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Professor Christopher Munsell, MSRED

Glascock Associate Professor of Professional Practice of Real Estate Development Finance at Columbia 

Professor Munsell teaches courses in real estate finance for the Master of Science in Real Estate Development program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The courses are part of a one-year, three-semester, full-time program. Professor Munsell’s courses range in size from 10 students (for electives) up to 170 students (for core classes). With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Professor Munsell had to rethink engagement and connection in these large courses for a fully online setting. Professor Munsell met the moment by being responsive to students’ emergent needs and encouraging them to engage with and take advantage of available opportunities and resources. Read on to learn more about what Professor Munsell did in his courses, what lessons and experiences he is carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.

Be Responsive to Students’ Emergent Needs 

I was fortunate enough to participate in the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Active Learning Institute (ALI) during the pandemic. The combination of what I learned during the ALI experience, including the integration of technology to the classroom, was crucial to changing my courses to make the learning environment better for students. 

Provide additional support to students through tutorials. 

One thing I did during the pandemic was sit down and really consider how students who aren’t as extroverted can engage with the material, as well as how they can engage with the material asynchronously. I recognize that if students and I cannot be together in the classroom, there are limited opportunities for them to learn and engage. Class participation is also a challenge for students, and I think it’s even more difficult in the Zoom environment. I began organizing outside tutorials for students to help them overcome the limitations stemming from the remote learning environment.  

When I started these tutorials during the pandemic, I thought they would maybe happen once or twice a semester, and we would review a technical component. However, by Spring 2021, when I was teaching an elective that was extremely technical, I realized that I had to do it every week either in the form of a lesson plan or extra office hours.

The tutorial was and remains separate from the lecture. However, it is not an extra course – it is my way of providing students with another opportunity to learn. I make an effort to schedule the tutorials at times when I know more students are available. Also, by making it optional, the size of the class reduces to about half, which in turn, helps increase participation. In addition, those who attend are often those who are struggling with the material. This allows me to teach directly to the students who need extra help and ensure they get back on pace with the rest of the class. These tutorials continue to be in high demand, especially for more technical courses.

Solicit anonymous feedback in real time. 

One of the other processes that I integrated into my classes, which I still use today, is anonymous polling. I would create a question like, “What’s your comfort with [insert topic]?” I allow them to respond in one of four ways: “I got it. Let’s move on;” “Makes sense, I think I have it;” “I need clarification and I would like to see it again;” or, “I’m lost, please explain in detail.” I use these polls periodically in class to evaluate students’ learning and pivot my teaching in real time. If I feel a topic is not resonating with students, I might say to myself, “Okay, we’re not going to accomplish learning objective four today and maybe that shifts part of the semester.” This approach helps me keep the material more fluid, so that when I am preparing something like the midterm or final exam, I know which topics we have reviewed in detail. I also use the data from polling to inform what I review in the tutorial sessions. Even though I try to keep the tutorials open, I know that students struggle to come up with specific questions, so I use polling and some of the questions that were submitted to structure the first half of the tutorial. I find that once you get the class warmed up, someone might say, “I didn’t get that part either,” or “I want to see that again.”

I think some folks may be of the older mindset that, if students are in the classroom, they have the opportunity to learn and that if they don’t speak up, that’s their problem. I believe instructors have to be a lot more proactive than that because it evens out in the end with their overall learning. Frankly, even with student feedback, it can be frustrating as a teacher when you ask students, “Do you get this? Do you not get this?” You might not see the true result until the end of the semester. I also found that by implementing these tools, the feedback was very positive, especially to incorporating technology in the classroom.

Support students in their journey. 

Something else that I didn’t do a lot before the pandemic but have started and will continue is to share personal stories and experiences. I try to do this during every class because I think a lot of students struggle with their mental health today. I had students from all walks of life all over the world and I had to remember that while I may be conducting class at a normal teaching time on the East Coast, it could be 4:00 am where they were. There is no need to overshare, but I believe that providing a funny tidbit about something that may have happened on a Zoom call earlier that day or over the weekend can help students relate to us on a more personal level and put them at ease. The dynamics in the professor-student relationship can have a very meaningful impact on how accessible students find their professors, how often they get help, ask for advice, and how supported they feel in their educational and professional journey.

Encourage Students to Engage With and Take Advantage of Available Opportunities and Resources 

Even before the pandemic, I always felt office hours were a time for students to learn more and build relationships with their professors. However, in some other cultures, time with the professor can be seen as scary or something one does only under certain circumstances. I try to de-stigmatize that as much as possible from the outset of class. Simply telling students that things are available to them doesn’t mean they are going to take advantage of them. We need to go one step further. We need to create a warm learning environment that is full of encouragement to help students take advantage of all the resources available to them.

The virtual nature of teaching and learning during the pandemic also made office hours harder to schedule, so I would always look at the program calendar and make an effort to schedule my Zoom office hours during a lull in the day so more students could attend. One feature of Zoom that was very crucial was the Zoom waiting room. I would log on 10 minutes beforehand, let people in one after the other, and then message students about how deep they were in the queue. This method allowed me to easily manage the virtual environment and still maintain that one-on-one time with the students. It is also a way to increase your own accessibility when students are away from campus.

I learned that you should assume nothing; you have to be proactive. You must ask yourself, did I give this student every opportunity? I try to think about it as if someone else was evaluating my efforts. I would want them to walk away with the impression that I couldn’t do anything more to make something more clear or available.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Solicit feedback and listen to your students. 

Make sure that you are listening and taking feedback–don’t just ask yourself if you’re listening. The beauty of all the formative, anonymous assessments is that they are their own form of listening because it’s constant communication. Don’t get me wrong; feedback can be painful and feel very uncomfortable. Everyone’s gotten that critical review that might be tough to hear, but just try to tell yourself that it’s an opportunity to improve and learn how we can all be better professors. And it will pay dividends; it has definitive results.

There have been classes where I thought everything was going great, but the reviews were right there to correct me. I have found that if you really do listen to students, while meeting the learning objectives in the process, you will be blown away by how effective you are. Even when you need to tackle challenging material, but you make yourself available, either with double the office hours or even just making students feel that you are here for them, your students will succeed. You can say things like, “Here are my regular office hours, but I’m in the office all day today,” or just send an extra CourseWorks (Canvas) notification or two, especially during exam time. Empathizing with students and sharing that encouragement will come back tenfold. You’re going to have a student come up to you at the end of the semester and say, “Thank you. I learned a lot, and I got a lot out of that. I use what you taught me every day.” I believe that ultimately, if you’re in education for the right reasons, that’s the best validation you can get.

Keep your teaching student-centered. 

Remember that it’s not about you. Everyone struggles to balance their lives, their classrooms and their own ambitions. The opportunity at Columbia is immense but you must not lose sight of the student perspective. Whenever I create a lesson plan or a new way to teach a specific concept, I ask myself, “What are the students getting out of this? What are they really learning?” I think about this as it relates to the course as a whole, the learning objectives, the lectures, and the homework assignments. If you strive to keep students at the center of everything you do, you–and your students–will always be set up for success.