Problems and puzzles: Boosting engagement with interactivity

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

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 more deeplywith the content, stimulates curiosity, and prompts them to think in new ways. “You learn by being challenged. I tell students, ‘We’re going to make each other feel dumb in this course.’”

The challenges: Much preparation goes into organization of intellectual tensions, without knowing in what order they will be discussed. “Done well, it should feel like we are just having a natural conversation.” Instilling a class norm of discomfort also runs counter to Harvard students’ natural desire to get the ‘right’ answer.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Interactivity takes different forms. Greene achieves learning outcomes by tailoring approaches most compatible with class format, for example, debate in seminars or interactive demonstrations in lectures. In his Fall 2016 seminar PSY 1750 Free Will, Responsibility, and Law, he challenged students to examine arguments and question previously held beliefs through cases such as 2005 Supreme Court decision Roper v. Simmons (capital punishment of minors).
  • Show, don’t tell. “The way you get people to understand abstract things is with concrete examples, particularly in a lecture course. And there should be some element of surprise—otherwise I could just talk about it.” He used to demonstrate the “wisdom of the crowd” phenomenon in PSY 15 Social Psychology lectures by asking students to guess the number of M&M’s in a jar, memorable because individual guesses tend to be way off, but the average is often highly accurate.
  • Practice doing one small thing really well. Greene requires students to write half-page reflection papers, challenging them to make every sentence count. He provides extensive feedback but does not grade the first two assignments. “My comments’ level of scrutiny can be hard for students, and having a few assignments ungraded helps. They feel like they can focus on getting it right intellectually.” 

Bottom line: Trained as a philosopher, Greene educates students to ignore their knee-jerk reactions when thinking through difficult questions. “I want students to learn to ask themselves, ‘What would someone who is really smart say to counter my argument?’ When they get there, there is a sense that they really upped their game.”