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VPTL Presents a “Great Teaching Showcase”

February 7, 2018
Great Teaching Showcase 2018

A packed house at the Faculty Club celebrates excellence and inspiration in teaching and learning at Stanford

By Simon Firth



A crowd of close to 200 Stanford faculty, students, and administrators gathered at the Stanford Faculty Club last week to hear from some of the university's inspiring teachers and learn more about new approaches to teaching being pioneered across campus.

Sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL), the event began with “Faces of Teaching,” a quartet of short talks offering insights into instructors’ and students’ personal journeys as teachers and learners. It was followed by a Gallery Walk showcasing 22 diverse teaching projects from educators representing all seven Stanford schools. Each of the speakers and instructors took pedagogy on campus in a new direction, helping improve student learning outcomes and driving engagement, reflection, and inclusivity.

Learning to fail and being truly open with your students

Computer Science Professor Mehran Sahami

Opening the “Faces of Teaching” talks, Computer Science Professor Mehran Sahami recalled high school debate competitions where he and his partner struggled at first. Both had difficulty communicating, Sahami because he was an English as a Second Language (ESL) student. “We failed a lot and we lost a lot,” he noted, “but we learned from it because we realized it was okay to fail.”

That experience informed Sahami’s approach as a teacher at Stanford, where he oversees one of the university’s most popular classes, CS 106A–Programming Methodology. Stanford students often feel that failure is not an option, he observed, but then they miss the opportunity to learn and grow from their failures. Sahami decided to make his course a safe place for students to admit when they are struggling with the material. “Part of the idea is to let them know that it’s okay to fail, to be able to take responsibility and to learn from those failures, rather than just feeling as though they were being assessed by them,” he said.

For Professor of Oncology and Palliative Medicine Kavitha Ramchandran, good teaching is built on a willingness to be openly vulnerable. It’s a lesson she first learned as a technique to overcome nervousness in front of crowds. “I’m imagining you all naked,” she joked. But in treating patients who are themselves both figuratively and literally naked, she said, she has come to see the value of being “naked” as a teacher herself.

Ramchandran recalled how she learned as a medical student from patients who were willing to open themselves up to her, including a terminally ill cancer patient who helped her understand how deep empathy can positively impact patients’ lives, even as they approach life’s end. The insight inspired her to create a pioneering online course that offers a human-centered approach to palliative care and asks participants to open themselves up to each other. It’s an environment in which the teachers still learn and the learners also teach, she suggested.

Reaching across disciplines and questions about questions

Professor Paula Moya offered her perspective on teaching in the form of a conversation with her former student Tyler Coleman, a sophomore hoping to major in economics. Moya, a professor of English, had been looking to create an undergraduate class that would encourage non-humanists to engage with literature. “One of my core beliefs as a teacher is that the learning has to matter to the learner, so that they are working not for me but for themselves,” she said.

The result was ENGL 76: After the Apocalypse: Speculative Fictional Narratives at the Turn of the 21st Century, which she co-taught with Jonathan Leal, a graduate fellow at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

In their conversation, Moya and Coleman described how the class got students talking about both literature and some of the social issues raised by dystopian fiction. The course structure quickly had him hooked, Coleman said. He especially welcomed the chance to create his own post-apocalyptic world. “It was one of my favorite aspects of the class and why I stuck with it for the whole quarter,” he said.

Great Teaching Showcase Stanford VPTL 2018

The event’s final speaker was Mechanical Engineering Professor Sheri Sheppard, who asked questions about questions. Questions, she suggested, are at the heart of both good learning and good pedagogy, as well as a source of creativity and a bridge to positive engagement with others and the world at large.

To illustrate her point, Sheppard recalled her first engineering class in college when a brave student admitted that he didn’t understand anything the professor was saying. “It was like a light switch went off,” she said. “It told me that the whole point of this was asking questions.” A second experience with a condescending professor in graduate school, however, taught her that there’s also an art to responding to students’ questions so that they can “fall on fertile ground” and become bridges for learning.

Experiences like these drove Sheppard to build questioning and answering very deliberately into her pedagogy. She has her students write “minute papers,” for example, where they are asked what they have learned in that day’s class, and then to share what question is in their head as they write. Many of these questions are either useful guides to her own teaching practice or offer profound moments of insight and connection among the learners.

Sheppard also makes sure to prompt students to frame generative design questions around problems they are interested in, and then use the engineering tools and concepts she teaches to solve them. “It really is an opportunity for them to expand the space of their exploration and to create a bridge from their passions to the idea of being an engineer,” she said.

A walk around campus teaching and learning innovations

In the second part of the evening, educators, students, and staff responsible for 22 different teaching projects shared their experiences at stations around the Faculty Club dining room.

The group was selected to represent the range and depth of recent innovations in teaching and learning at Stanford, noted VPTL Assistant Vice Provost Petra Dierkes-Thrun. “We hope that the showcase will inspire and facilitate new conversations and connections,” she said. “We are excited and ready to engage with faculty, instructors, and students as they try out their own ideas and seek out VPTL for pedagogical partnership and logistical support in the process.”

