Into Practice Featured Faculty

The below faculty profiles appeared in Into Practice, a biweekly communication distributed to active instructors during the academic year which highlights the pedagogical practices of individual faculty members from across schools and delivers timely, evidence-based teaching advice.

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A balancing act: Making established courses your own


Karin ObergKarin 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.

Engaging students in a course postmortem dialogue


Alfred GuzzettiAlfred 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.

Perspective-taking and humility training with medical case studies


Sadath SayeedDr. Sadath Sayeed, Assistant Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, introduces issues of ethical reasoning in medicine (e.g., confidentiality, professional boundaries, conflicts of interest, informed consent) with hypothetical cases and vignettes.

The benefits: Discussing anonymized cases helps first-year students in “Medical Ethics and Professionalism” (one component of Harvard Medical School required course Essentials of the Profession) contend with abstract considerations and terminology: “For example: autonomy. I

Leveraging individual strengths in collaborative projects


Jie Li, Into PracticeJie 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,

Difficult topics: Seeking and considering alternative viewpoints in the classroom


Meira LevinsonMeira Levinson, Professor of Education, develops case studies about difficult questions in educational ethics—for example, grade inflation, charter schools, and policies that disproportionately impact low-income students of color—for A203 Educational Justice students to debate and discuss the ethical dimensions of educational practice and policy.  

The benefits: In addition to in-depth content analysis, case discussions illuminate different views among students who may have expected they were in like-minded company.

Creative projects: Interpreting history through various media


Vincent BrownVincent 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.

The benefits: By tackling creative assignments in HIST 1912 History Design Studio, students learn as historical artists to evaluate and articulate the rationale for why they might select a particular medium. “History doesn’t have to be told in the medium of print.

Problems and puzzles: Boosting engagement with interactivity


Joshua GreeneJoshua 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.”

The benefits: Organizing both seminar-style discussions and large lecture lessons around a practical disagreement engages students

Student case pedagogy: Learning from their own experience


Ron HeifetzRonald Heifetz, Co-Founder of the Center for Public Leadership and King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer of Public Leadership, uses experiential teaching methods like student case analysis—where students collaboratively develop and analyze cases drawn from their own work experiences—to promote deeper engagement and stronger retention of leadership concepts.

The benefits: Teaching leadership as practice in the Harvard Kennedy School’s MLD 201 Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change and MLD 364 Leadership from the Inside Out: The Personal Capacity to Lead and Stay Alive requires not only

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

Nuanced assessments: More than the final grade

Howell Jackson

Howell Jackson, James S. Reid Jr. Professor of Law, experiments with end-of-semester exams and writing assignments to create opportunities for meaningful, formative feedback through skills practice, reflection, and peer collaboration.

The benefits: Jackson has experimented with multiple choice questions, most recently in Introduction to Securities Regulation, requiring students to select options such as “Clearly no” and “Probably yes” and then write short essays elaborating on a few of the questions they found particularly challenging or problematic.

Online engagement: Designing a learner-centered HarvardX course

Diane Moore

Diane Moore, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies and Education, collaborated with HDS and FAS colleagues to produce a six-module, online course offering through HarvardX called World Religions Through Their Scriptures. They designed all digital material for optimal engagement of the 130,000 enrolled students: “It’s essential to provide language and tools in order for students from diverse worldviews, religions, experiences, ages, and regions of the world to constructively interact around topics that often divide us.”

The benefits: Enabling interaction and discussion augmented the course experience for the 36,000 enrolled in her module. Moore was surprised by the quality and thoughtfulness of online threads: “The students—their voices, experiences, and contexts—became course resources. Engaging with others increased their retention of the content.”

From the source: Guest speakers in the classroom

Garvin

David Garvin, C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, utilizes guest speakers in General Management: Processes and Action in order to promote deeper understanding of managerial and organizational realities. He has experimented with and refined three approaches—Q&A with a case study protagonist, themed presentations and small group conversations with executives, and open-ended conversations with a guest lecturer (often an alum) about their career.

The benefits: Carefully selected, well-prepared guests provide depth and granularity. For many students, discussion with the actual decision-maker or case protagonist gives a truer sense of their authenticity: “We describe them on paper, now you get to see them in real life, interacting with others, and facing hard questions. Often a guest will share something in class that they would not commit to in writing.”

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."

‘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.

The hidden curriculum: Engaging students on another level


Bernard Nickel Into Practice profile PicBernhard 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. 

Museum collections: Using objects to teach the abstract

Kirakosian
Assistant Professor Kirakosian encourages students to have a last look at the course installation prior to the final class discussion. (Photo by B.D. Colen)

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 AgesShe 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.”

Late semester assignments: Recognizing merit through collaboration

Guinier

Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, incorporates collaboration into her late semester assignments in order to provide opportunities for self-improvement and self-reflection. “By sharing perspectives and differing approaches, classmates can in some cases teach their students more effectively than the professor.”

