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Cornell's Reform Efforts

Reform Efforts

Academic Excellence Workshops in the College of Engineering


Cornell University’s College of Engineering offers Academic Excellence Workshops (AEW) to enhance student learning of content in several key gateway courses in engineering. The AEWs are optional 1-credit supplemental courses that meet weekly for two-hour collaborative problem-solving sessions. Designed to enhance student understanding, the workshops feature peer-facilitated group work on problems at or above the level of course instruction. The peer facilitators are students who have recently taken and done well in the course. The AEW facilitators receive training on how to encourage and support students in working through problems as a group. They are trained to not just give answers or work additional problems for the student to watch, but to foster student’s ability to think about and understand how to approach problems with their group. Facilitators make use of a bank of problems for their course and also develop new problems for their own section and to add to the problem bank. The AEWs are based on research showing that cooperative methods (as opposed to an individual, competitive approach to learning) promote higher grades, greater persistence, deeper comprehension, more enjoyment in learning, and more positive attitudes toward academic work.


The AEWs courses support the 4 course math sequence (Calculus, Multi-variable calculus, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra), the one semester Chemistry for engineers, both the Matlab and the Python version of the introductory course in computer science, the second course in computer science, and a calculus based statistics course. The physics course sequence is supported by its own supplementary courses run through the Physics Tutoring Center. The AEWs are graded pass/fail based on attendance. Spring semester 2014, there are 16 AEWs, each capped at 22 students. The small class size allows students to get more personalized feedback on their performance. Data shows that students enrolled in AEWs outperform their peers in the core courses. The student facilitators not only help other students, they report that they also gain skills that employers value such as effective public speaking, facilitating group activity, encouraging and supporting teamwork and cooperative efforts and learning from one’s peers. The Academic Excellence Workshop Program is supported by a mix of industry and foundation funding, individual alumni giving, and college resources.


Fundamental Pedagogical Changes in the Core Biology Curriculum


Cornell University has initiated institution-wide changes to the core undergraduate biology curriculum to transition from traditional lecture based instruction to incorporation of active learning techniques. The first phase of this five-year transition will focus on four large introductory courses selected by the Office of Undergraduate Biology (OUB). The OUB is an independent university-wide unit organized to oversee biology curricular management across departments and colleges. Cornell has a large and diverse biology program in which the biology major offers fourteen concentrations across several departments and colleges. The large introductory courses required for all biology majors are supported by the OUB working in close collaboration with individual departments. Due to the complex organizational delivery of biology instruction at Cornell and the need for solid foundational knowledge of key concepts for future upper-level cross-disciplinary courses, pedagogical changes to introductory courses requires input and direction from both the OUB and department faculty. The first round of courses selected for redesign in this initiative have an average enrollment of 1140 students per semester and are listed below:

· BioEE 1780, Biological and Environmental Engineering - Introduction to Evolutionary Biology and Diversity;

· BioEE 1610, Biological and Environmental Engineering - Introductory Biology: Ecology and the Environment;

· BioMG 1350, Molecular Biology and Genetics - Introductory Biology: Cell and Developmental Biology;

· BioNB 2220, Neurobiology and Behavior II: Introduction to Neuroscience.

The implementation process will be conducted through a series of structured steps, which were identified and developed with input from faculty and course instructors across departments. Each course will re-evaluate learning objectives and identify the most appropriate methods for introducing evidence-based active learning practices. The faculty involved with restructuring the BioNB 2220 course plan to develop a Neuroscience Concept Inventory (NCI) similar to the Forced Concept Inventory administered in physics. Classroom activities and instructional material will be tailored to each class after learning outcomes are identified. The overarching goal is to improve student learning outcomes and retention and enhance the undergraduate learning experience. The reforms in the biology curriculum are one example of several projects underway involved with pedagogical innovation at the university.


In addition to the OUB and department faculty, this initiative is supported by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), The Center for Integrating Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), the Learning Strategies Center (LSC), and Cornell Information Technologies (CIT) at Cornell University. These various academic support units will assist with assessments of student learning and perceptions and implementation of new learning strategies. Summative data analysis will be performed via senior surveys and comparative analysis of student performance and overall analysis of learning will be conducted before, during and after transition in these courses and using standardized metrics (GRE, MCAT).


Cornell University Physics Initiative in Deliberative Practice (CUPID)


In addition to a substantial initiative in the undergraduate biology major program, Cornell University is also working to restructure the core course sequences for engineering and physics majors. The five-year transition will focus on the three large introductory courses listed below,

· Physics 1112, Physics I: Mechanics;

· Physics 2213, Physics II: Heat/Electromagnetism;

· Physics 2214, Physics III: Oscillations, Waves, and Quantum Physics.

