spend a lot of time with people involved in different parts of these projects—faculty, student teaching assistants, CTL learning designers, the CTL TAF mentors—thinking about the data we wanted to collect and exploring the data we had and asking what was interesting, what we wanted to know, what stood out to us. And because we were bringing different backgrounds and different relationships with the courses/projects into the assessment process, our answers to those questions differed and often complemented each other well. I really rediscovered that I like being part of projects that need a variety of expertise, that need many people involved in different ways.

And overall, participating in the TAF program helped me figure out what I enjoy and value in ways I didn’t expect. I like working in interdisciplinary settings, collaborating with other people, working communally even on solo work, teaching statistics, and doing data analysis (both quantitative and qualitative now, thanks to the TAF program!). I prefer to focus on process and skills over content in my teaching. Reflecting on the program at the end of each semester really helped me see these pieces of myself. 

You have had the experience working with faculty on live assessment projects. What was that experience like?

Working with the faculty and other members of the project teams was one of my favorite parts of being a TAF. Initially, there’s a period of trying to learn as much as possible: reading the project proposal, asking the project team questions, figuring out where things stand. I came into one project where data was already collected and ready for analysis; in the other, we were mid-course and still needed to develop some of the assessment instruments. Both years, I was new to some of the assessment methods that we wanted to use, so with the help of the TAF mentors and other TAFs, I was learning those as we went and often then turning around and helping to teach the rest of the project team about those methods. Having the faculty participating in the assessment work meant that their subject matter expertise and teaching approaches could really inform the assessment, and I think that led to more useful results.

And working on live assessment projects was sometimes unpredictable! The assessment process didn’t always go like we had planned or hoped. But we were always still able to collect and analyze multiple kinds of data to get a well-rounded view on student learning and experience of learning in the courses. For example, maybe there were assessment questions we had hoped to answer in a lot of depth with focus groups, but we could still learn something about the answers to those questions from survey data if we changed our approach a bit.

Looking back on your engagements with the CTL, in what ways has interacting with peers strengthened your own teaching practices? 

There are approaches or strategies that I’ve incorporated into my classroom directly as a result of a peer’s emphasis on that approach and how much they’ve shared about it. The example that always comes to mind for me on this front is reflection. I knew that metacognitive work was in many ways where the learning really happens for students, but the push from knowing that and acting on it occasionally to really prioritizing reflection in the classroom was a peer—a peer who had read about and tried out lots of approaches to reflection, who was happy to talk about all of it, who clearly thought it was important, with whom I could work through some of the literature and my own ideas on reflection. But more broadly: observing peers and being observed by peers have directly given me ideas and teaching moves that I use in my own classroom. Discussing teaching and education research with peers has broadened my ideas of what we can do in the classroom—interdisciplinary conversations have been especially helpful on that front—and has helped me to articulate my point of view and practices as an educator. Peers have been the folks with whom I could talk through ideas for a course or lesson or assessment or with whom I could have conversations afterwards to process how things went, and I’ve learned a lot no matter which side of those conversations I was on. And as a TAF, the assessment skills I’ve learned from my peers, whether those were skills they already had from their disciplinary backgrounds or ones they developed from their projects, have given me a wider toolbox for understanding what’s happening in my own classroom than I could have developed on my own.

Additionally, please provide strategies that you use in your own teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice? 

  1. Narrow in on individual skills. I think we can be hesitant to isolate skills that students won’t need to use in isolation, but it can be helpful to focus on one aspect without other pieces increasing cognitive load. I’ve done this most with Parsons problems in teaching computer science courses; these are activities in which students are given jumbled lines of code, as well as some lines they might not use, and work to choose the lines they need and to put them in a working order. It lets students focus exclusively on the logic of the program without having to formulate the syntax on their own. But I’ve thought about these same ideas in teaching math and statistics—when students are first learning something, how can we pare away pieces that aren’t immediately relevant, even if they could do them, to focus their attention and work?
  2. Teach the skills you want students to have or develop. This goes hand in hand with narrowing in on individual skills, but in some ways it comes first—identifying what those individual skills are. In teaching programming, I need to not only help students learn to write programs (which involves both the syntax and logic pieces that I separated out above) but also how to read code and how to debug. In teaching math, I need to teach students to work with different representations (symbolic, visual, etc.) of an idea and also to move across those representations. It’s easy to forget that some of these deeply related skills don’t inherently develop together. I’ve found it useful to ask myself what I hope students will be able to do by the end of a course and then try to name the steps of those process skills in order to figure out what the skills I need to teach really are.
  3. Collect student questions anonymously or non-publicly. I’ve found exit tickets, minute papers, or regular reflection surveys that ask students to share at least one question or confusion to be really useful. Some students are more likely to share questions in that context than in class in front of peers, and for other students it can push them to articulate a confusion or question that they hadn’t pinned down yet. On my side, it lets me see the patterns of questions across the class, and I can build future classes from there, either directly providing the answers to the questions where it makes the most sense or planning activities where students work through those questions or confusions together.
  4. Find ways to iterate quickly(-ish) on your teaching. My early teaching experiences were mostly in short workshops/classes for K-12 students, where I was able to try something, see how it went, and adjust for another run of the same class in a few weeks to a couple of months. I was lucky in that context, but I’ve found microteaching sessions or other kinds of practice with peers to be helpful in similar ways. In those cases, I get to try one new thing out and see how it goes, and then I can talk through it with other folks.
  5. Reflect intentionally on your teaching. This goes along with the iteration piece! I write a lot about how my teaching goes, especially when I’m trying something new, and the process of writing helps me get from whatever jumble of feelings I had about the lesson or course in the immediate aftermath to a record of what I thought worked, what I thought didn’t worked, and what I want to change in the future, all informed by student feedback. I have also found it really useful to have conversations with other folks about this, but I really need the written record that I can come back to later, as well.