Q&A: New CTL director calls for evidence-based, inclusive approaches to teaching and learning

March 31, 2022, 11:14 p.m.

Cassandra Volpe Horii was appointed as the new director of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and associate vice provost for education on Feb. 7. The Daily sat down with Horii to discuss her new role and developments in CTL’s ongoing work to improve teaching and learning at Stanford.

Horii, a first-generation college graduate with a background in STEM education, previously worked at the California Institute of Technology as the assistant vice provost and the founding director of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach. In her new role at Stanford, Horii oversees and guides CTL’s various programs and resources to support students and faculty with learning, tutoring and classroom teaching.

Just several weeks into her new role, Horii said she views herself as an advocate for CTL and that she is “delighted by the wonderful teaching and learning ideas, projects and collaborations” that CTL has pioneered.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: What are the responsibilities and operations of CTL, both on a day-to-day basis and on a broader scale?

Cassandra Volpe Horii [CH]: The Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning [CTL] is a campus-wide resource. We work with students directly to support and enhance learning through academic coaching in individual meetings and group workshops, subject matter tutoring through course-specific drop-in sessions and one-on-one appointments, and trained peer partners for language conversation and academic accountability. Last year, CTL had over 11,000 student visits for academic coaching, tutoring, language conversation partners and workshops. CTL also works with faculty, academic and other teaching staff and teaching assistants on designing or redesigning courses, implementing evidence-based and inclusive teaching methods and incorporating learning technologies, among other topics. 

TSD: Which of these specific responsibilities fall under your purview as CTL’s new director?

CH: CTL already has amazing people and teams carrying out this work, and I view my role as, first and foremost, an advocate for CTL and for the work of teaching and learning being done by students, faculty and academic staff every day. I connect CTL experts with working groups, committees and projects where they can help, and I also support CTL staff as they sustain and grow these excellent programs, develop new approaches to help lead Stanford’s educational endeavors and look to the next phase of what we’re trying to all do together. Like everyone at the CTL, my role involves a lot of collaboration, with students, professors, lecturers, TAs, schools, departments, programs — you name it, we bring our understanding of what works in teaching and learning, and why that works, to where it’s needed at Stanford.

TSD: What are some of the evidence-based strategies that CTL implements?

CH: There are many, and over the last few decades, we’ve seen a huge growth in the number and type of studies really looking at what works at the university level, and the different kinds of disciplines and course settings. There’s increasing evidence that methods that involve students actively in some way in the classroom setting tend to produce deeper, more enduring learning that fosters a sense of belonging. That’s just one, but there are many other approaches, and we work those into all of our programs.

TSD: Roughly 17% of students at Stanford identify as first-generation and/or low-income (FLI). How do initiatives and programs at CTL support FLI students on campus? In what ways do you hope to further develop these projects?

CH: I’m a first-gen college graduate myself, and the work that we do to support FLI students is really close to my heart, as are CTL’s contributions to Stanford’s IDEAL [Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access in a Learning Environment] education initiatives overall. Most immediately, academic coaches are trained specifically in supporting FLI students, for example, anticipating what can be unclear about navigating college and what resources might be especially helpful at different points in time and through the college experience. Also, our work with professors and lecturers emphasizes what I would call “transparency” — that is sharing with students why and how assignments or other aspects of the course are going to be helpful to students, how students can best approach them, where to get feedback, where to seek help and what a successful final product would be like — what characteristics it might have. Inclusive approaches like this tend to result in learning experiences that are really challenging, also very rewarding, and they make the learning more about the present opportunity, rather than whether students had access to a similar learning experience before coming to Stanford.

TSD: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact students across campus, what resources is CTL  providing for optimizing hybrid and online classes?

CH: CTL has been adapting and supporting Stanford students and teachers throughout the pandemic. We’re continuing to be really committed to meeting people where they are and in the formats that they need now. As those formats continue to change, we also try to stay closely in touch with Stanford’s overall trajectory. In terms of the community, faculty and course design, CTL has built some really in-depth resources for teaching and course design that include strategies for promoting student wellbeing or incorporating helpful technologies, and those can be adapted to many different course formats and are all available in our on-demand guides.

TSD: How is CTL supporting the educational needs of students who have had to quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 and who may be trying to attend classes remotely or catch up on their work?

CH: I think the resources that are there for faculty and departments are helpful in building flexibility into courses and syllabi. Those models are available all the time and, in terms of formats for students, CTL services are really available to students as they need them. For example, academic coaching and tutoring are available online in those formats when students need them. At the same time, we’re bringing back a lot more in-person interaction for when that makes sense.

TSD: What are you most looking forward to accomplishing or working on in your role as director?

CH: It’s really, for me, getting to know Stanford’s amazing students, faculty, academic and other teaching staff, and teaching assistants that I’m really looking forward to. I’m only a few weeks into my work here and, already, I’m delighted by the wonderful teaching and learning ideas, projects and collaborations that I’ve had a chance to encounter — and really, the people making them happen. One example is the IDEAL pedagogy departmental project teams, which included faculty, academic teaching staff and students working together. They shared a series of lightning talks about their projects, just during the winter term a few weeks ago. I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to visit more classes, meet the students and faculty groups and really find out how people are approaching teaching and learning in the many contexts at Stanford. I’m excited about what new possibilities we’ll create together!

TSD: What is the tangible impact that you hope to have on CTL and at Stanford during your time as director?

CH: It’s a really important time when it comes to learning and teaching right now, and I think CTL is right in the middle of this key moment. Along with our collaborators in this collective, Stanford-wide initiative that we have, we participate in and help lead the Teaching Commons. I think students and instructors alike have really had to try a lot of new approaches to learning and teaching in the past two years, from big ideas about what really matters in courses and other kinds of learning experiences, to how academic experiences do or could do more to cultivate belonging, to new ways to collaborate with online tools and methods like digital inking or real-time interaction. I hope to really build capacity in the CTL so that we can keep supporting those new developments and address places where we really have room to grow, like connecting students and instructors in a lot more collaborative ways to share insights with each other and help inform where we go next.

Cassidy Dalva '25 is a News Managing Editor at The Stanford Daily. A prospective economics major from Los Angeles, California, Cassidy enjoys baking, playing pickleball, and spending time outdoors in her free time. Contact her at [email protected].

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