Participants support teaching assistants, faculty, and departments while gaining hands-on professional development experience with educational best practices
December 16, 2021 – If you’re a student or postdoc working as a teaching assistant, you might have questions about how to grade students’ work, how to keep students engaged in a class, or how to work most effectively with a course instructor.
The Pedagogy Fellows at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health can help.
Under the Pedagogy Fellows program, now in its second year, a small group of doctoral students and postdocs helps strengthen educational activities across courses, degree programs, and departments at Harvard Chan School. The group of fellows is provided with professional development on topics such as the science of learning, teaching in a diverse classroom, and using technology in teaching. In turn, the Fellows offer training, workshops, and support for the roughly 300 Teaching Assistants (TAs) at the School; provide input for faculty and departments on the development, design, or redesign of courses; and assist in school-wide initiatives such as developing new course modules that incorporate key public health education competencies.
“The Pedagogy Fellows program is an effort to provide more robust support across the School for teaching and learning excellence and improvements,” said Erin Driver-Linn, dean for education. She said that the fellows—“people who are passionate about teaching, early in their careers, and who can speak the language of those just starting as TAs”—are in a unique position to help enhance teaching and learning across the School.
When the program was piloted last year, the cohort included a dozen fellows. Based on the pilot experience, Driver-Linn and Sejal Vashi, manager of learning design and instructional support, who oversees the program, decided to designate two “Lead Pedagogy Fellows” as part of this year’s cohort. “We try to pair at least one fellow with each academic department and to ensure strong coordination of PF work across departments through the Lead PFs,” said Vashi.
Pedagogy during a pandemic
Last year’s inaugural cohort was “amazing,” said Driver-Linn. “They dove in and dealt with all kinds of ambiguity during the pandemic.” Vashi said the fellows’ support was invaluable as courses went online. “Last year, there were a number of courses that needed help transitioning to the online format,” she said. “Pedagogy fellows were a big help in strategizing how best to organize the classes and in making that transition successful.”
Joy Shi, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Epidemiology, and Beth Stelson, a PhD candidate in population health sciences, became Lead PFs partway through last year. Lead fellows meet weekly with both the larger group of fellows and with Driver-Linn and Vashi to help address any issues or questions that arise in the group. “It could be anything from, ‘I wrote to the faculty member two weeks ago but they haven’t written back. What should I do?’ to something more substantive,” Vashi said.
Shi said that being a fellow during the pandemic was definitely a challenge.
“A lot of upfront work was required in reimagining and redesigning how to deliver content,” she said. Stelson said piloting the program with the teaching landscape changing day by day was like “building the plane while flying it.”
Still, Shi said the experience was a great learning opportunity. “We learned from learning designers and instructional technologists, from other pedagogy fellows, and from students about what works best for them, and we really tried to adapt over the course of the semester,” she said. Added Stelson, “We had an opportunity to figure out and test a lot of different options and see what lands. We also made a lot of headway in helping faculty think of us as potential partners and in thinking about how to engage students in a way that really benefits learning and is equitable to everybody in the classroom.”
The Fellows’ efforts have included creating department-specific office hours for TAs; compiling resources and best practices for engaging students online; suggesting tweaks to courses that have overlapping content, or incorporating new topic areas such as environmental justice or climate change into existing courses; and creating short podcasts on topics such as how to facilitate a small-group discussion or how to lead a quantitative lab on Zoom.
In the podcast about how to lead a quantitative lab remotely, Christina Howe, a doctoral student in biostatistics, offered a tip on how to write equations on Zoom. If you don’t have the appropriate technology, she said, “you can write the equation down on a piece of paper if you’re desperate and hold that up, or some people have a small whiteboard and hold that up to the Zoom screen. Sometimes that’s faster and easier than using the whiteboard or annotation feature on Zoom itself.”
Meeting of minds
This year’s Lead PFs are Katie Tomsho, a research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health (and one of the PFs from the inaugural year) and Derek Shyr, a PhD candidate in biostatistics. Shyr, who said he’s passionate about teaching—he’s been a TA for courses on regression analysis and longitudinal analysis—said that being a fellow is a perfect fit for him. “I really enjoy being a teaching assistant, and I love the opportunity to connect with students, to be on the front lines of getting students motivated and involved, to interact with professors, and to learn more about the landscape of teaching,” he said.
The fellows program represents “a meeting of the minds” of students, the School’s leadership, and departments, said Tomsho. “The groups bring a variety of ideas about improving teaching to the table, and they work together to bring some of those ideas to fruition,” she said.
Tomsho has been a TA for a course on health literacy and another on water pollution. She noted that being a lead fellow has given her a unique view of how things work at Harvard Chan School. “As a student and a TA, you get exposure to a tiny slice of the pie that keeps the school moving,” she said. “It’s been really fascinating to see how many people are involved in making decisions, such as how to meet new accreditation rules or how to meet the needs of a student group that’s come forward with a new proposal.”
Shyr urged students who want to know more about teaching dynamics and who want to have a hand in improving teaching and learning to consider applying to become a pedagogy fellow. “Reach out to one of the fellows and ask us about our experience,” he said. “So far, it’s been a really incredible ride.”
photo: Kent Dayton