Colleen Croniger’s teaching style honored with Diekhoff award

Colleen Croniger and a student in a lab
Colleen Croniger gives PhD student Chih-wei Ko a one-on-one look at research.

Students at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine know that even in nutrition courses, there’s always room for sweets.

That’s because, in Colleen Croniger’s relatable, interactive teaching style, Halloween candy is the springboard to a broader discussion on biochemical pathways. She challenges students to really think about what they are studying, not just passing exams.

It’s that imaginative approach, one she says is intended to instill an enthusiasm for science, that has also developed in students an enthusiasm for her.

Croniger, associate professor of nutrition and genetics and genome sciences, has received a 2013 John S. Diekhoff Award for Distinguished Graduate Student Teaching—an honor based on nominations and recommendations by graduate and professional students. The Diekhoff award, which also honors exceptional graduate student mentoring, is presented annually to four full-time faculty members who make exemplary contributions to the education and development of graduate students.

As one student observed, “Dr. Croniger creates a venue where students feel challenged to think critically and originally, yet comfortable enough to ask questions and seek help.”

An alumna of Case Western Reserve, Croniger has been with the School of Medicine since earning a PhD in biology in 1990. In addition to her work in the classroom, she actively researches metabolic pathways influencing obesity and diabetes. Croniger is a member of the university’s Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center and serves as director of its Metabolic Core, which conducts metabolic experiments.

Croniger’s approachability and engagement has won her legions of fans from the student body. An educator of undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and medical students, Croniger teaches Nutrition and Metabolism, Biochemistry, Medical Physiology and Food to Fuel.

She wins praise from students for her nurturing style, which they say fosters an environment to grow and prosper. A reoccurring observation by students is that Croniger genuinely cares for them.

In turn, Croniger credits Richard Hanson, the School of Medicine’s award-winning biochemistry professor and former department chair, as her research and teaching mentor.

“I was part of a fantastic team from his biochemistry department,” she said.

Croniger said she re-learned metabolism from Hanson and his colleagues, whom she described as “the best teachers.” She said that experience early in her career laid the foundation for her current style, which imparts basic knowledge, but teaches students many life skills, such as professionalism, leadership and compassion.

Studying metabolism is challenging due to its three-dimensionality, and because the body system fields regulation from various sources and in different manners.

Croniger describes herself as a “guide,” navigating students through the complex curriculum. She explained that she teaches in layers, or as a “spiral curriculum,” meaning students are taught the material more than once, and each turn of the spiral delves deeper into the curriculum.

For example, students are first exposed to the metabolic pathway and the chemical reactions occurring at each step, including those lessons with candy. Second, students are taught the regulation at the pathway’s key points. Third, students learn how this regulation is customized for each tissue, and, finally, students learn how diseases develop when these pathways change.

Students applaud Croniger’s non-lecture approach. Her combination of presentations, white board drawings and personal anecdotes is designed to reach students through various learning styles. And, students say, her enthusiasm for the field is not only apparent, but catching.

“Dr. Croniger makes students feel like the class is a priority to her,” one student said. “This is evidenced by a lot of behind-the-scenes work she does, such as continually updating assignments on BlackBoard and grading assignments with thoughtful comments. She genuinely wants the students to deeply understand the content of the course and fall in love with metabolism!”

In 2008, Croniger received the School of Medicine’s prestigious Scholarship in Teaching Awards, which recognized her positive impact on medical education and her student’s careers.

The university created the Diekhoff Award in 1978 to recognize full-time faculty members who make exemplary contributions to the education and development of graduate students at Case Western Reserve University. The award was created in honor of John Diekhoff, who served at the university from 1956 to 1970 in roles such as professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

Initially, the award recognized two faculty members who excelled in teaching; in 2009, the School of Graduate Studies expanded the award to honor faculty members with strong graduate mentoring skills. The Graduate Student Senate is responsible for the entire Diekhoff award decision-making process. Members of the Mentoring and Diekhoff Committee, chaired by Mark Barnes, reviewed nominations, interviewed nominees and selected winners from a large pool of candidates.

Additional winners of the Diekhoff Award will be announced in upcoming issues of The Daily.