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.... Read more about Nuanced assessments: More than the final grade

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.... Read more about Real problems: Teaching theory through practice

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.... Read more about The hidden curriculum: Engaging students on another level

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

Peer review (Canvas)

Canvas, Harvard’s learning management system, enables virtual spaces for team-based assignments.

Putting students at the helm of their learning experience


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.... Read more about Putting students at the helm of their learning experience

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.”... Read more about Feedback vs. evaluation: Getting past the reluctance to deliver negative feedback

Communicating course culture: Beyond the syllabus

Karen Brennan

Karen Brennan, Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, designs her syllabus for T550: Designing for Learning by Creating to not only communicate the plan for the course, but to introduce students to the course culture.

The benefits: Her use of quotations, images, and color appeals to the various ways that we engage with text, and gives students (many of them future instructors themselves) a glimpse of their upcoming course experience. Drawing on other forms of expression expands the possibilities for communicating the aspirations and intentions for the course.... Read more about Communicating course culture: Beyond the syllabus