A New Study in learning

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First - tell us a bit about the center and your mission.

Cassandra Horii: The primary mission of our office is to support innovation and excellence in teaching and learning, inside and outside of the classroom. This Provost's initiative serves the Caltech mission to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education, while educating students to become creative members of society. We are incredibly excited about this new effort and will be working with faculty and students on shaping detailed plans in the coming months.

What kind of services does the center offer?

CH:  The center offers resources to faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. First, we serve Caltech's remarkable faculty as they seek to redesign and inject new innovations into their courses.  Our office has at hand literature on the latest research, techniques and trends in higher education, especially in the sciences.  Whether looking to refine a particular lecture, optimize a lab or redesign a course from the ground up—without sacrificing content—we are here to assist.

For Teaching Assistants, including undergraduate and graduate students, our office is partnering with the Dean of Graduate Studies and the Divisions to enhance initial and ongoing TA training. We want to build on the success of the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching (CPET), a remarkable program started and run entirely by graduate students interested in becoming better teachers. 

Pushpa Neppala: A few weeks ago, Cassandra had an ombudsperson training lunch, where she led an effective discussion on how to be more efficient in their roles as ombuds. In this way, she's helping students help themselves.

Why did Caltech decide to open the center?

CH: The first center for teaching and learning was started 50 years ago at the University of Michigan. Today it is a mature field with a significant body of data. Many of our peer institutions have comparable programs. In recent years, Caltech has taken great steps to help advance teaching. President Chameau has made it a priority, and Provost Stolper provides funding to support the faculty’s educational innovations. Caltech has brought in experts for workshops and seminars, too. So we reached a critical mass of interest and need. It made sense to formally bring the office to campus, at this time.

Let's say a professor is looking to increase performance from her class around a particular lesson in quantum mechanics. How could she refine it?

CH: Good question.  First we would want to take a look at the goals for the course. What does the professor want the students to learn and master—and why? Then we would look at the methods, both in class and in assignments, take-home exams, etc. Usually the professor has some evidence about student learning (results on assignments, in-class work), and intuition about what’s working; we would examine these together, perhaps with a new lens. Our office can bring relevant research on teaching quantum mechanics specifically, to spark new ideas. Ultimately the professor designs her solution with added resources, in a time-efficient way, and leaves with a clear sense of how to decide if it worked. 

PN: As students, we also have the ability to share information about how we are studying outside of class. How did we objectively best learn the material? Where are we hitting roadblocks?

CH: In one case, a professor articulated how he wanted students to apply learning from earlier years in a more advanced course, and designed an in-class activity to elicit students’ ideas and roadblocks in a wonderfully compelling way. The experience led to some exciting and ongoing changes. That is the kind of insight we can help provide.

Are you already seeing results?

CH: Well, we've only been open a few months, but I'm encouraged by what is already happening. Faculty are beginning to experiment using the resources we offer. We are working with CPET to enhance and refine TA opportunites. Undergraduates are also very involved—with fantastic ideas and input.

PN: Cassandra has given us good advice on how to approach teaching and learning from a student perspective. Ombuds training has always been a long term hope for the ARC, and having this office makes our goal of trying to better the academic experience at Caltech more attainable. 

CH: We also will soon be hiring an Educational Outreach Coordinator. Many programs are working with community partners, such as K-12 schools, to connect Caltech’s cutting edge discoveries to greater understanding of science beyond campus. Our office will work with faculty and these wonderful programs to articulate needs, liaison with our community partners, develop new programs, and document the results.  

Also—this being Caltech—we are innovating. Julius Su (PhD ’07) and Victor Kam (PhD '08) have created a mobile app that allows students to enter in course material in the form of notes, flash cards or multimedia, then uses an algorithm to draw connections between the material in meaningful ways. Several Caltech professors are testing the new app in their courses this year. It’s an example of what’s possible when great science and creative thinking about learning come together.

How will you measure success?

CH: We are absolutely committed to obtaining measurable results. One of the things that makes our center unique is that from the outset, we will intentionally seek to support Caltech's education efforts whether they are on or off campus, inside or outside of class, in formal or informal settings. Success for us will be determined by individual educators’ goals and the meaningful, relevant evidence they gather about learning. Over time, we can also look at participation in various programs and services, alongside qualitative changes in how students, TAs, and faculty experience learning at Caltech.

PN: Caltech will always be a hard school. We want to increase satisfaction, by being as efficient in our studies as possible, so that we can discern the underlying principles in our subjects and produce ever more meaningful work. 

CH: On a larger level, we hope that our efforts help Caltech to extend its leadership and impact. We have the opportunity to contribute to science education at the very highest levels. As we make new discoveries on methods to teach complex subjects to new generations, we will then be able to share this knowledge with partners around the globe. 

From the Caltech Alumni Association News, November 8, 2012

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