Small-scale teaching innovations

HILT's fifth Annual Conference will feature a breakout session led by Matthew Schwartz, Professor of Physics (FAS), to explore how small-scale innovations can improve teaching. Examples are being collected beforehand to scaffold a discussion. Below are examples of easy teaching innovations submitted by Harvard faculty. If you plan to join the breakout session, "Small-scale teaching innovations," at HILT's fall conference, please feel free take a moment to complete the survey and submit your example.

For other examples for instructors sharing strategy specific to instructional activities, see ablconnect.

Collective Thinking with Google Docs

SUBMITTED BY:

Emily Dolan, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music

WHAT YOU TRIED:

This was developed as part of a distributed seminar taught between McGill and Harvard to facilitate collaborative work at distance; I quickly realized it works in any seminar setting. It involved posing questions about the assigned readings to the students and then having them draw up responses on a shared Google doc: students could jot down thoughts, quote passages from the texts, and insert relevant links and images.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:

This worked best as a structured prelude to a more free-ranging discussion; I found the most successful questions were those that prompted the students to think synthetically and comparatively across the readings we had done (e.g. "How does each author define 'instrument'?").

BENEFITS:

My collaborator and I discovered that this was an effective way both to focus our discussions and to foster participation by all students; furthermore, at the end of each class we had a shared record of many of the key points of our discussions. It also encouraged a kind of creative playfulness that I believe is essential to intellectual exploration.

Course Current Events Website

SUBMITTED BY:
Ryan Buell, Assistant Professor (HBS)

WHAT YOU TRIED:
One of the aims in my course (Managing Service Operations at HBS) is to provide students with a set of general principles and ideas, as well as a toolset, which can be applied in a myriad of industries. Students in the course are going in many different directions after graduating, so it's critical they are able to see analogous examples to ideas we discuss in class in many contexts. In my course, I've crowdsourced to my students the identification of such examples, and have created a Word Press website (www.harvardservice.com), where we post articles that are illustrations of ideas and concepts they've learned.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
I didn't realize when I launched this in the spring how valuable a resource students would find it, nor what level of participation I would receive (e.g., students e-mailing me articles) when doing so wasn't a formal assignment in the class.

BENEFITS:
The site becomes a library that I can draw upon during class, of examples of ideas we're currently discussing, as well as a repository of resources and articles that are interesting to current and former students. The site, in that way, serves as a bridge for communicating with my students after they've graduated, and is one way that I hope the course will continue to be helpful to them going forward.

Developing critical thinking from good and bad work

SUBMITTED BY:
Marcia Castro, Associate Professor of Demography

WHAT YOU TRIED:
In my spatial analysis course I always combine lecture and discussion. For the discussion part, I assign readings and I strongly encourage students to focus on critical thinking as they read the articles. I always include in the readings a couple of really bad articles. The chance to be able to discuss bad research opens their minds to critical thinking, and improves dramatically the quality of discussions at each class. It also helps the students to learn important lessons of communicating research to different audiences, contributing to improve the quality of their own work for the course.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
I learned that assigning high quality readings is absolutely crucial, but exposing students to low quality work allows them to develop their critical skills, which is needed for their future roles as academics, researchers and article/proposal reviewers.

BENEFITS:
The whole discussion environment in the class became much more relaxed.

Embedded experimental conditions into ethical reasoning simulation

SUBMITTED BY:
Jennifer Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management

WHAT YOU TRIED:
Professor Chris Robichaud (ethics) and I (decision science) collaborated, embedding random assignment to experimental conditions from the decision science literature into ethical simulations from the philosophy literature. At the end of the simulations, we discussed with students how the process and outcome of their reasoning processes changed as a function of the experimental conditions.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
I wish I'd known that doing this well in real time and collecting all the data on participants' decisions requires multiple staff members at once.

BENEFITS:
It livened up engagement with the topics and demonstrated in real time how powerful situational conditions are for altering ethical reasoning processes. It also allowed us to teach across disciplines.

