Alfredo Spagna headshot

Dr. Alfredo Spagna, PhD

Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychology; Director of Undergraduate Studies in Neuroscience & Behavior

Dr. Spagna teaches Intro to Neuroscience (Behavioral and Neuropsychology) lecture courses that enroll 100 undergraduate students, as well as upper-level student-led seminar courses that enroll 12 students including senior undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Spagna has experimented in his lecture courses over the years, redesigning the courses, implementing active learning and collaborative activities (learn more in the Faculty Spotlight: Alfredo Spagna and Eunjoo Byeon on Re-Imagining Psychology Lectures as Spaces for Active Learning and Collaboration), and piloting QuizCon: Online Quizzing with Confidence. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Spagna built on his innovative approaches to ensure that his diverse students could learn from the survey courses. Dr. Spagna met the moment by flipping his classroom and working closely with his teaching team to meet the needs of his students. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Spagna did in his course, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.

Flip the Classroom to Support the Learning of All Students 

During my years of teaching large survey courses, I came to realize that I was working with a diverse pool of students. While most of the enrolled students are Psychology and Biology majors, and pre-med, some are Engineering, Sociology, Philosophy majors, and others are undeclared. The students were at different stages in their learning, bringing different background knowledge to the classroom. Additionally, they were evenly spread across years of study with 25 percent of students in their first, second, third, and fourth years respectively. So while some students had knowledge about neurons others were just starting to learn about them. One question that I asked myself was: how do I balance between these two tensions – difference in background knowledge and the diverse content that needed to be taught in a survey course?

I flipped the Behavioral Neuroscience course to ensure that all my students had the background knowledge before they came to class. The majority of the content is delivered and completed online before class, including watching short videos. Students take low-stakes untimed online quizzes to validate their learning. This approach ensures that all students are prepared when they come to class, and this was particularly relevant during the pandemic when students were responsible for deciding how to complete the course work and organize their schedules. 

Free Class Time From the Tyranny of Content

I freed my course from the tyranny of content by moving course material online, and it allowed me to be creative with the activities we do in class. I thought about my upper level students and how they wanted to be doing more high-level thinking on the content. Students learn better when they are able to apply their knowledge to practical cases and to see the relevance of what they are learning. I used class time to dive more deeply into what students learned from watching the online videos and to engage them in critical thinking, active learning, team-work, in-class assignments, discussions, case students, and information from journal articles. 

Teaching on Zoom was difficult, students could disengage more quickly. However, fostering more active learning approaches circumvented the challenges and students appreciated the design of the course. Additionally, I rethought the course assessments, reducing the weight and relevance of the midterm and final exams to no more than 30 percent of the final grade, thus reducing the anxiety around finals week. 

I use various technologies to engage my students. My students found Ed Discussion to be particularly useful for asynchronous interactions. This user-friendly platform allowed students to post questions, including anonymously, clarify confusion, and to interact with the teaching team. It boosted the amount of content that could be reviewed and helped students before exams. I have used QuizCon in which students respond to questions and indicate their level of confidence in their response, followed by class discussion. During class, I use Poll Everywhere which is useful for more rapid response to keep students in quiz mode and give them real-time feedback on how their learning is going.

Figure 1: Current Instructional Challenges in UN 2450 – Behavioral Neuroscience Course

Work Closely with Your Teaching Team 

I frame my partnership with TAs as a teaching team as we are all engaged in the process of teaching and learning. The team for my lecture courses include one graduate student and two senior undergraduate students that have taken the course before. The undergraduate TAs play a role in building and delivering the assignments, and responding to student questions. During the pandemic, we would meet weekly for between fifteen and sixty minutes to discuss the questions that we were receiving from students, to share insights on how they felt the course was going, and to provide feedback on the delivery of content. I recommend listening to undergraduate TAs as they are a great resource to make courses more accessible and tailored to students. 

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Survey courses benefit from breaking content into small units and assessing the learning after each unit. Trust that students will feel better, learn more, and provide the instructor with a better understanding of what content was unclear. The best way to have students learn is by building our courses in such a way that they foster constant active learning, provide weekly slices of content, and smaller assessment opportunities throughout the course. I invite everyone to go beyond midterm and final exams that stress out students, and instead to build weekly quizzes to measure student learning, and invite students learning as they go. Doing this increases the quality of instruction and learning, it makes students less anxious. 

As an instructor, recognizing that no redesign will work perfectly. It is important to not get discouraged. Every time you innovate or change something it requires testing, fine-tuning and calibrating in the classroom. The process takes time and a few iterations of the course to strike the balance. 

“Emergency” remote teaching was challenging and often did not involve a change in pedagogical approach. We have to recognize the positive aspects that online learning can provide including enhanced access. As a teaching community, we need to engage in discussions on how to enhance teaching and learning environments and to find a balance between online learning and in-class engagement.