ctl logo

Yi Zhang, PhD

Associate in the Discipline of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research

Dr. Zhang teaches courses on the foundations of data science, simulation modeling and analysis, and data-driven decision modeling, mainly designed for undergraduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Acknowledging that student engagement has been a big challenge during the pandemic, he shares that EdStem has been a particularly useful platform to help students actively engage in their learning. In addition to the discussion board, EdStem offers other robust features like the lessons and workspace in which students can view lecture notes, take quizzes and exams, and interact with each other online. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Zhang did in her courses, what lessons and experiences he is carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.

Streamline Technology to Keep the Course Structure Consistent and Students Actively Engaged

For the past several semesters, I have extensively used a digital learning platform called EdStem (also called EdDiscussion) to facilitate active learning in my courses. Most of the faculty members are probably familiar with just the discussion board feature on EdStem. Through my department, I was able to gain access to additional features like the “Lessons” and “Workspaces,” which became core parts of my course structure during the pandemic and made a huge change in terms of student engagement and my delivery of course content.

In “Lessons,” I created and organized my lessons around course topics and had other relevant teaching materials like slides and lecture notes. For my course that involves coding, I included coding cells that students can run and experiment with before working on any assignments. I also posted all of the exercise questions and other assignments for students to complete and submit (See Figure A). Jupyter Notebook that is built into EdStem allows easy navigation of coding, submitting work, and checking solutions. 

Exams were also posted in EdStem for students to take online. They were open-book exams because I am a firm believer of designing exams that push students to engage in higher-order thinking tasks that they will be expected to do after college. Once they start their careers, students are more likely to be in an environment where they consult references and other resources to complete a project or solve a problem. My exams are designed to reflect such a connection to the real world and require students to demonstrate their application and problem-solving skills.

In “Workspaces,” I prepared a simple sketch of codes that I would use during my lectures (See Figure B). Students could also make their own copy of the codes and practice with them or follow my codes real time during lectures. I like to encourage students to ask questions during class, so if they don’t understand something and they need me to slow down, I try to make sure to pause and address their questions. “Workspaces” allows users to add cells to create and run new codes, so it’s a great interactive space where students can work on hands-on coding exercises while I give my lectures.

I don’t use any other platform in my teaching now because I love how I can keep everything very organized and consistent in EdStem, and students can actively engage with course materials in different ways.

Figure A: Structure of “Lessons” in EdStem


Figure B: Teaching materials under a “Lessons” topic in EdStem


Figure C: Code sets in “Workspaces” in EdStem


Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Place students at the center of the learning process.

Technology is great only when it is used to serve the instructor and the students’ learning goals. While it helps me facilitate active learning for students, what I value most is the student presence and student engagement in the classroom. Students should be the main players in the classroom, and I always encourage my students to contribute to creating an engaging learning environment. 

If I only went about the traditional route of lecturing, it would be very difficult for me to know whether or not students are following and understanding the course content. So I find it extremely helpful to remember that students should be the ones doing things in class, not the instructor. In class, I often give time to students to work on questions and exercises. I walk around and observe how students solve the questions and what they struggle with. This way, I am able to gauge their understanding and provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. 

I can have all the theories and concepts I want to deliver to students, but ultimately, I need to ensure that they understand whatever I teach them and that they have a deep understanding not only about the theories but also about how to apply those theories in the real world. To me, what is important is not how much content I can cover but what kinds of application skills students can acquire and develop. How can I ensure that students pick up a good learning habit and develop advanced problem-solving skills? How can they cultivate critical thinking skills that they can use to solve more complex problems? It is my hope that students will be able to take what they learn in class and apply it to their future work beyond the classroom.

Find support in the teaching community to partner with colleagues and explore other possibilities for transformative teaching.

The CTL offered great resources and support as I experimented with EdStem and incorporated it into my courses. In 2019, I applied for and received the Provost’s teaching and learning grant, which allowed me to explore ways to redesign my course. With the grant and the CTL support, I looked into implementing a new in-class auto-grading system to help monitor student progress, offer more immediate feedback, and improve student engagement in my large lecture course. I was initially drawn to EdStem for its auto-grading feature, but I soon discovered that it had other robust tools like running codes and posting exercises to work on in class. Collaborating with the CTL has encouraged me to jump out of my comfort zone and explore various tools and other ideas for teaching innovations. I also learned to reflect on my own teaching philosophy and think more deeply about how I can ensure that I am creating an inclusive learning environment for students and how I can promote active learning in my class.

It would be extremely helpful for Columbia instructors to have a certain kind of channel or space to communicate and share what kind of new teaching methods or technology that we can use in our own classrooms. The whole Columbia teaching community could benefit from sharing resources and experiences.