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Student Advising

Mastery Through Academic Coaching (MTAC)

Program Description

Mastery Through Academic Coaching (MTAC) is a co-curricular initiative designed to help Columbia undergraduates approach challenging intellectual problems in science and mathematics with creativity and confidence. Through MTAC, students work together to develop and apply critical thinking skills that will serve them both in and out of the classroom. MTAC is intended to be of value to students at all levels of mastery.

MTAC coaches meet weekly with groups of 6-8 students, where all students work collaboratively to extrapolate key principles from the prior lectures and to solve novel problems that develop and test students’ capacity to apply these key principles. These sessions are student-run, and the coaches’ participation is limited to providing clarifications, modeling innovative cognitive strategies, and keeping the groups engaged. The MTAC coaches are students who have already completed the biology sequence, go through a rigorous selection process and receive specialized and ongoing training in coaching strategies and methods.

The goal of MTAC is to complement, not replace, recitation sections, lectures, and tutoring. Tutoring and recitation sections help students achieve mastery of course content, while MTAC emphasizes problem solving skills.

MTAC is jointly sponsored by Columbia College, School of General Studies, and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. It has been designed with the full support of the Department of Biological Sciences. For the academic year 2014-2015, MTAC will support exclusively the introductory Biology course sequence BIOL C2005-2006/F2401-2402.

Program Origins

MTAC began in the 2012-2013 academic year as the brainchild of Adam Schweber, CC ’96, PBPM ’12, P & S ’18. Serving as a teaching assistant in Professor Mowshowitz’s introductory Biology course sequence, Adam was fascinated by the kinds of problems the course challenged students to solve, problems that were drawn from real-world scenarios that asked students to think like actual scientists. Adam hypothesized that a common set of meta-cognitive strategies were bedrock to scientific thinking, and that students could learn these strategies, equipping them with tools that would ensure greater success both in college and beyond.

Because problem-solving at its best is active, creative, and collaborative, Adam hoped that students could teach each other what they needed to know. With this in mind and with Professor Mowshowitz’s encouragement, Adam organized half a dozen study groups for students currently enrolled in biology, small groups that got together to review course concepts – as in a traditional study group – but also focused explicitly on problem-solving methods. The students ran the group themselves, with Adam posing problems and contributing as needed to encourage active participation. The groups received positive feedback from students, and early assessment indicates that coaching sessions contributed to student success in the course.

Based on Adam’s successful initiative, in spring 2014 administrators from CC, GS, and SEAS collaborated to explore the option of replicating Adam’s model on a larger scale, so that it could reach and help more students. The program was officially named MTAC: Mastery Through Academic Coaching. As of September 2014, MTAC will serve Columbia introductory biology students and employ paid and trained student coaches.

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