A number of the featured initiatives asked students to approach learning through an unexpected lens. Law Professor Jay Mitchell, for example, encourages students in his teaching clinic to employ visual thinking to first understand and then to resolve the real world business problems of their non-profit clients. “It helps you think,” Mitchell said of drawing. “You can use it to figure out – and communicate – all sorts of things, whether that’s understanding facts, or a text, or explaining something to a client.”

Over in the Graduate School of Business, Lecturer Matt Abrahams has been deploying improvisation as a tool for developing student skills in oral presentations. “These situations are often anxiety-provoking and challenging,” he noted. “By using improv, students can improve their ability to formulate answers and speak confidently and clearly in planned presentations and in cold call situations and meetings.”

A group of educators from across four Stanford departments – Geophysics, Geology, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Political Science – was motivated by the desire to expose their students to the under-examined area that sits between academic knowledge and practical solutions. The result was a year-long, interdisciplinary, project-based, service learning course that asked students to suggest how the Stanford community can contribute to coastal resilience planning in the San Francisco Bay Area. “A lot of research in geoscience is motivated by reducing disaster risk,” noted Geophysics professor Jenny Suckale. “But we rarely teach students the practical side: how to take that insight and develop informed, concrete management solutions that would actually help to reduce the risk.”

Designing student activities that best serve instructors’ learning goals

While every project shared at the Great Teaching Showcase both broadened and deepened student opportunities for learning, a number were explicitly designed to help students achieve the learning goals in bold new ways.

History Professor Tom Mullaney, for instance, collaborated with the Stanford Libraries to “scale up” archives-based research, finding ways to offer students in a large undergraduate class the same kind of intensive and rewarding hands-on experience typically found only in much smaller seminars – and did it without adding to the cost of instruction. “It allows us to model and demonstrate for hundreds and even thousands of students on campus what real humanistic research actually looks like,” he said.

VPTL Sharon Chen Great Teaching Showcase

A teaching team from the School of Medicine, Clinical Professor Sharon Chen and Microbiology and Immunology Professor Manuel Amieva, set out to co-create a class for medical students that went beyond simply detailing the biology of infectious organisms to include the clinical signs and symptoms patients experience. They found it more effective to have both a basic scientist and a clinician co-facilitate the in-class discussions, as the facilitators often make their own connections between the foundational biology and patient outcomes. As a result of this modeling, says Chen, students often leave with a deeper grasp of the material and the ability to approach infections through the mechanism of an infectious disease rather than just by memorizing lists.

Christopher Piech, a lecturer in Computer Science, demonstrated an innovative digital tool he developed to help instructors see how students get to their answers, revealing their habits and thinking process. “We did a lot of cool machine learning to understand what is good process and what is not,” Piech said. In mining data from Stanford’s massive online computer science courses, he was able to show that process was a much better predictor of final grades than midterm scores, helping the instructor to create just-in-time learning interventions. “People form bad habits,” Piech explained, “and it’s much better to break a bad habit after one week than after years and years.” 

Welcoming a diversity of students into the disciplines

Multiple projects explicitly sought to draw in a wider range of students than their subjects typically attract.

English professor Mark Algee-Hewitt shared his experience developing English 154: Mapping the Romantic Imagination, a project-based class that attract students interested in both literature and the digital humanities. Student assignments fed into a 3D global map of Romantic writers’ engagement with locations across the world that students dubbed a “Romantic Xenograph.” Joining Algee-Hewitt at the showcase was senior Kelsey Reardon, an East Asian Studies major who took the course with little previous experience reading English literature. “The class was really inclusive for non-English majors,” she reported. “All of us were able to bring different skills to the table.”

In a similar vein, ENGR 117, Expanding Engineering Limits: Culture, Diversity, and Gender, was created in the hope of fostering a more inclusive approach to engineering, noted co-creator Professor Shannon Gilmartin. It is the first course in the School of Engineering to be cross-listed with both the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Comparative Studies on Race and Ethnicity programs and counts towards the university’s “engaging diversity” undergraduate course requirement. The class uses research from sociology, psychology, education, and business, she said, “to create a space for students to come together and consider how culture and diversity matter to engineering practice and education.” 

At the Graduate School of Education, Professors John Willinsky and Sam Wineburg created STS 151: The Future of Information to help Stanford undergraduate students judge the credibility of online information. Course TA and education PhD student Kamran Naim helped develop the class and explained that not only was it designed to appeal to all undergraduates, it also was structured to match whatever interests they brought with them. “We had one student who is Native American, for example, who evaluated the Navajo Times as an information source,” Naim recalled. “We also have students research media aimed at African Americans, athletes, and the military.”

Reflecting on learning – and teaching – at Stanford

Nearly all of the diverse teaching and learning initiatives featured in the Great Teaching Showcase consciously built in multiple opportunities for reflection, helping students better understand their own progress in learning and allowing instructors to gauge which aspects of their new approaches to teaching were and weren’t working – and to consider what they might change the next time around.

As the evening drew to a close, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Mitchell hoped the event itself would prompt reflection among the many educators in attendance. “Everyone here has an interesting story, and the diversity and range of what people are showing is fantastic,” he noted. “It really represents a gold mine of creative ideas that I hope the rest of us can use to make teaching and learning at Stanford even better for even more students.”


Great Teaching Showcase Talks

Watch the talks from the 2018 Great Teaching Showcase here.

(Stanford log in required.)

Great Teaching Showcase Presentation, 2018