The physics courses identified for re-design are offered each semester and enroll approximately 900 students. A total of nine faculty (three for each course) are involved with instruction of the three courses each semester along with several teaching assistants. For sustainability, faculty involved with development of materials will be paired with incoming faculty/instructors. This pairing will provide time for the new faculty to learn the teaching style before taking over in subsequent years. In addition, the physics department will utilize an electronic in-house data management system “Physics Course Preservation” website to archive all material. Faculty involved with development of new instructional tools will be given monetary support for their individual research programs (in exchange for time devoted to teaching) and teaching awards will be given over the duration of the project to encourage adoption of the active learning approaches.

The primary focus of this initiative is to transition from traditional lecture to more deliberate pedagogical approaches to enhance student learning and retention. Pre and post course evaluations will be conducted to determine whether or not new teaching practices are helping students learn more efficiently, grasp deeper level concepts and gain expert level mastery of key skills needed for advanced coursework.

This initiative is supported by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), The Center for Integrating Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), the Learning Strategies Center (LSC), and Cornell Information Technologies (CIT) at Cornell University. These various academic support units will assist with assessments of student learning and perceptions and implementation of new learning strategies. Summative data analysis will be performed via senior surveys and comparative analysis of student performance and overall analysis of learning will be conducted before, during and after transition in these courses and using standardized metrics (GRE, MCAT).


Accelerating Assessment Skills and Understanding for Future Faculty in Sciences and Humanities


Cornell University is undertaking campus-wide and discipline-specific initiatives to provide graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with practical experience in planning for, stimulating, and assessing undergraduate learning. Through a collaboration of the Graduate School, the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), and the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CU-CIRTL), Cornell is developing a series of lunchtime workshops and targeted events on developing assessment skills, with tracks for both new teaching assistants (TAs) in large introductory STEM courses, and more advanced graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Another initiative includes creation of a semester-long grant program supporting graduate instructors of first-year writing seminars in conducting classroom research on assessment.

This project addresses a nationally identified need by enhancing future faculty assessment skills through campus-wide dialogue and opportunities for in-depth practice and reflection. The project also catalyzes discipline-specific TA and faculty dialogue about learning assessment through strategic partnership with targeted STEM and humanities courses. As described in the “Fundamental Pedagogical Change in the Core Biology Curriculum” and “ Cornell University Physics Initiative in Deliberate Practice” summaries of new STEM initiatives at Cornell, we are providing support to teaching assistants for introductory Biology and Physics courses during course overhauls from 2013-2018. In partnership with the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, we have established a grant program and workshop series to support graduate instructors of First-Year Writing Seminars in conducting small-scale classroom research studies on teaching, and graduated our first cohort of 10 students. This project enables us to investigate disciplinary differences in graduate student teaching professional development needs and ways to adapt assessment training accordingly. Engaging TAs in gateway STEM undergraduate courses has been challenging, because TAs for these courses tend to be early in their graduate studies, whereas receptivity to learning about assessment seems to occur more strongly in later-year graduate students. In contrast, humanities students appear to focus earlier in their graduate studies on practical teaching skills, and TA positions offer students more opportunities to design and instruct small seminar courses. We found high self-reported understanding of assessment and classroom research methodologies among graduates of our first one-semester cohort of humanities assessment fellows approaching that of STEM students participating in a yearlong program. We hypothesize that our emphasis on discipline-specific, cohort-based support structures, including pairing first-year writing instructors with similar interests, helped overcome potential hurdles.

Funding is from a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Council of Graduate Schools as part of the Preparing Future Faculty to Assess Student Learning Initiative, with funding from the Sloan and Teagle Foundations (Principal Investigator: Barbara Knuth). Sustainability of promising STEM-related assessment training beyond the grant period is assured through CU-CIRTL program funding from the Graduate School and from a three-year NSF grant to the national CIRTL Network.


Graduate Research in Teaching Fellowship Program


The Graduate Research and Teaching Fellowship Program (GTRF) at Cornell University provides graduate students considering academic positions in higher education with opportunities to capitalize on their expertise as academic scholars and researchers to design and develop innovative high impact teaching practices to disseminate knowledge in their respective fields. Graduate students apply to the GTRF program and once accepted learn the art and science of teaching through a series of workshops, courses and seminars and receive a Certificate of Completion after requirements are met. Students accepted in the program are required to take two teaching courses, ALS 6015 “The Practice of Teaching in Higher Education”, and ALS 6016 “Teaching as Research in Higher Education” offered at Cornell. Coursework includes development of a teaching and research philosophy statement, course syllabus, teaching plans and an electronic portfolio. Graduate students attend biweekly seminars and facilitate workshops to provide forums for fellow graduate students, teaching assistants and postdoctoral scholars not enrolled in the program, to engage in conversations on teaching to enhance learning in higher education.

As part of the program, students work individually or in pairs to complete research projects focusing on specialized teaching approaches and learn how to effectively teach topics within their fields of specialization. They then present posters of their research during a symposium open to the entire Cornell community. Many GRTFs also present posters to their departments.

This initiative is supported by the Center for Teaching Excellence, The Center for Integrating Research, Teaching and Learning and the Graduate School at Cornell University.