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The What, Who and How of DUE: The Teaching and Learning Laboratory

How TLL helps advance educational innovation at MIT

This is the eighth in a series of articles from the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE) that answers the questions: What does that office really do? Who works there? And how does the office advance/impact education at MIT?

Visitors to MIT often enter the door marked "Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL)" hoping to catch a glimpse of faculty and students in white lab coats working with lab equipment. To their surprise, there are no lab benches or strange-looking machines, but TLL does conduct experiments, collect and analyze data, make discoveries and reach conclusions. Instead of science and engineering, the focus is on education, specifically innovations in STEM higher education that enhance teaching and learning at MIT and beyond.

"TLL is different from many university teaching and learning centers," says Dr. Lori Breslow, TLL's director. "From the beginning, we've combined our expertise in teaching and learning with research.The synergy between these two parts of TLL is what allows us to contribute to MIT's educational mission in a variety of ways."

Promoting educational innovation 

Since it was founded in 1997, TLL has played a central role in advancing educational innovation at MIT. TLL's expertise in teaching and learning complements the disciplinary knowledge faculty and instructors bring to their teaching. The scope of TLL's work is wide ranging, including, for example, partnering with faculty on curriculum design, consulting on the use of interactive pedagogies like project-based learning, and helping new instructors become more effective in the classroom. In all cases, the work is accomplished through a close partnership with other members of the MIT community, including faculty, instructional staff, administrators and students.

A good example of the kinds of projects TLL undertakes is its contribution to MIT's partnership with Singapore in launching the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Specifically, TLL:

  • Developed an Engineering Curriculum Map that illustrates how the topics taught in the first three semesters at SUTD (the "freshmore year") are connected to one another. The Map is organized around four major learning outcomes that are broken down into the pivotal concepts and critical skills that SUTD students need to learn in order to be successful in upper-level courses.
  • Produced a set of almost 50, 15-minute videos called concept vignettes that teach the knowledge and skills identified on the Map. Narrated by MIT faculty, instructors, postdocs and graduate students, the concept vignettes rely on animations, visualizations and/or demonstrations to engage the students. Opportunities to "pause the video" give viewers the chance to work through a problem or consider an idea in more depth. Each concept vignette is accompanied by an instructor's guide. The first set of concept vignettes can be accessed from the TLL website.
  • Designed and implemented workshops, both at MIT and in Singapore, to help new SUTD faculty teach more effectively.

Another way TLL contributes to MIT's educational mission is by collaborating with faculty and others to assess the effectiveness of educational innovations. Since 2000, TLL has designed and implemented over 70 such assessment studies. TLL educational researchers work with a faculty member or instructor to identify a hypothesis about how or why the innovation will improve learning. The goal of these studies is to provide findings that the faculty or instructor can consider, review, and act upon. Examples of recent assessment studies include:

  • Principles of Chemical Science (5.111) – A two-year assessment of curricular innovations to make students more aware of the relationship between chemistry and biology. Students apply chemistry principles to solve biology-related problems. The study looked at the impact on students' attitudes, interests and behaviors.
  • MITCET Modularity Experiments – A year-long study of the experiments initiated by the MIT Council on Educational Technology to provide educational experiences that are more flexible in time (i.e., not always organized by semester) and geography (i.e., not always on campus). Experiments were conducted in two subjects in Aero/Astro (16.20 and 16.90); one in Mechanical Engineering (i2.002); and a project in Chemistry (Chemistry Bridge).
  • Energy Minor − TLL continued an evaluation of the new Energy Studies minor. The goals of the study were: (1) to identify how the different disciplines, that are part of the minor, contribute to students’ understanding of energy; and (2) to evaluate the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

View fact sheets of the assessment and evaluation studies led by TLL

Researching learning

Over the last several years, TLL has significantly expanded its effort in basic research in STEM education. In contrast to assessment studies that are often motivated by a specific project or innovation, this work is prompted by a question that is often, but not always, about learning. Like assessment studies, research in education uses a number of different methods, including sophisticated statistical modeling. Current research projects in TLL include:

  • edX study – TLL is leading a NSF-funded study in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to analyze the massive amount of data (for example, 230 million clicks!) generated by MITx's first MOOC, "Circuits and Electronics" (6.002x). Building on the work of physics Professor David Pritchard, the TLL study seeks to understand who the students were in 6.002x, what motivated them to register for and stay in the course, what characteristics they brought to 6.002x that might have helped them succeed in it and what course components related to achievement and persistence.
  • "Thrivatude" study – One of DUE's priorities is to ensure all students thrive at MIT by understanding and supporting student self-confidence and resilience. Building on work that has already been done to identify factors that help students flourish in college, TLL has designed and implemented a survey and conducted focus groups designed to help learn more about the experiences, attitudes and perceptions of MIT undergraduates.
  • Global Competency study – Many leaders in higher education have identified the need for college students to become more knowledgeable about and communicate in other cultures. Many courses and programs at MIT are designed to give students opportunities to engage in international experiences. But how can we gauge how those experiences have affected students and what they have learned from them? TLL is developing methodologies to directly measure students' global competencies and to strengthen the already successful international programs the Institute offers.

Teaching about teaching and learning

As the center of pedagogical expertise and educational assessment at MIT, TLL plays another critical role in enhancing STEM education — helping faculty and graduate students become better teachers. Academicians often get very little or no training in how college-students learn or effective teaching methods. TLL offers consultation, courses, and workshops on college-level teaching and learning. One of its most successful programs is the Teaching Certificate Program (TCP) for Graduate Students. TCP consists of eight workshops that can be taken either in the spring semester or in two weeks at the end of May. Topics include research that informs teaching, lecturing well, teaching interactively, and creating assignments and exams to foster learning. For each workshop, students are expected to read relevant articles in the field and complete a pre- and post-workshop assignment. Between 150 and 160 students from almost all departments at the Institute complete the certificate program each academic year.

Who works in TLL?

Lori Breslow, Ph.D., Director, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management

Frances Carter-Johnson, Ph.D., DUE Diversity Fellow and Postdoctoral Associate for Educational Research

Jennifer DeBoer, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate for Educational Research

Leann Dobranski, Assistant Director

Rudolph (Rudy) Mitchell, Ed.D., Associate Director for Assessment & Evaluation

Daniel Nocivelli, Administrative Assistant

Janet Rankin, Ph.D., Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning

Darshita (Dipa) Shah, Ph.D., Associate Director for Teaching and Learning

Glenda Stump, Ph.D., Associate Director for Assessment & Evaluation

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