Dr. Harold Stolper, PhD
Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs
Dr. Stolper teaches a quantitative analysis course at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA); the course typically enrolls 45-50 students. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Stolper had to rethink his own perceptions around the “right” way to teach to meet the ever-changing teaching and learning environment. Dr. Stolper met the moment by reimagining the structure of a large lecture-based course, partnering with students to meet their learning needs, and being transparent with his pedagogical values and expectations. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Stolper did in his course, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.
Reimagine the Structure of Lecture-Based Courses
Before the pandemic, I tried to intersperse my largely lecture-based class with discussions, while still covering foundations of quantitative methods and statistical concepts that we needed to cover. I mostly did it by using discussion prompts or questions that appeared on slides.
An overarching challenge was: how do you make quantitative analysis a less dry classroom experience? A big reason why I like teaching my class is because we emphasize the applications. For most of us, it’s not that we care so much about statistical methods and concepts in and of themselves, but rather what we can learn about from these methods when applied to policy areas on subject matters that we really care about.
With the onset of the pandemic, we went online, and I had a similar theme in redesigning my course: how do we free up space in class to focus more on applications, connect the concepts in class to current policy issues and concerns, and allow for more discussion? To do this I had to reallocate in-class time away from foundational lecture material. I did that by:
- Moving the technical foundations of the concepts and methods for that week to one or two video lectures (5-15 min long) each week to view in advance of class;
- Starting class with a short, low-stakes multiple choice quiz on the pre-class video lectures;
- Following the quiz by presenting a real world application related to timely topics or current events (e.g., a headline from a popular press article, journal article abstract, a twitter thread or data visualizations from social media–something that allowed the class to discuss concepts from the previous week but in the context of something new and relevant to their life outside of the classroom);
- Paring down the class lecture materials to relieve some of the pressure of covering all the basics which were now introduced in the pre-class video lectures;
- Swapping out some traditional textbook examples from the lecture content with more current, policy-relevant examples; and
- Using Poll Everywhere (an online polling platform), especially at the end of class, to elicit written responses to generate a different form of participation from students other than talking. The idea was to offer a tool for easy, low-stakes self-assessment, elicit written student responses to drive the discussion, and allow for some non-verbal participation from students who may be less comfortable speaking to a class of 50 about quantitative analysis topics that they are new to.
I think one takeaway from these changes is to untether ourselves from the idea that there is one right, relatively fixed way to go about teaching a particular class. It’s certainly important to pay close attention to things that seemed to work well or not, but sometimes better approaches to some aspect of teaching emerge along with a rapidly changing world: students’ goals and habits change, our collective understanding of what learning should look and feel like changes, we as instructors change, as do the expectations and constraints of the world around us. I think it’s important to be able to reimagine how we want to approach teaching for a particular course: in the classroom, the materials we share outside of the classroom, and the way we communicate with students.
I have long felt a tendency to inertia when it comes to teaching materials and approaches. It’s almost as if we are programmed to think that there are certain norms for our fields and courses that are fixed and right. I had to allocate more energy to reimagining my approach and refreshing my teaching materials–seeing the benefits of that has helped me develop a more forward-looking attitude as a teacher and dwell less on norms from the past. I learn from other instructors all the time, and asking them to share about their approaches has been invaluable. I also learn from my own mistakes all the time. I no longer start my course planning with the framing of, “Well, this worked in the past so we should do it that way.” Instead, I try to start with, “what do I want this class to feel like for students and for myself? What do I want the emphasis of each class to be?”
Partner with Students to Meet Their Learning Needs
When we returned to the classroom after the early pandemic, I realized it was important to reimagine the role of technology in class. In the past, I generally had a laptop-free classroom to limit discussions, encourage participation, and send the message that students would do well to focus on the key concepts and intuition rather than exhaustive note-taking and memorization. In the past, I would print out lecture slides to make it easier for students to take notes and follow along without the risk of being captive to their own devices during class; it felt like an easier ask to be laptop-free when I provided printouts for them. Upon switching from Zoom back to the classroom, I realized that many of us now had a totally different relationship with technology, but I wasn’t sure how students felt about this and how it should shape our classroom experience. I felt like I wasn’t equipped to make this decision without first eliciting student feedback to get a sense of their preferences and also discussing with the TAs. Based on this student input, I decided to recommend they go without devices in class, but if they felt it was important to them, then they should send me a short note and I would ask them to sit on one side of the classroom to limit distractions to the majority of students without devices.
Another factor to consider was that we now had in-class quizzes and Poll Everywhere prompts that required a device to access. While students could use their laptops and tablets, others could simply use their phones to access the quizzes and polls without needing to bring other devices. I also decided to start class with a QR code on the projector that linked to the multiple choice quiz, so students could just take a picture using their phones and easily complete the quiz without relying on a laptop or tablet.
Not everything we do is going to work for every student. For example, when we were on Zoom, even the things we did to make it more interactive and level the playing field in terms of participation (e.g., encouraging webcams on but not requiring them) worked really well for some students and not for others. Some students said they were learning better because they were home with their own computers and had all the tools they needed. For other students, it just wasn’t engaging enough without the in-person aspect. But when I talked to them, they said things like, “Pandemic learning was tough for me. I was less engaged, but I appreciated your attempts to make things more interactive and relatable.” So even if they were less engaged on Zoom, making it more participatory and inclusive seemed to make the students feel better about the class even if it wasn’t their ideal classroom environment.
Be Transparent with Pedagogical Values and Expectations
One practice to carry forward for me is to talk less as an instructor, listen more, and find ways to elicit more student responses. Using the syllabus and class materials to share the values that I care about and that are important to me in terms of how the classroom should feel seems to go a long way. I think it makes both me and my students feel seen from the outset of the semester. Having some language in the syllabus about my values on anti-racist teaching and inclusion and talking about it in class helps set the tone: Hey, we should be thinking about the privilege we have, sitting in this classroom at Columbia University. Who is here, and who is not here? (see Figure A). The community guidelines we set for discussion are minimal. They include raising hands before speaking and calling attention to intentional pauses to allow students to gather their thoughts and encourage participation from all students regardless of their background and prior exposure to the material. I think the fact that we take a few minutes to do this sets the tone that we want to hear from anybody and we are open to discussing better ways to encourage participation (See Figure B).
In recent semesters, I have tried to focus on three things to advance anti-racist teaching in my courses: (1) decentralize learning and create ways for students to share and participate both inside and outside the classroom; (2) incorporate examples and applications that reflect systemic barriers to opportunity and allow for some discussion; and (3) dedicate time in the last class to focus explicitly how we can think about the role of race in econometrics, and facilitate a discussion for students to share their own perspectives and experiences.
For the anti-racist lesson in our last class, I use a musical interlude containing excerpts from a TV interview with a British activist to frame the material and facilitate discussion. I think it’s important to root this discussion in the words of Black individuals discussing their perspectives and lived experience. It can be difficult to balance the quantitative focus of the lesson with such a wide range of student experiences and perspectives, but each time I do this class, I learn something new about how to approach this discussion as well as students’ perspectives.
Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia
Encourage dialogue and set clear expectations.
Moving forward, I increasingly see value in giving more opportunities for students to share input for what and how they want to learn. Sometimes this might feel threatening to us instructors, and this is not to say we as instructors don’t have our own expertise and experience about what works well. But it’s good to hear student ideas and lower the barriers that can make it difficult for students and instructors to understand the other’s perspective. I have found that making time and space for developing a partnership with students has helped me reach more students in more effective and considerate ways, rather than simply imposing my own ideas of how I should be teaching.