Transforming Frontiers of Science with Adaptive Learning

by | Oct 23, 2017

Frontiers of Science is a one-semester course in Columbia’s Core Curriculum that challenges students to reflect on questions of science as they relate to the world around them. Students typically take the course in one of the two semesters of their first year.

The course gets complicated quickly, which can prove challenging for students who may not have as much familiarity or background in the sciences. So how do the instructors ensure that all students are learning the skills they need to understand complex concepts?

With funding from the Office of the Provost’s Hybrid Learning Course Redesign program, Darcy B. Kelley, Weintraub Professor of Biological Sciences, collaborated with Dr. Ivana Hughes, Senior Lecturer-in-discipline and Director of Frontiers of Science; Dr. Eric J. Raymer, Lecturer-in-discipline of Physics; and Sarohini Chahal, CTL Learning Designer, to produce a series of introductory online modules on statistics that have students use critical quantitative reasoning skills in the context of complex neuroscience concepts.


“Make sure [you are using] the right tool for what you want to accomplish.”

Leading up to the fall 2015 semester, the team worked with CTL staff to design modules to meet the varied levels of background and preparation of students and provided data analytics to further improve the course. The team used Smart Sparrow, an adaptive courseware that enables instructors to author authentic, differentiated learning modules.

After the fall semester, Sarohini Chahal interviewed Dr. Raymer to reflect on the team’s first run of the redesigned course.

What is the main objective of your course?

In Frontiers, we focus on new developments in science through the lens of “scientific habits of mind.” The habits are a series of tools such as statistics and probability that help students critically analyze data. The course consists of a weekly lecture that all students attend, followed by small-group seminars in which students discuss the week’s topic in more depth.

How did Smart Sparrow support your teaching and learning goals?

Teaching habits of mind is challenging because the students in Frontiers enter with a wide range of ability levels. Our goal is to bring every student to the same level of skill without spending too much time reviewing concepts that many of them are familiar with. The Smart Sparrow modules allowed students to work with the habits before coming to seminar, so that we could spend more time using those habits during discussions and activities in seminar. In addition, Smart Sparrow allowed us to tailor the instruction to the needs of each student.

Adaptive Learning: An educational method that utilizes computers as interactive teaching devices to orchestrate the allocation of human and mediated resources according to the unique needs of a learner.

How did the implementation process of Smart Sparrow go?

It went very smoothly. The technology was not too difficult to implement. The Smart Sparrow editor is very user-friendly. I have some experience with Javascript and JQuery, and created a couple of custom apps for our lessons. The Smart Sparrow team was very supportive and helpful throughout the development process. Overall, Smart Sparrow, CUIT, and CTL collaborations were very efficient.

What did you ask students to complete in Smart Sparrow?

We used Smart Sparrow for the first three weeks of the course in place of readings on statistics and testing scientific claims. Students completed a series of problems that were part of a narrative related to the science that they learned about in class. They had a chance to work with data from several experiments related to brain and behavior, while practicing the skills we wanted them to learn.

How did your students respond to the assignments?

We told them it was a new type of assignment and that we were trying to see if we could more effectively tailor the instruction to their individual needs. As with any new technology, there was much to learn during the initial implementation. Students responded well to the content, but were also quick to identify any technical problems that we had missed. After our initial implementation in the fall, we used student feedback to address major issues before spring semester began. As a result, we received much more positive feedback in the spring.

How did you assess the project content created by students in the Smart Sparrow? Any surprises?

For the most part there were no surprises. The students had a very positive experience overall. We found that they came to class prepared, and that they utilized more sophisticated vocabulary when discussing statistics. We heard from multiple instructors that the modules freed up time in seminar. For example, we were able to spend less time talking about how to calculate mean and standard deviation, and more time using those ideas to analyze data. We were very happy to see the concepts stuck even a month and a half later. While grading the midterm exams, we noticed that many students referred to the experiments they learned about in the Smart Sparrow modules.

Do you have any advice for faculty interested in implementing adaptive learning technologies with their students?

Make sure it is the right tool for what you want to accomplish. Knowing the role that we wanted Smart Sparrow to play in our course allowed us to stay focused during the development process. We also think it’s important to make sure the online lessons are very closely tied to the lecture, seminar, and homework. We wanted students to know why they were completing these lessons to avoid the perception that they were simply additional busy work.

During fall 2016, the CTL team will continue to support Dr. Kelley’s team with further redesign of their Frontiers of Science course with Smart Sparrow. The next iteration will allow for new enhancements in content delivery, and improvements in obtaining and utilizing student data analytics to positively impact their learning.

About the Provost’s Request for Proposals

The Hybrid Learning Course Redesign and Delivery grant program from the Office of the Provost provides support for faculty who are developing innovative and technology-rich pedagogy and learning strategies in the classroom. Awardees represent an array of disciplines affecting both graduate and undergraduate students, with a few additional courses that are a part of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Columbia faculty receive support from CTL staff for the redesign, delivery, and evaluation of their courses.

Learn more about our past awardees by going to the VPTL website.

This news item was originally published on at this link on August 1, 2016.