The benefits: Whether encouraging lecture course students to take their final exam in small groups or asking seminar students to prepare and lead portions of late semester discussions, Guinier believes collaborative endeavors show students that understanding how to get the answer is as important as getting the answer. 

Blended Learning: Using interactive online modules before class to enhance learning in class

Dan Levy

Dan Levy, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Faculty Chair of the Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, developed a series of online modules for Advanced Quantitative Methods I, work made possible by teaching fellow Teddy Svoronos and SLATE staff member Mae Klinger. The modules contain interactive videos, diagrams, and practice problems; an end-of-module quiz; and an anonymous feedback survey.

Primary sources: Teaching humanity in history

Brekus

Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, worked with Schlesinger Research Librarian Amanda Strauss this semester to design a session for her freshman seminar on Christianity and slavery: “When I arrived for our meeting, there was a table full of materials for me to look at—Amanda did so much work.”

The benefits: Handling primary source material connects students to humanity: “these were real people, with real lives, concerns, joys, and sorrows.” She and Strauss created four stations of 19th century sources illustrating perspectives on slavery, including Harriett Beecher Stowe’s personal copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a diary with no mention of the Civil War or slavery—Strauss’s idea, to round out the variety of human experiences of the era.

Research assignments: Teaching the production of knowledge

Enos

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.”

The benefits: Engaging in research facilitates the study of the production of knowledge—how it is created, replicated, and validated. According to Enos, “part of being a democratic citizen is being able to evaluate knowledge and understand what goes into it.”

Multimedia assignments: A doable skill, a usable skill


KuriyamaShigehisa (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. 

Learning through literature: ‘Closer to life as it is really lived’

Sucher

Sandra Sucher, MBA Class of 1966 Professor of Management Practice, teaches “The Moral Leader” at Harvard Business School with a literature-based approach. The MBA elective, introduced by Professor Emeritus Robert Coles in the 1980s, has since been taught by a number of HBS faculty. Each course meeting is dedicated to a work of fiction, biography, autobiography, or history, and the structured discussion forces students to describe and analyze the characters’ decision in context before passing judgment. “Students are brought much closer to life as it is really lived than they are in traditional lectures or case discussions."

Setting up effective feedback loops: The role of assessment in course transformation

McCarty and Deslauriers

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.”

Teacher/learner dependency: A classroom culture of reciprocity

Kay Merseth

Katherine K.  Merseth, Senior Lecturer on Education, creates a culture of reciprocity in her classroom where students and instructors are expected to both teach and learn. “The two words are often interchanged because they are inextricably linked – learners need teachers, and teachers need learners.” She establishes this in part by requiring attendance and learning students’ names.

The benefits: Though seemingly contradictory, shared teaching and learning responsibility enhances instructor influence. In General Education course “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education” (see video trailer), Merseth encourages students to lead the discussion, promoting new perspective and understanding. “When I teach, I get back more than I put out because I acknowledge this relationship between teachers and learners. I teach, basically, because I love to learn.”

Defining learning objectives: Pre-semester, and all semester

Tony Gomez-Ibanez

José A. (Tony) Gómez-Ibáñez, Derek C. Bok Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy, who holds appointments at the GSD and HKS, defines the learning objectives of his course (see his video course description) prior to the start of the semester and references them to frame each individual class session: “I use the first five minutes to place each class in the course – ‘The last class we talked about X and today we want to see how those ideas might apply to Y.’”

The benefits: Deliberately and specifically identifying what students should come away with each class places the focus on the learning process, rather than the specifics of a particular unit topic or case – Gómez-Ibáñez teaches economics, infrastructure, and transportation policy, primarily employing the case method.

Putting students at the helm of their learning experience

Hanson

Jon Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor of Law, saw an opportunity to improve learning by putting students in the driver's seat. Along with Jacob Lipton, JD ’14, he developed The Systemic Justice Project (SJP) – a policy innovation collaboration, organized and catalyzed by students – as a problem-oriented, team-driven, and experiential approach to courses in legal education.

The benefits: Systemic Justice” and “The Justice Lab” require that students work in teams to select and fully immerse themselves in a current social policy problem, an applied and interdisciplinary experience that many point to as the most memorable and rewarding coursework of their academic career. The approach connects students to issues they care about and the communities and people who stand to benefit from policy change.

Getting the most out of classroom space

Melissa FranklinMelissa 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.

Feedback vs. evaluation: Getting past the reluctance to deliver negative feedback

Keith Baker

When Dr. Keith Baker, Associate Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Anesthesia Residency Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, gives medical residents feedback, he emphasizes a “learning orientation” (where the goal is mastery), rather than a “performance orientation” (where the goal is validation of abilities).

The benefits: Framing feedback with a learning orientation creates a supportive learning environment where the instructor and student share the goal of improvement and believe that effort and strategy are the tools to achieve it. Feedback is diagnostic information used to know what and how to improve. “A learning orientation is critical for tolerating negative feedback and strongly influences how you give and receive feedback.”