Yale center extends teaching’s reach

Rethinking the contours of teaching for a changing world is no easy assignment. It requires a particular sort of educational alchemy, helped along by creativity and patience. But the reward, according to the leaders of the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, is a stronger, more dynamic Yale.
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Assistant professor Timothy Newhouse's chemistry class is "flipped" — the students read the material on their own and tackle problems inside the classroom. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Rethinking the contours of teaching for a changing world is no easy assignment.

It requires a particular sort of educational alchemy, helped along by creativity and patience. But the reward, according to the leaders of the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, is a stronger, more dynamic Yale.

Established by President Peter Salovey last summer, the center integrates seven university programs that focus on writing, teaching, tutoring, and developing innovative ways to use technology in the classroom. It includes everything from “flipping” classrooms and designing new courses, to teaching languages and helping students sharpen their writing skills.

The seven programs are the Yale Teaching Center, the Graduate Writing Center, the Yale College Writing Center, the Yale Center for Language Study, elements of the Science and Quantitative Reasoning Center, the Center for Scientific Teaching, and the Office of Digital Dissemination & Online Education.

 “A goal of this whole enterprise is to create a community around teaching,” said Jennifer Frederick, the center’s executive director. “There’s so much excellence here that becomes pocketed. We want to make teaching at Yale more public.”

For now, the center is based in the Hall of Graduate Studies on York Street, but bigger digs are in the works. By the summer of 2016, the center will move into 19,000 square feet on two floors of Sterling Memorial Library.

“I want to break down that wall of what’s my class and what’s your class, and create a central location for thinking about what teaching should look like at Yale.”

— Scott Strobel, deputy provost for teaching & learning

“Our mission is to give teaching at Yale the stature it deserves,” said Scott Strobel, deputy provost for teaching and learning. “We have this amazing opportunity to put teaching at the heart of campus, based in an amazing space.”

In so doing, Strobel said, the university is sending a clear message that teaching and learning — using evidence-based methods — are top priorities. It’s a vision that dovetails with Salovey’s goal of a more unified Yale, while reinforcing the university’s image as a place where world-class researchers also teach.

Another part of that vision is Faculty Bulldog Days, a new, weeklong initiative planned for April. Faculty members will be invited to sit in on other professors’ classes to get a better sense of different teaching methods across campus.

“I want what happens in our classrooms to be something the community of scholars at Yale experiences together,” Strobel explained. “I want to break down that wall of what’s my class and what’s your class, and create a central location for thinking about what teaching should look like at Yale.”

Some of those elements will look familiar, of course. For all of the cultural cache that comes from cutting-edge tech and digital content, the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning has, at its core, something rather timeless: inspiring generations of teachable moments.

A time for TEAL

For a bold take on the future of teaching, there is Yale’s TEAL classroom. The name stands for Technology Enabled Active Learning, and it is roughly akin to taking a class inside of a kaleidoscope.

Located on the first floor of 17 Hillhouse Ave., TEAL has no need for podiums. It is filled with large, round tables, and has walls that are lined with projection screens, flat-screen displays, and whiteboards. Cameras mounted in the ceiling (and controlled via a central hub) peer into every part of the room, freeing up instructors to roam and still be seen clearly by the entire group. Carts of laptops are available for students to use; video cables built into the tables let students project their work to the rest of the room.

“On any given day, I have more individual interactions here than I would in a traditional lecture format,” said Timothy Newhouse, an assistant professor who teaches organic chemistry in the TEAL classroom. “Students need to be on their toes, because I walk through the room and ask about what progress they’re making.”

On a recent morning, Newhouse’s students filed into the room and quickly set to work learning the structures of antioxidants. Because this is a “flipped” class, the students had read the material already and were expected to explore its implications in class. There were chemistry problems posted on the overhead screens; Newhouse and his teaching assistants fanned out to provide guidance.

“We basically have a zone-defense strategy,” Newhouse said. “Each of my teaching assistants has three tables. I visit every table.”

Over the next 45 minutes, student teams (with names such as Atoms Family and Nucleophiles) tackled alkene radical polymerization and oxymercuration reduction, and looked ahead to radical hydrobomination. All the while, Newhouse assumed the role of education concierge — explaining, encouraging, coaxing, and cajoling.

As associate professor of physics Sarah Demers moves from whiteboard to whiteboard, her image is broadcast on monitors throughout the TEAL classroom. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

“Forget about chemistry and mechanisms for a moment,” he told one student, who had reached a momentary impasse. “Just count your carbons.”

Later that morning, TEAL filled again for a physics class taught by Sarah Demers. As with the earlier session, these students got down to business immediately, turning in homework as Demers prepped them for an upcoming exam.

“There are some lingering questions about conductors in fields and conductors with charges,” she said, moving from whiteboard to whiteboard, drawing diagrams of electric fields to illustrate her points. “You’re going to see this so clearly you’ll be amazed.”

Images of Demers and the diagrams covered the walls, and she called out different camera positions to her assistants as she changed locations. She also answered questions from students, checked on their progress with the scenarios she presented, and kept a running tally on how well concepts were being understood.

“Make sure you’re comfortable with this,” Demers said. “Take the 30 seconds to be confused and think about this on your own, before talking to neighbors about it.”

Then it was back to Whiteboard Six for a moment, before plunging ahead to Whiteboard One.

Words to the wise

Meanwhile, in a modest conference room at Yale School of Medicine, Nicole Calabro and Wenping Zhou grappled with a pesky prospectus.