Google Slides to find out what students are thinking

SUBMITTED BY:
Dan Levy, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government

WHAT YOU TRIED:
I had students work in groups as I sometimes do. But instead of circulating around the classroom to try to hear what some of the groups were discussing, I asked each of the groups to write down their output/thoughts in a pre-formatted google slide from a deck that has one slide per group (slides were pre-titled, i.e. group 1, group 2, group 3, etc), so I could see what they were thinking throughout the group work process. I think this approach can be valuable to quickly spot a group that is having difficulty completing the task at hand, focus the group work by nudging the groups to produce a concrete output, lead a more focused and productive class-wide discussion by calling on specific group(s) that made particularly interesting/controversial/insightful points, and/or make the group work visible (to the faculty and to other students).

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
I had not realized that given the way I set up the google slide deck initially, students could view the slides but not edit them. So I had to fix this on the fly.

How to poll students

SUBMITTED BY:
Ned Hall, Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy

WHAT YOU TRIED:
If I want to poll my students about what they think, I've learned not to do this: "Raise your hand if you believe that –." Instead, I do this: "Everyone raise your hands. Now, put your hand down if you believe that –."

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
Our students too often default to a passive mode, in class. This technique breaks them out of it -- though it's best used with a good deal of humor, so they don't feel you're being patronizing!

BENEFITS:
Easy: you're guaranteed to get a response from everyone. Try the usual method, and you'll get logically impossible data: a significant percentage of your students who neither believe that –, nor don't believe that –.

Include some sensory experience

SUBMITTED BY:
Anonymous

WHAT YOU TRIED:
The study of the past, and more generally, the study of cultures that are distant from us either geographically, culturally or otherwise, may take on an overly abstract turn which impairs the students' capacity to engage fully with the material. Resort to visual (from paintings and ancient maps to the wealth of objects available in digital form or from the university museums) and acoustic material (from medieval music to linguistic reconstruction of antique languages) are classic tools to circumvent the difficulty and help the students relate to the living spirit of the culture and society under study. Yet sensory experience of another type might truly help bring in some three-dimensionality to the learning experience - if and when applicable. One example: A classic image of classical Persian amorous poetry is the scent of musk - a topical reference the scope of which may vary from reference to the tresses of the beloved to metaphor of mystical love. The original, animal fragrance of musk is not only unfamiliar to most students (the use of deer musk is now prohibited and most of the molecules used in perfumery today are synthetic) - the particular qualities of this animal product are apprehended in a completely different manner when experienced directly and all at once by sight, touch, and smell. Bringing to class a sample little musk pod found on a market in Iran, having the students describe the fragrance, discuss its provenance and the production and circulation of the aromatic substance make for a fun and interactive class - and I believe, facilitate engagement with the living, referential dimension of high literary culture. The same can be said of taste - although of course, special caution and precautions are in order when bringing edibles to class (from the basic sanitary rules to allergens and dietary restrictions).

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
Before organizing any such session (with taste in particular), students must be clearly informed and asked in advance – they should express explicit consent and willingness to take part in this type of learning experience, and specify any known contraindication (medical or cultural). The instructor, on his/her part, should make sure that the exact nature of, and components making up the food brought to class must be entirely and explicitly disclosed. As a rule, I find that spices, dry foods and vegetable products are at once safer and easier to handle. When working with our sense of smell or taste, which is usually underdeveloped and undertrained, and too often disconnected from the cognitive faculties at play in the learning process, it is particularly important to take the time to put words on our perceptions, and to identify, name and describe what it is that we feel – comparing maybe to past sensations, in order to establish a connection between the sensory experience tried in class and the material or intellectual process we are trying to understand.

