Dr. Denise Cruz, PhD 

Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Chair, Department of English and Comparative Literature

Dr. Denise Cruz teaches large lecture courses of over 100+ undergraduate students, as well as seminar courses for both undergraduate and graduate students. During the Spring 2020 semester, and with the shift to remote teaching, Dr. Cruz had to rethink student engagement and participation in a 100+ lecture course. Dr. Cruz met the moment by leveraging modular-based course design, rethinking modalities of learning, creating opportunities for choice with assignments and assessments, and engaging multimedia platforms to encourage student participation. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Cruz did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. To hear more about Dr. Cruz’s innovations, watch her CTL Voices of Hybrid and Online Teaching and 2021 Celebration of Teaching and Learning Symposium panel presentations.  

Leverage Modular-Based Course Design 

One of the major innovations centered on actually taking a moment to think carefully about course design, and to make more visible and transparent the implied organization of my courses. I think many instructors come to a course with a sense of organization, but we don’t always make that visible to the students. Stemming from a presentation by my amazing colleague, Hannah Weaver, and my work with the CTL, I started to rethink my large lecture course through modular-based course design, thinking about a progression of modules that would incorporate elements of online learning but in a blended format, knowing this would be taught in-person. 

One of the great things of online courses is the use and implementation of modules, and the idea that the module would unlock after certain material was covered. Part of what I think is essential to certain kinds of humanities teaching is that there is a progression, but you don’t necessarily want to reveal everything at once because that’s also overwhelming for students. So thinking about modular-based course design was really key; taking what had been originally described as units or themes in my course, and pairing them not just with content themes, but with actual skills and writing. I was able to fully integrate the various modes of learning that were important to the course into a set of cohesive modules.  

Rethink Modalities of Learning 

I paid greater attention to different modalities of learning, and how modalities of learning, reading, and writing might be incorporated in the class. For me, it was, primarily, the incorporation of audio elements. One of the most successful things I did was the recording of readings; I wasn’t able to do it for all the readings, but for many of them, it was just me reading. I taped these audio recordings, and students loved that, so much; out of the whole course, that was perhaps the most frequently highlighted innovation in student evaluations. Students would talk about screen overload, and some would talk about having various forms of accessibility related to attention. They enjoyed hearing emphasis in new ways, hearing how the instructor would read something, or having the ability to have somebody read alongside them. It was also wonderful for me as the instructor because, when you do something like that, record yourself reading aloud, it reminds you of the importance of the dynamics of the sound in the readings. It actually opened up new windows of analysis for me and my students. 

Then the analogue to that, I recognized that not all of our students have the same listening ability, so I also paid attention to and made use of visual modes and images. For example, I created instructional videos related to skills and methods – methodological skills for an introductory course. This was really helpful for me to do because I actually had to sit down and think about what the methodological skills were and to unpack them.

Create Opportunities for Choice with Assignments and Assessments

I really thought about expanding assignments and assessments, considering what about assessments was valuable, and really thinking about why assessments were incorporated. For example, one expansion of an assignment was that students could choose to submit, not just a traditional analysis essay, but also audio essays or multimedia essays. Additionally, I used to give a final exam. Instead, I broke that into three different shorter tests, so that students could assess where they were as they moved through the class. 

In terms of carrying forward, I have kept the expansive nature of assignments, breaking up the final, and incorporating multimedia options. Students have really appreciated this in all of my classes.

Engage Multimedia Platforms to Encourage Student Participation

I incorporated multimedia platforms, like Padlet, to encourage different kinds of participation. I moved away from the primarily text-based discussion board to a more visually-friendly platform, something that looks quite similar to the social media platforms that students already use. Because of that, I saw a high-level of participation. This became a moment for students to be able to participate in ways that were additional to commentary in lecture. And I actually started weaving students’ comments into the lectures themselves. So student commentary would show up alongside theorists and scholars in the slides of the lecture, and students really liked that, and I liked it too. It really felt like a way of incorporating students’ expert analysis alongside that of scholars or theorists that we had read.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Pay attention to K-12 and other kinds of education. 

Pay attention to what K-12 educators are doing because they are teaching so much more than we are. One of the things I really learned from paying close attention to K-12 educators, is real attention to scaffolding: thinking about how to actually build upon levels of skills, thinking about content and skills and assessment together, and involving the students with that. 

Continue the conversation. 

One of the things that was really interesting about the pandemic was that it really was a moment where our entire community was thinking carefully about teaching and talking about it. And talking about it as a community, a genuine community; not just with colleagues in the same department, but across the university and with the Center for Teaching and Learning. In this emergency moment, we all had to think up and come up with new strategies about how we were going to work in this unusual situation. 

My hope is that this is a conversation that won’t just be contained to that moment itself. I would like to see a continued moment where we’re really thinking about and continuing to approach teaching with self-reflexivity, curiosity, playfulness, and collaboration as a community. That that isn’t, again, contained and defined just to this singular moment. But instead, the importance of continuing to think about how teaching matters, not only within the bounds of a single class, or a single discipline or major or area of concentration, and we’re also really thinking about why teaching matters in the world. I think it’s a conversation that many people are still interested in, and it’s my hope that that part of it continues. 

Experiment in collaboration with experts in the field and larger community.

One of the things that’s important is the value of working with experts inside of teaching design. I think trusting that other voice or that other expert in the field, and experimenting was something that I found really helpful. At times, working with a learning designer at the CTL, I’d kind of pause at some of the suggestions. But then when I did it, it was really helpful; this helped me see how fun it is to experiment in collaboration with others. And that level of experimentation and play on behalf of your students is important to learning. 

Apply for funding and take advantage of available resources. 

At Columbia, I think it’s wonderful that we have opportunities for funding and support for teaching innovations, and I would encourage everyone to apply for that funding and support. What was so helpful for me with my Innovative Course Design grant was that I actually had the evidence, and hard evidence, not just related to student evaluations, but also really targeted surveys. There was so much overwhelming evidence about how much of the changes actually worked, or how I could finetune them. It became a convincing case in terms of how could I not do this going forward in my teaching, and so, I have kept doing these things. 

Read the research. 

Many of us read research as research faculty, but we don’t necessarily read pedagogical research, and it’s really helpful to do that. Be curious about research in the field.