Zamudio to study effects of active learning as Menschel Teaching Fellow

Kelly Zamudio, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, will analyze the effects of activity modules on classroom learning goals as the 2017-18 Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Cornell.

The fellowship program gives accomplished faculty members the opportunity to develop a project that enhances Cornell’s teaching mission.

“I am delighted to welcome Kelly and look forward to working with her – she brings terrific energy to her new role,” said Vice Provost for Academic Innovation Julia Thom-Levy.

Zamudio teaches courses in herpetology, graduate field ecology and evolution. She says that about four years ago she was looking for a way to make classes more interesting – for herself as much as her students.

“I was pretty bored with teaching classes the same way,” she said. One thing she did was to “get rid of lectures, and give students vodcasts – a lecture in a 6-to-9-minute format on video – to watch before the class. Having had that content, we then work with it in class,” she said.

Along with her co-instructors in the evolution course for biology majors, she introduced new variables into classes – interactive elements and tools such as a portable digital microscope to project images and a soft, throwable Catchbox microphone, hastening the pace of discussions in large classes.

“We would look at a lecture, decide which learning goal we would focus the activity on, figure out two to three learning concepts to focus on, and then plop the activity into the lecture,” she said.

As in Zamudio’s vodcast example, the traditional lecture can be condensed and consumed before class time – and readings, online exercises, quizzes and other activities can likewise prepare students for discussion and engagement with a topic when the class meets.

“Where I used to look out at 280 students in an introductory course, half of them on their computers, now, there’s callbacks between groups and more interaction,” Zamudio said.

Zamudio has explored the effects of active learning in the classroom to help her understand the impact of pedagogical changes in instruction.

Large introductory classes “are the bottleneck for STEM; there are all sorts of steps students need to take to get into a STEM major,” she said. “I’d like to change the way we teach in these courses to make them more accessible.”

New research in cognitive psychology and data from college classroom surveys show active learning to be more effective than traditional lecture-based formats, with a variety of pedagogical approaches offering opportunities for critical thinking and problem-solving rather than memorizing facts, according to Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation.

Students in active learning classrooms enjoy more hands-on activities and interactions through small discussion groups, and the use of technology (e.g., iClickers and smartphone apps) to enhance learning.

“There are tons of data to analyze from the learning modules, and the application of a knowledge intervention is getting people excited about changing the way they teach,” Zamudio said.

Zamudio and associate professor of sociology Vida Maralani gave a presentation on their work in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Active Learning Initiative and measuring the impact of student learning at the 8th Annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence, Jan. 22 in the ILR Conference Center. The conference, with the theme Engaged and Inspired Teaching, included faculty-led seminars and lunchtime conversations with dedicated faculty.

Zamudio’s research focuses on the origin and maintenance of biodiversity in reptiles and amphibians, studying the mechanisms that cause population differentiation, the evolution of mating systems and the origin of new species.

The Menschel Fellowship is awarded by the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Innovation to faculty members with a distinguished record in scholarship, research and teaching who are interested in developing and promoting strong pedagogy at Cornell. Projects during the yearlong fellowship can include designing programs to develop teaching practices, translating practices across fields and providing structures for ongoing collaboration with existing pedagogy across campus.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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