Part 1: Learner-centered teaching in a small graduate course

Introduction: A Graduate Level Biological Treatment Processes Course

To practice teaching, I volunteered to co-instruct a graduate-level biological wastewater treatment course. This course occurred early in my teaching development efforts at the University of Wisconsin– Madison prior to taking any Delta courses on teaching. The course was CIVENGR 821-Environmental Engineering: Biological Treatment Processes, taught by my PhD advisor, Dr. Daniel Noguera. For this course, I took the lead on developing lectures, activities, and assessments using Dr. Noguera’s previously used materials as a guide. The class had only four students, but these four students had diverse backgrounds, including students who majored in mechanical engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and civil and environmental engineering. The diversity of backgrounds and expertise was an asset to this learning community throughout the semester.

To help students achieve learning outcomes, I provided detailed lecture notes (Artifact 1) for all of my lectures. Early on, I provided lecture notes after lectures, but as the course progressed, I provided notes before the lectures. This had three major benefits: First, this allowed students an additional way to engage with course material before coming to class (rather than just reading the textbook). Second, the notes explicitly laid out the objectives and “roadmap” of the lecture allowing students to prepare for the active learning activities (eg, solving problems in pairs). Third, it allowed students to focus on completing the active-learning activities rather than writing notes; with the pre-printed notes, students could annotate the notes without having to write down everything they were told during lecture.

A key component of the course was presenting and discussing peer-reviewed papers related to course topics. Students worked alone or in pairs to prepare presentations (Artifact 2) summarizing the key points of the paper and then led discussions with their classmates.

Reflection: Fostering an advanced learning community in a small graduate course

Implementing teaching-as-research

While I did not collect substantial information on the course due to the small number of students, I implemented several evidence-based teaching practices during the course addressing the principles of student-centered learning.

Engage students in the hard messy, work of learning. Throughout the course, students worked in pairs to derive key equations and solve practice problems on white boards. Because the course had only four students, I was able to directly monitor each pair and provide feedback as they progressed through problems. By providing detailed lecture notes (Artifact 1), students were able to engage more fully in the active-learning components of the course. By the end of the course, I often started lecture by asking “What would you like to teach yourselves today?”

Provide explicit skill instruction. While students were expected to read the lecture notes and textbook, I reinforced key concepts during short lectures. Further, I was able to monitor group work in real time and provide additional instruction as students had questions working through problems.

Allow students to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning it. This is something I could have done better. I was not yet familiar with metacognitive approaches when I taught this course and was unable to assess which components of the course were most- and least-beneficial to student learning. In the future, I will include a student-assessment of their learning gains survey (SALG) and allow additional time for students to reflect on their own learning processes.

Motivate students by giving them some control over the learning process. Student paper presentations (Artifact 2) were helpful in giving students control over some of the lecture time in the course. While I and the professor were in the room, we would often let the students take the lead on discussing papers and tying the material to course concepts.

Encourage collaboration. Students were encouraged to work together throughout most of the lecture time and on homework problems. In retrospect, I also think I could have had students work together on preparing the paper presentations, at least for the first few. It really felt like the only time in the course when I was isolating a student and putting them on the spot. While students performed well, I suspect that incoming students could have different levels of experience with reading and analyzing scientific papers.

While several evidence-based teaching practices were implemented during the course, I wish I would have done more to collect evidence related to my teaching and course materials. In the future, I would use SALG surveys and additional formative assessments to gauge what is and isn’t working in the class. For instance, anonymous muddiest point exercises would have been helpful in receiving real-time student feedback.

Fostering learning communities

Although I was not yet familiar with the terminology of “learning communities,” I tried to support the development of learning communities throughout the course. A small cohort of four students presents some unique challenges and opportunities. First, I knew that having just one student not engaged with the course content could be detrimental to the entire class. Second, I knew that I would be able to monitor group work well and try to provide enough assistance and encouragement to keep students engaged.

In the end, I was pleased with the learning community that formed over the duration of this course. While students typically worked in pairs during lectures, they usually all worked together on homework problems. I think that providing detailed lecture notes (Artifact 1) in this type of class was beneficial to foster learning communities because it allowed students to more fully participate with their peers. The critical assessments of published research (Artifact 2) further allowed the learning community to grow as students engaged in thoughtful conversations related to course learning outcomes.

If I teach this class again, I would provide a more structured way for students to share resources and engage with one another outside of lectures. This could take the form of an on-line forum or at least a file-sharing website. With four students, it was easy to get a sense of their outside-of-class interactions, but even with eight or ten students, it could be more difficult. I would also encourage students to take pictures of their in-class white board work and share it with their peers.