Zhou, a second-year graduate student in cell biology, has been refining the document for several months, visiting once a week with Calabro, a fourth-year graduate student in experimental pathology who is a writing adviser for the Graduate Writing Center. They sat side-by-side at their laptops, sans camera and microphone.

“I highlighted a lot, and I’m being super picky, but what you have here is good,” Calabro said to Zhou, as they commenced.

They tightened. They trimmed. They rooted out contradictions, bolstered assertions, and adjusted terminology pertaining to mitochondria and cell stimulation.

“It’s good to know the rules of writing,” Zhou said. “You want to make your work understandable, even to people outside your field.”

Writing tutors help students untangle messy essays, rein in rogue paragraphs, and sort through poor syntax.

Similar pairings occur all over campus, nearly every day. Writing tutors help students untangle messy essays, rein in rogue paragraphs, and sort through poor syntax. It is all organized through the Graduate Writing Center and the Yale College Writing Center — which log thousands of pre-scheduled and drop-in appointments each year.

Elena Kallestinova, director of the Graduate Writing Center, noted that the center conducts sessions at offices on Broadway, the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, and the Center for Science and Social Science Information. The graduate center also organizes some 50 writing-related workshops and seminars, while also providing essential feedback that all writers need.

“What counts as knowledge in a university setting is being able to articulate your ideas in words, publicly,” said Alfred Guy, director of the Yale College Writing Center. “Students don’t do that many presentations, so that means both the measure and the medium of their most important learning, their most important production of new knowledge, is going to be writing.”

The Yale College Writing Center, located on Broadway, offers drop-in tutoring sessions six days a week. On one recent weekday afternoon, business was quite steady. Writing tutor Caitlin Cromwell, a Yale College senior, operated out of a small, bright room containing a table, a few chairs, an assortment of dictionaries, a thesaurus, and a copy of the writing center’s handbook.

“We like to make this a conversation,” Cromwell explained to her first client, a cheerful student clutching a bit of poetry analysis. “Are you concerned about this on a structural level or a writing level?”

They spent 20 minutes discussing topic sentences, repetition, and how to select the proper supporting quote.

Cromwell’s next client, Yale College sophomore Ying Xue Wang, sought advice on how to write in the style of Virgil and Tacitus. “His writing is very functional,” Wang said of Tacitus, who chronicled the Roman Empire. “There is judgment in every word.”

Wang and Cromwell mulled over cadence, imagery, and content, with Wang taking notes.

“Do you feel ready to write?” Cromwell eventually asked.

“Yes,” Wang said, closing her computer.

Lux, veritas, broadband

Other programs hinge on people opening their computers.

Those include a myriad of Yale Online offerings, from courses offered on Coursera to students around the world, to fully online classes directed to current Yale students. The university’s online portfolio has more than 60 courses already, with more on the way.

“A faculty member may want to create a more engaged classroom in New Haven. Or they may want to reach out to a global audience,” said Lucas Swineford, executive director of the Office of Digital Dissemination and Online Education. “We work with faculty members to design an approach that will best meet their teaching goals. It’s a discovery process, not a decision led by technology or platforms.”

Some of Yale’s most well-known professors, in fact, are part of the digital domain: Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller teaches an online class on financial markets that can be accessed for free by anyone around the world; psychologist Laurie Santos teaches an online course for Yale College credit; Brad Gentry, an associate dean at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, teaches an online course to students from the Yale School of Management and other universities that are part of the Global Network for Advanced Management.

Nobel laureate Robert Shiller’s online course on financial markets is free to anyone around the world.

A stroll through the Yale Broadcast & Media Center on College Street illustrated just how much online activity is happening. In one room, post-production manager Doug Forbush sat at a computer editing Craig Wright’s “Introduction to Classical Music” course that runs on Coursera. In another room, a broadcast center team met with the program manager for Yale Summer Session to discuss the most effective method for capturing the lecture component for an upcoming online course.

In Studio A, Sebastian Ruth, a visiting lecturer at the School of Music, had his first practice session for a course on Coursera tentatively titled “Music, Humanism, and Social Activism.” The small, well-lit studio featured only a wooden podium and a display screen, surrounded by a trio of cameras.

“He’ll practice three of his lectures,” said Melissa Thomas, a project coordinator who works with faculty. “We’re getting him comfortable in front of the camera and getting a better sense of the look and feel we want for the course.”

Today’s menu of online platforms evolved from previous efforts over the past 15 years. First came AllLearn, a distance-learning initiative with Stanford and Oxford, which charged a tuition fee and included weekly chat-room conversations. Next was the Open Yale Course format, with a wider distribution system. In 2011, Yale College launched online courses for credit.

Additional programs offer online components with input from the Yale Center for Language Study, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and the School of Nursing.

“These projects and initiatives are all different,” Swineford said. “The best practices for a flipped course may not be the best practice for an open course we are developing for the Coursera platform. But in every case, we’re enhancing teaching with technology.”

The house that Yale built

Together, the varied pieces of the Center for Teaching and Learning form a template for educational change. Frederick likened it to a well-constructed building:

Its pillars are the individual teaching, mentoring, and writing programs; its foundation is the use of evidence-based methods and effective assessment to guarantee the biggest impact; its roof is the digital technology that influences education at all levels.

“We’re already seeing some awesome, innovative things,” Frederick said. “Now we want to move forward, collaboratively and strategically.”

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Media Contact

Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332