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Faculty-Student Partnership Takes a STEPP Towards Superior Teaching

Professor of Hispanic Studies Eva Woods Peiró has been teaching at Vassar for two decades, but she says she’s never stopped looking for ways to do her job better. So when Peiró learned about a new initiative that matches faculty members with student partners who monitor their classrooms, she signed up immediately.

Peiró was one of 11 faculty members who took part this fall in the Student Teacher Engaged Pedagogical Partnership (STEPP). Students enrolled in the program were assigned to a faculty member who is not involved in that student’s regular course work. The student monitors a class and shares observations and reflections in weekly one-on-one sessions with the faculty member.

Peiró described her experience with STEPP as empowering, for both her and her students. “The feedback I received was couched delicately and positively in an affirming way,” she said. “STEPP makes a statement about teaching as a collaborative experience.”

Students and faculty members participating in STEPP meet periodically to share observations about the experience.Photo: Courtesy of Henry Molina ’19

Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn, one of STEPP’s creators, said Peiró’s assessment of the program is exactly what he was hoping for. STEPP began as a pilot program involving four faculty members and four student partners during the 2020 Spring Semester. It was developed by the Inclusive Pedagogy and Curriculum working group of Vassar’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI), in cooperation with faculty and students from the College’s Grand Challenges Initiative.

Kahn, who chairs the EPI working group, said he and other members reached out to other colleges for examples of creative ways that faculty members were learning to hone their craft. “We found out that Bryn Mawr had been doing something like this for 20 years,” he said. “And it’s not just about the faculty getting better at teaching; it’s also about giving students a deeper understanding of how courses are taught.”

Student partner Mark Fossesca ’23, who monitored a class taught by Associate Professor and Chair of Chemistry Alison Spodek Keimowitz, said he and Keimowitz collaborated on some ideas to help the class run more smoothly. And he said the experience had also enhanced his own understanding about the nature of teaching and learning. “Working with Alison has really contributed to what I’m getting out of all of my own classes,” said Fossesca, an Environmental Studies major from Hatboro, PA. 

“We became friends and talked about issues beyond STEPP,” he added. “Alison gave me advice about which chem courses I might consider taking for my major.”

Associate Professor of Biology Jodi Schwarz noted that fostering beyond-the-classroom relationships between students and faculty has always been a hallmark of a Vassar education and said STEPP has enhanced that effort. Schwarz, who oversees Vassar’s Grand Challenges program, which fosters diversity and inclusivity in the College’s STEM programs, said that Nandeeta Bala ’22 will be supported as a Grand Challenges intern so that she can continue leading the program in the spring. Bala recently published a paper on the elements of the program with Bryn Mawr Professor of Education Alison Cook-Sather.

“The goals of Grand Challenges include helping faculty evolve their teaching practices, fostering inclusiveness, and bringing student and faculty together outside the classroom,” Schwarz said. “STEPP was a perfect fit.”

Nywel Cheaye ’22, a Science, Technology and Society major from New Castle, DE was a student partner for Professor of Biology Nancy Pokrywka. She said the semester-long partnership had enhanced her Vassar experience, particularly at a time when students and faculty are coping with COVID-19. “The STEPP program has made me so much more empathetic towards faculty, especially during this pandemic,” Cheaye said. “Everyone is figuring out how to navigate Zoom classes together, and when I found myself getting frustrated, Nancy reminded me to give my professors grace.”

Assistant Professor of Biology Colin Aitken agreed. “I’ve always tried to create close relationships with my students because I think they tend to work harder for someone they trust,” Aitken said. “Joining STEPP seemed like it could contribute to that, and it’s a good time to rock the boat a little. Our whole boat is being rocked by this pandemic, so why not try out some new life jackets?”