active learning

Leveraging student heterogeneity to bridge gaps through active learning


Marianne Wessling-ResnickMarianne Wessling-Resnick, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry, employs active learning strategies including debate, ‘pair and share,’ and peer evaluation to bridge gaps in student experience and knowledge. “I have found that it is to my advantage to use the heterogeneity of the class as a tool.”

The benefits: Students enrolled in graduate courses at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health represent diverse academic preparation and intended career tracks, illustrated in matrix form to prospective students. “No matter what part of the quadrant you are in

Debate (ablConnect)

The ablConnect database highlights Harvard examples of active learning strategies including debate, pair and share, and peer instruction. 

Engaging students via field trips, near and far

James Hanken, MCZ

James Hanken, Professor of Biology and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), increases student engagement by taking students out of the traditional classroom. Whether organizing his freshman seminar around weekly excursions to Harvard’s museums, or guiding a spring break field trip to Costa Rica for undergraduates enrolled in OEB 167 Herpetology, these immersive experiences “provide opportunities for students to see and understand things they simply won’t get in the classroom.”

The benefits: While Hanken favors the traditional lecture for certain material, field trips expose students to people and ideas unavailable in the classroom setting, like interviewing museum directors about the challenges of curation and exhibit administration. The field exposure in Costa Rica, a trip largely sponsored by the MCZ, gives students an understanding of animals as living organisms, not just static entities—an immersive experience "we are uniquely qualified to offer."

Course-based field trip grants

The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies provides grants to faculty who design and lead course-based field trips. 

The Field Method

See Harvard field learning resources at Harvard Business School

‘Real-world’ projects: Balancing student learning and community need

Ann Forsyth headshot

Ann Forsyth, Professor of Urban Planning, incorporates projects with clients into many of her Graduate School of Design courses, from semester-long endeavors to optional assignments. Students gain experience designing sustainable and healthy cities by working with and producing reports for government, educational, and non-profit organizations.

The benefits: While students can learn new perspectives researching a case or scoping a theoretical project, partnering with clients offers a chance to understand political, ethical, and technical dimensions and manage time with real stakes. “Students are required to meet with the community, relate to people, and collect data in that context. It adds a certain ethical commitment.”

Real problems: Teaching theory through practice

Jelani Nelson: Profile Photo

Jelani Nelson, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, assigns students real programming problems in his introductory algorithm courses, CS124 Data Structures and Algorithms and CS125 Algorithms & Complexity. Students write and test their coded solutions to practice problems via an open server on the course website and receive immediate feedback on their work.

The benefits: According to Nelson, programming problems increase students’ understanding of computational theory by helping them practice algorithm design methods such as the divide and conquer technique. In addition to the retention benefits, the course server software offers scalable instruction practices including automated grading and more efficient management of deadline extensions.

Active learning tip sheet (Bok Center)

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning provides resources on active learning - activities requiring students to recall, think about, apply, and verbalize concepts - as well as a tip sheet of approaches.

Active learning (Bok Center)

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning provides resources on active learning - activities requiring students to recall, think about, apply, and verbalize concepts - as well as a tip sheet of approaches.

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