Tar Heel: Kelly Hogan learned a better way to teach; now she’s sharing it with others

Kelly Hogan, Tar Heel of the Week, is a biology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Kelly Hogan, Tar Heel of the Week, is a biology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. UNC

Kelly Hogan had been teaching 400-student biology classes for a few years when she received a statistical wake-up call – an analysis showing that black students and first-generation college students were getting far more Ds and Fs in her classes than other students.

Working to close those gaps led her to revamp a state-university staple – the massive, impersonal introductory class.

In her classes, Hogan lectures only briefly to reiterate key concepts, instead creating targeted activities and guiding her students through them. Part of a national trend, the new approach not only narrowed the gaps between different groups, but actually improved the performance of her students overall.

A study she co-authored on the approach has garnered national attention, including mentions in The New York Times and The Atlantic. And now Hogan, who has co-authored several biology texts and won numerous teaching awards, is is working to help more professors revamp their lecture classes.

Fellow biology professor Jean DeSaix was with Hogan when she first saw the data that started her quest for change. Both of them were stunned by the gaps, but DeSaix says Hogan was well-suited to the task of closing them.

“It was all about the students, and it was also about the data,” says DeSaix. “And Kelly cares about students more than anyone I know, but she also approaches her work as a scientist. She’s this sort of quiet, natural leader.”

Natural teacher

Hogan was born in Brooklyn but raised in New Jersey, where she was interested in art from a young age, spending hours in her room drawing and painting.

Her father was a middle school social studies teacher, but she didn’t picture herself growing up to be a teacher. She aspired to be an architect.

Still, she says, there were early signs that she had a talent for teaching. When she was only about 5, she potty-trained a younger friend. And as she grew into a solid student, she often tutored her classmates.

Once at college, she developed an interest in genetic diseases, and came to UNC-CH to study pathology at the medical school.

But as she earned her Ph.D., she found herself drawn toward the part of her work where she taught and mentored students.

“I enjoyed research, but I really loved teaching more,” she says.

In 2004, she took a position in the biology department that was part of an initiative to hire more professors who focus on teaching instead of research as a way to improve instruction.

Petite and soft-spoken, Hogan had reservations about teaching the large introductory courses. Before taking the job, she had taught at N.C. Central University and at UNC-CH during the summer where her classes were 50 students or less.

“It always seemed to me that to teach in a giant lecture hall you have to put on a show and have a funny, entertaining personality,” she says. “I didn’t see myself that way.”

Her theory was borne out by her husband, a chemistry professor who reveled on the stage before a large class. But she found her way, and felt she was an effective instructor – until the data showed her otherwise.

Reaching more students

An analysis by the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence put her on her current track. It showed that in her lecture classes, 1 in 3 black students got a D or F, compared to 1 in every 20 white or Asian students.

Hogan was shocked, but it also motivated her to make changes to a format she suspected was less than ideal. She earned a grant, and started researching different educational approaches, attending workshops and trying out new methods.

By 2010, she had revamped her lecture classes using a blend of approaches she created and found in use at other universities.

The first component happens before class, when students read, view videos and complete online quizzes on the material. Some students may take longer than others to do this, but all arrive in class on an equal footing.

Once there, she introduces a question or problem, and students work through it doing a variety of activities alone or in groups, such as graphing a data set on their laptops or sketching out a process such as cell division.

Finally, she weighs in to tie the lesson together. Then it’s on to the next concept.

Her data showed that using this style, the disparities between black and white students shrank considerably, and the narrower gap between first-generation college students and their classmates was completely eliminated. Students overall showed better understanding of the material.

Last year, she was tapped by the college of liberal arts and sciences to help other professors restructure their lecture classes – not only in the sciences but in other introductory courses.

It’s a change that takes a lot of preparation, and she’s landed several grants to cover the needed technology and staff time. So far, the approach is used in all biology, chemistry and physics classes, as well as some economics and psychology classes.

Her student-focused approach also includes mentoring, an interest she shares with her husband, who is now academic director of the university’s Carolina Covenant scholarship program.

Hogan and her husband mentor a group of about 30 students through a science scholarship program, and she says those students quickly become an extension of their family. The couple are also spearheading a program to train professors as mentors.

Since many of her students are freshman, she helps ease their transition to college and find help for any number of problems that hold them back, whether it’s mental health or monetary issues.

“I think of myself as a first responder,” she says. “I teach so many students, I have a big reach, and I think about how best to use that.”

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Kelly Hogan

Born: March 1974, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Residence: Chapel Hill

Career: Director of Instructional Innovation, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Senior STEM Lecturer, Biology Department, UNC-CH

Awards: Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2015; Outstanding Advising Award for Faculty, NACADA, 2015; Mentoring Award, Carolina Women’s Leadership Council, 2014; Robert E. Bryan Public Service Award, UNC-CH, 2014; Spirit of Inquiry Award, Pope Foundation for Higher Education, 2011; Instructor of the Year, UNC-CH Biology Department, 2011; Undergraduate Teaching and Staff Award, UNC-CH, 2010

Education: B.S. Biology, The College of New Jersey; Ph.D. Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, UNC-Chapel Hill

Family: Husband Brian; Children Jake and Lexi

Fun Fact: One of Hogan’s favorite parts of writing textbooks is working on storyboards for graphic features – allowing her to explore her artistic side. “Sometimes I spend a little longer than I need to on them,” she says.