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Dr. Sally Aboelela, PhD, RN

Assistant Professor of Nursing at Columbia University School of Nursing; Director, Online Prerequisites for Entry to Nursing (OPEN) Program at Columbia University School of Nursing  

Dr. Abolela teaches Advanced Physiology, Pathophysiology, and Pharmacology courses at the Columbia University School of Nursing. Additionally, since its launch in the Summer of 2020, Dr. Aboelela has been developing and teaching courses in the Online Prerequisites for Entry to Nursing (OPEN) program. The courses she teaches enroll anywhere from 50 students up to around 180-250 students (especially in her Physiology and Pharmacology courses). While some courses were fully in-person prior to the Spring 2020 remote pivot, others, like the OPEN program, have been fully online since their beginning. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Aboelela grappled with how best to meet the needs of students and engage them in course material. Dr. Aboelela met the moment by implementing an “Encounter, Engage, Reflect” framework and leveraging the flipped classroom model. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Aboelela did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Implement an “Encounter, Engage, Reflect” Framework 

The pandemic really took everything I had been doing to another level. I remember at the time, the CTL had operationalized what I feel I had been moving towards, which was this encounter, engage, reflect approach. It just really clicked–that’s what I had been trying to do. I’ve held onto this strongly, and because I think of them in those three stages, my classes are better than ever.  

  • Encounter: The encounter stage is primarily through recorded lectures or assigned readings, things like that. But really, 100% of the didactic material is in the encounter space. 
  • Engage: The engage stage is when we have our live classes, whether it’s live on Zoom or in-person. I have a structure where I offer study questions that reflect the material in the recorded piece. Basically the class becomes a study session–we’re studying together guided by those questions. I also do things like case studies to reinforce the material, or discussions; students might ask questions. In the live class, I’m not lecturing–we’re basically studying the material together.  
  • Reflect: In the reflection stage, students have weekly quizzes; it’s everything building up, everything we do is in these weekly chunks, and at the end of the week, there’s a quiz. The reflection piece is about supporting students–I have office hours, my TAs have review sessions. With the quiz itself, students take it once and they have an option to take it a second time and average the two scores; every quiz attempt has some teeth, students have to be prepared. But the quiz is part of their learning, and I tell students: if you’re prepared for the quizzes, preparing for the exams will be easy. Because they’ve already digested those weekly chunks.  

That’s become my process–it’s really been following this encounter, engage, reflect stages for different parts of my different classes, both online and in-person. Returning to in-person teaching has been an interesting experience, since for the first time in two years, I’ve had students in front of me. I felt like it was actually harder to get them to engage than I remember it being before the pandemic; we’re all used to not being in front of each other. But I still felt like this encounter, engage, reflect was a good structure. In person, for the engagement piece, I started with a little icebreaker, going around the room introducing ourselves and our favorite guilty pleasure TV. It got students a little more interested in having a human interaction, and at that point, I could be receptive to reading the mood in the room. I had more information about where students were, and could be more responsive. I think on Zoom, I couldn’t always tell and so I may have ended up barrelling through plans. 

I also feel like this approach creates better learning and better outcomes. But there’s always a group of students who are very uncomfortable with it, and I think it’s just because it’s less passive. Different students have different comfort levels with it, and so I’ve had to provide support and instruction on how to move through the course. But they did learn how to do it. And for me, once I like something, I really run with it. 

Leverage the Flipped Classroom Model 

I like to be an early adopter of things. Around 2012 or so, I got very interested in the flipped classroom. At that time, I started leveraging recorded lectures. I do really love to live lecture, but the paradigm of students coming to class, they haven’t heard any of this material. You talk to them for an hour or so, and they’re somehow going to retain it, take it home, learn it. It wasn’t very efficient or effective. The idea of producing my own video lectures that would allow them to at least encounter the information before we got to class started to be something that I really enjoyed doing – I’ve been doing that a long time. 

But I never really fully flipped my class. I always felt like there were parts of my classes that didn’t really need my guidance to get through, so I would frontload the introductory information with a video and students would come to class and we’d hit the ground running with some more interesting parts of what we were doing. Then I always had some kind of little quiz or assessment to ensure that they were fully comprehending what they were being assigned to do before they came. So that was my version of flipping, but the pandemic really brought this to another level. 

With this model, something I continue to really grapple with is connection – really connecting with students. It was a lot easier, and I think we took it for granted, when we were in a room together, how easy it was to connect with them. Trying to connect with students on Zoom is a challenge. Eventually I got to this point where – during my live Zoom classes, and maybe only 20 of my 150 students had their cameras on, and that had to be okay. Once I’ve let go of wanting cameras on for connection, I now see it’s almost like I have this intimate group of 20 people I’m talking to. And I can see based on the scores of the learning and the outcome, those other people without their cameras on are still learning. I continue to learn as an educator that the lessons are often about me and my ability to sort of let go and not need to sort of control everything, and meet my students where they are and be flexible with my class.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Encounter, Engage, Reflect. 

I’m in a position of mentoring a lot of new faculty and new instructors, and the encounter, engage, reflection approach is really the structure I give everyone. I talk about how this has worked for me, that it is effective and efficient. 

Recognize your students’ needs and support them. 

Recognize how much support students really need. As the world gets more and more chaotic, everybody’s anxiety levels are really high. Our students are smart, and they are amazing academically. But I find when I meet student students, whether it’s someone who’s struggling in my class or doing well, I ask them how they’re doing personally. Just more and more I feel like that’s something they really need, and it’s just a matter of having somebody ask you. There may be tears, but then they relax and smile. So beyond the didactic and pedagogical needs, don’t forget that students need support, sometimes more than we think. So take whatever opportunities you have to encourage them and see how they’re doing. 

Embrace the remote learning shake up. 

Remote learning has really shaken things up. At the university level, we went from not being able to find an available classroom to being online – it’s a resource management dream come true. And we’ve been doing this for two years, and the sky hasn’t fallen. We’re okay. 

I think we’re going to learn a lot more about what remote learning can do and what it can’t do. I think we’re going to get a better understanding of what classes can really do well with remote learning, and what classes really still need to be in-person. So we’ll learn what we can let go of in-person only, but then preserve and protect what really needs to be in person.