Karin Öberg, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Astronomy, taught departmental introductory course Stellar and Planetary Astronomy in 2016 by building on established material and modifying the curriculum using student feedback and her own observational assessment.
The benefits: Öberg saved pre-semester preparation time by using the same in-class worksheets of earlier iterations and retaining the course’s primary elements—three lab sessions; weekly blog post assignments; and an active, collaborative learning in-class format supervised and assisted by roaming instructors. Read more about A balancing act: Making established courses your own
Alfred Guzzetti, Osgood Hooker Professor of Visual Arts, dedicates the final session of VES 52R: Introduction to Non-Fiction Videomaking—where students spend the term creating one nonfiction film on a subject of their choosing—to a class-wide postmortem discussion about all course elements.
The benefits: Unlike online course evaluations that close with students’ responses to questions, Guzzetti’s postmortem is a two-hour, informal dialogue: “I ask, ‘Why do you think that? Was it worth spending two weeks on the introductory assignment? What did you get out of it?’ It’s a conversation.” The inclusive discussion allows him to address student critique about course structure and specific assignments, as well as the advantages, disadvantages, and motivations for potential changes. Read more about Engaging students in a course postmortem dialogue
Jie Li, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, provides students with multiple opportunities to collaborate in General Education course AI 63 East Asian Cinema. Students have the option to collaborate in groups of four to five, on projects such as a short film or screenplay, for their weekly and final assignments.
The benefits: In groups, students can experience different roles in the filmmaking process (director, videographer, editor, actor) and combine their diverse talents and interests. “I try to get students to learn about film by making a film. You can only get one perspective working as an individual. In groups, Read more about Leveraging individual strengths in collaborative projects
Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies, trains students to interpret history through various media including graphics, data visualizations, videos, and art installations.
Joshua Greene, Professor of Psychology, designs course sessions for maximum engagement by creating interactive opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to grapple with problems and challenge one another. “It’s not a puzzle if there are not two competing, compelling arguments. I try to use students’ natural inclinations to achieve my pedagogical purposes—if they’re not at least a little confused, then I’m not doing my job.”
Gojko Barjamovic, Lecturer on Assyriology, increases student learning in ANE 103 Ancient Lives by designing activities to engage students’ full range of senses. “To convince people to commit a semester of study to ancient history, you have to make it meaningful.”
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." Read more about Engaging students via field trips, near and far
Bernhard Nickel, Professor of Philosophy, engages students in his introductory College courses about the “hidden curriculum”—defined here as the social and disciplinary norms often invisible to both students and the teaching staff, including expectations about class preparation, in-session focus, respectful discussion behavior, and the role of feedback.
The benefits: Addressing the hidden curriculum explicitly in class surfaces and dispels student assumptions about conduct (for example, concerns that discussing a paper with the instructor during office hours is cheating) that often cause poor academic performance but cannot be solved with narrowly academic feedback. Read more about The hidden curriculum: Engaging students on another level
Racha Kirakosian, Assistant Professor of German and of Religion, selected works of art for an installation at the Harvard Art Museums for students in her freshman seminar, Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Finding Justice and Truth in the Middle Ages. She planned three visits—one to introduce the works depicting justice and truth in the University Study Gallery, another for student presentations of assigned objects, and a final Art Study Center session where students debated their personal definitions of justice. “I like the parallel of moving into different physical spaces as we move from historical cases and medieval law texts to more abstract concepts.”
Ryan Enos, Associate Professor of Government, assigns an original research project—students define a question, design a study, collect data, and present their results—in his undergraduate and graduate political science courses. “It’s an opportunity to gain first hand experience conducting behavioral experiments, and to navigate all the necessary steps, questions, and challenges.”
Shigehisa (Hisa) Kuriyama, Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History and Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations,prefers brief video assignments – where students create a visual presentation with audio narrative – to regular written response papers. “I think the ability to express oneself with media is one of the most usable skills.”
The benefits: Students exhibit a sense of ownership, interest, and investment in their media projects – even sharing them with family and friends – unlike written assignments. They improve their multimedia skills, and more critically, students learn to prepare for and present to an audience. Read more about Multimedia assignments: A doable skill, a usable skill
Logan McCarty, Director of Physical Sciences Education, and Louis Deslauriers, Director of Science Teaching and Learning, adopted an active pedagogy for a large introductory physics course and saw significant gains in student learning and attitudes. Assessment played a role every step of the way.
The benefits: By explicitly stating the course learning objectives and designing complementary in-class activities, they created effective feedback loops – the activities helped students assess their own understanding, and according to McCarty, “more importantly, the instructors got feedback on how students are learning.”
The challenges: Defining course learning objectives can “feel awkward. It feels artificial. And the value is not immediately apparent,” McCarty admitted. “But it is essential for creating effective assessments.”
Takeaways and best practices
Revisiting learning objectives may expose invalid assumptions. When the instructors tested an elementary concept from the course prerequisites, they found that many students did not in fact understand it – crucial feedback that, McCarty said, “in six years of teaching this subject, I had never seen before.”
Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, rethought her teaching by rethinking her classroom. She created a flexible classroom, “the SciBox,” to encourage active learning, greater engagement, and student ownership.
The benefits: The entire 2,500 sq ft flexible space is on wheels – from the flat screen TVs to the lab benches to the couches – and can morph quickly to suit a given activity (small group discussions, hands-on labs), creating novel approaches to meet course learning objectives. Read more about Getting the most out of classroom space
Alison Simmons, Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy, made a decision in 2012 to include a policy in all her syllabi stating that electronic devices be put away during class time.
The benefits: Without distractions, her students are more actively engaged. “Philosophical discussion is a team sport that requires refraining from conversation and activities that do not contribute to the discussion, actively listening to each other, and working with each other." Read more about Devices in the classroom? Things to consider