active learning

Leveraging asymmetry in student's prior knowledge through peer learning exercises


Salil VadhanSalil Vadhan, Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics & Lead PI on Harvard’s Privacy Tools Project, teaches COMPSCI 120: Introduction to Algorithms and their Limitations, a new introductory course in theoretical computer science “aimed at giving students the power of using mathematical abstraction and rigorous proof to understand computation with confidence.” Many computer science students are “builders” who enjoy the creative aspect of the field, yet their mathematical backgrounds are often quite diverse; to some, mathematical theory is unfamiliar. In redesigning the undergraduate computer science curriculum, it was a priority to make this “new language, reasoning, and way of thinking” accessible to students early in the program.... Read more about Leveraging asymmetry in student's prior knowledge through peer learning exercises

Developing cultural and linguistic competencies through music


Taiwo EhineniTaiwo Ehineni, Preceptor of African Languages, emphasizes the importance of “cultural frames” in language learning, or the ecologies in which the language is developed and used. “When students come to take my language class, it is an opportunity to introduce them to Nigeria.” One way this is accomplished is by using songs and music, which express culturally resonant ideas through creative uses of language. Ehineni teaches Yoruba as well as West African Pidgin. Class begins with students singing a song in Yoruba together while Ehineni plays the drums. Then they generate a vocabulary list based on the song they sang together, examine the grammatical use of the word in the lyrics, and look up the meaning.... Read more about Developing cultural and linguistic competencies through music

Exploring creativity in the (virtual) classroom


David Atherton, headshotDavid Atherton, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, taught Creativity, a general education course which explores the nature of creativity and the role it plays in our lives, remotely in spring 2021. The course was originally designed before the COVID-19 pandemic and was proposed in response to undergraduate students’ desire for more creative expression, spaces for reflection, and connections to their personal lives in the classroom. “Once the pandemic hit, the goals felt more critical than ever.” Atherton and a team of teaching fellows collaborated with the Bok Center to design the course, grounding it around four core questions. Every week, students were given a creative assignment coupled with an analytic reflection about how their creation connected to the course readings. The course’s capstone project invited students to apply the course themes and create something that would impact someone in their lives, beyond the context of the course. Students included a final reflective essay that explained their project goals.

Practicing complex, new skills in a supportive environment


Linda KaboolianLinda Kaboolian, Instructor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, teaches Negotiations for public health students who will continue to practice these skills in everyday and high-stakes settings all around the world. “I’m a social scientist,” she explains, “so I’m very concerned about how to modify practice as a negotiator to be relevant to the context you’re working with.” Kaboolian underscores the importance of understanding the power dynamics and cultural context at play before negotiating. She designs stylized cases steeped in research on culture and scaffolded in complexity, building from one-on-one discussions to multi-stakeholder, multi-issue dilemmas.

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Using podcasts to build foundational relationships between students


Matthew PottsMatthew Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, teaches Introduction to Ministry Studies, a cohort introductory course designed for graduate students who intend to go into the interreligious ministry broadly. His course offers an introduction that spans a variety of religions and simultaneously cultivates a sense of community amongst students. While the course was traditionally conducted in a lecture format with some section discussions, Potts had to rethink the course’s structure completely when it shifted online amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “I wanted to get people off screen,” he explains. Rather than sitting through a live lecture, students listened to podcasts of Potts and the teaching team conversing about the readings prior to each class. To ensure students would also engage with him directly, Potts also organized Oxford-style tutorials, with students meeting in groups of two or three and with a different member of the teaching team to discuss the course material. Students would write a one-page memo reflecting on the readings and present it to get the conversation going. “I wanted a place for students to come and continue the conversation and feel invested in what they had read or what they had listened to, but not in any burdensome way.”

Active Learning (Bok Center)

Check out the Bok Center’s guides and strategies for active learning, including approaching problems in STEM and leading discussions.

Shifting STEM culture


Robin GottliebRobin Gottlieb, Professor of the Practice of Teaching Mathematics, aims to make mathematics accessible and exciting to all students in each of her courses. “When students come to Harvard, they have very different but set ideas of what happens in the classroom,” Gottlieb explains. “In many high school math classrooms, the dominant cultural norm is an ‘I do, you do, we do’ model. The teacher is expected to tell you what to do. One of my main objectives is to shift the culture of the classroom so that students become mathematical thinkers.” Gottlieb works alongside colleagues on the preceptor team to construct classrooms in which students actively participate in the development of ideas. Inspired by colleagues’ such as Eric Mazur’s active learning and John Asher Johnson’s Tao of TALC, Gottlieb has students spend more time working on problems together in groups at the blackboard, reflect actively on questions and lessons from daily problem sets, and co-build community norms around supportive teamwork. Through group work, Gottlieb has developed mathematics classrooms that are more welcoming, active, and empowering places of learning. 

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