Faculty Focus: Amber Brian

Faculty Focus: Amber Brian

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Amber Brian is a veteran TILE instructor who offers a great perspective on how teaching in a TILE classroom can transform student engagement.

Professor Amber Brian is no stranger to the Transform Interact Learn Engage (TILE) program at the University of Iowa. She was a member of the original cohort of faculty that Dr. Bob Beichner trained in the very first TILE Institute (a precursor to the TILE Essentials training) in the summer of 2010.

Although much of the early training on active-learning classrooms focused on the sciences, Dr. Brian, along with her colleagues Maria José Barbosa and Tom Lewis from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, identified an opportunity to incorporate elements of active and student-centered learning into their Humanities classrooms.

Professor Brian immediately put what she learned from the TILE Institute into practice when she started teaching her “Visual Culture: Colonial Spanish America” course in TILE’s first classroom during the fall semester of 2010.

In the ensuing 4 years, Dr. Brian has added another course to her TILE repertoire and has consistently incorporated TILE pedagogy, focusing on group work and task-based activities, into her non-TILE courses.

Although Professor Brian acknowledges that transforming a course can be time-consuming, she relishes the opportunity to improve on her students’ learning experiences.

“You’re transitioning from a series of PowerPoints, that maybe you’ve had for years and years, where you’re clicking through the information the students need to learn, to activities where the students are actively part of the process of engaging with the material and the topic being discussed,” Brian explains.

She also points out that there is a tradeoff between the efficiency of a lecture and the level of engagement that comes with student-centered active learning.

“It’s not efficient from the standpoint of an instructor who has this list of material she needs to get through. But in terms of what the students are actually internalizing: they are just able to engage with the material in such a different way when they’re doing it collaboratively with their classmates, and they are actually responsible for it over the course of the class period,” says Amber Brian.

And Professor Brian has firsthand experience of how that collaborative setting can be particularly beneficial for language classes.

“Students are not exactly in their comfort zones when they are expected to walk in and talk about real issues in a language that is not their native language. There are all sorts of stressors that can come up and working in those small groups helps to decrease that anxiety a lot,” Dr. Brian notes.

As one of the programs most seasoned instructors, Amber Brian provides a great example of how the TILE spaces encourage student-centered active learning. The greatest piece of wisdom that she would pass on to instructors is to remember that the TILE spaces support student-centered learning, so instructors should keep an open mind about how students, themselves, can guide the learning process.

“For me it didn’t feel like a dramatic transition because I was fairly comfortable releasing the reins of the classroom…That doesn’t mean that the class is unfocused or running in different directions…Give them space to create that dynamic with their peers as they engage.”

Dr. Amber Brian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, where she specializes in colonial Spanish-American literature.