Promoting diversity and inclusion

Although small, the class was very diverse, both in educational backgrounds and in identities. As undergraduates, the four students had different majors: mechanical engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and civil and environmental engineering. The diversity of backgrounds and expertise was an asset to the course throughout the semester, especially since the course involved components that fit into each student’s niche area. For instance, the student with a BS in math was comfortable using differential equations and performing derivations while the student with a chemistry BS provided insights into the biochemical components of the course.

The four students also represented diverse identities. One student was a female who previously competed as a figure skater. Another was a male student from Texas with Hispanic roots. Another was born and raised in Mexico City. And one was a male student born and raised in the Midwest. Two of these students identified as under-represented minority students.

To help promote diversity, I assigned pairs throughout the course to ensure students would work with different partners. If a student was being silent for an extended period of time, I would check-in outside of class to see how things were going. Additionally, it was during this class that I stopped referring to a group of individuals as “you guys.” While I slipped up a couple times, I wanted to make sure that the one female student did not feel isolated in a male-dominated class (and field). Lastly, to promote diversity, I included papers from a wide-range of authors when I assigned the papers. The biological nitrogen removal paper (Artifact 2) had a female primary author along with two other papers presented in the class (3 of 8). In the future, I will try to include a 50/50 mix of male and female authors and I will also try to include more ethnically diverse authors. Additionally, I will include full author names whenever possible (rather than initials) to highlight that authors with predominantly female names are contributing to the field of environmental engineering.

Where possible, I also tried to use diverse assessments. For instance, the final exam included diverse question types with varied levels of scaffolding. While the exam has historically been a take-home exam, I appreciated that this made for an inclusive summative assessment than a strictly timed final exam. The anxiety induced by exams became more evident as I progressed through other teaching experiences. In the future, I will use take-home exams whenever possible. Not only do they reduce anxiety, but they give students more autonomy and are more representative of how students will be expected to work in engineering environments.

Providing detailed lecture notes prior to class also made the course more inclusive. While it might disincentivize lecture attendance, it also allows students to more fully engage with active learning activities and provides an additional way to engage with course material.

Teaching Artifacts

Artifact 1: Example Lecture Notes

During the Spring 2018 semester, I developed fifteen sets of lecture notes. The lecture notes were intended to (1) layout the objective of the lecture; (2) provide a roadmap for the lecture; (3) identify relevant textbook sections for further reading; (4) provide a broad overview of the topic; and (4) provide fundamental equations for understanding biological processes used in environmental engineering; and (5) provide practical example problems. This artifact is an example of the lecture notes I generated for CIVENGR 821: Environmental Engineering: Biological Treatment Processes related to biological nitrogen removal in wastewater treatment.

I started these lecture notes with the big picture by highlighting the importance of nitrogen, both as an essential nutrient for life and a potential pollutant. I then introduced conventional nitrogen removal processes used in wastewater treatment and the overall chemical reactions mediated by the microorganisms involved in biological nitrogen removal. The notes then showed examples of how we can select for the desired nitrogen transformation processes in an engineered bioreactor. Lastly, the notes demonstrate the use of kinetic and stoichiometric models to simulate reactor behavior using computer models.

While students were encouraged to take their own notes during lectures, providing detailed lecture notes allowed students to focus on the active-learning exercises during class. While having students work at whiteboards is a great way to stimulate group work and monitor their progress, it also means that students may not be able to record everything they write on the whiteboards. I remedied this by either including detailed solutions in the lecture notes after the lecture, or by adding pictures of students’ work to the lecture notes. For the biological nitrogen removal lecture, I had students attempt to draw the reactor configurations that are handwritten in the lecture notes and also had them attempt the computer modeling discussed at the end of the notes.

For all of the lecture notes, I ended with follow-up questions. Sometimes, these questions were intended to serve as a segue into the following lecture. Sometimes, they were hints for quiz or final exam questions. And, sometimes, they were just meant to stimulate additional thoughts. In a graduate class, I think it is especially important to provide “food for thought” so students recognize broader applications of the lecture material.


Artifact 2: Example Student Paper Presentation

Throughout the semester, students were responsible for presenting papers related to course topics. I selected the papers and included them in the syllabus. After introducing the papers on the first day of class, I allowed students to pick the papers they wanted to present. There were four students in the class, so each student was responsible for presenting two papers. The paper presentations accounted for 15% of the final course grades.

One hour was set aside for each paper presentation and the presenting student was expected to give a 40 minute presentation on the paper, highlighting key findings and how they related to course material. After the presentation, the presenter answered questions and the entire class and instructors discussed the paper. To help students prepare, I provided a grading rubric at the beginning of the semester, which is shown below.

For this artifact, I have included an example student presentation (Artifact 2) for the paper discussed during the biological nitrogen removal section. This was a well-organized, high quality presentation and is representative of the presentations produced by this cohort.