BENEFITS:
In the best cases, when the experience is carefully embedded in the purpose of the course and carried out successfully, the sensory experience remains not only as a pleasant memory, but spurs the imaginative and – more surprisingly – the theoretical capacities of the students greatly. It is a known fact that taste and smell are intimately connected to processes involving memory, but also narrative production. Although these senses may not be the easiest to elicit in a classroom, moderate and careful resort to taste and smell may hold invaluable benefits, not merely in food-oriented courses proper (teachings concerned with food culture and cuisine), but in the Humanities at large, and particularly for the study of remote (past or distant) societies and cultures.

Mock Trials

SUBMITTED BY:
Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History

I teach ER 12 (What its new designation will be I'm not sure) on political trials and conclude the course with mock trials -- dividing students into defense/prosecution/judges teams -- based on current issues: spreading classified information, holocaust denial, etc. Students submit individual essays but prepare the trials in their teams, and have worked very hard on research and litigation.

Musical preamble to class

SUBMITTED BY:
Judith Singer, James Bryant Conant Professor of Education

WHAT YOU TRIED:
I always get to the classroom just as the previous class is ending and the first thing I do--before anything else--is play music through the speakers (often trying to link the music to the class theme, a la NPR). When I'm ready to start, I cut the music and everyone knows that class is beginning.

BENEFITS:
It's a great--and inoffensive way--of getting the class started quickly on time.

Personalizing data

SUBMITTED BY:
Anonymous

When discussing basic descriptive statistics in my research methodology course, I collect data from the students in the class (height, age, etc.) to demonstrate central tendency (mean, median, mode) and range (high and low scores, standard deviation) statistics. I think the strength of personalizing data is that students can better comprehend where quantitative data come from. When analyzing large datasets it's easy to forget that these numbers correspond to some attribute of real people.

Project Crimson

SUBMITTED BY:
Matthew Hersch, Assistant Professor of the History of Science

WHAT YOU TRIED:
In my course HS 181 (Humans in Space: Past, Present, Future), students applied and competed for the opportunity to become the class space traveler, an undertaking that required the winning student to attend a lecture on space medicine while seated in a cardboard spacecraft no larger than the ones that orbited the first American astronauts, watching through a small porthole and participating via radio. With other students acting as support, rescue, and public relations team members, our astronaut successfully completed her mission, recognizing in the process that space travel offers tremendous hardships for those who undertake it.

BENEFITS:
It is one thing to hear or read about the technologies of the past, and quite another to experience them. Doing so not only helps us to appreciate them, and free ourselves from false ideas about their development, it teaches us that technologies are designed to be used by people, and that the experience of using technologies alters the way they develop and proliferate. “Users matter,” as historians like to say: many of the most “revolutionary" technologies are rejected or abandoned, while others--telephones, radio, computers--are used for purposes their inventors never imagined.

"Quality Circles" for real-time course improvement

SUBMITTED BY:


David Bloom, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography

WHAT YOU TRIED:

Every two weeks during the fall semester, students sign up to meet with the teaching team (two lead instructors and two graduate teaching fellows) in groups of four to provide real-time feedback on how the course format, content, and delivery is being received by the class. These meetings help students hone the critical skill of providing constructive feedback to colleagues. Students solicit input from their classmates in advance of the meetings and thus serve as rotating representatives of their cohort. Suggestions, which are often adopted, have included incorporating more discussion and current events into the sessions, as well as modifying exam formats, inviting specific guest speakers, and spending more (or less) time on class discussion. This has been a successful real-time mechanism for ensuring that students are getting the most out of the course while growing relevant professional communication skills among them.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:

The “quality circle” innovation has taught me that most students have serious and well-founded views with regard to what is, or is not, working well in the classroom and lots of solutions to offer to improve the teaching and learning experience.

BENEFITS:

The main benefit is faster cycle time - in the sense that we can make real-time adjustments to the course content and its delivery, rather than having to wait until the next time the course is taught. By involving students in the course design, the quality circle innovation also promotes greater student engagements in the course - which presumably translates into deeper learning.

Reenactment

SUBMITTED BY:
Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of History of Science

WHAT YOU TRIED:
We dramatize by impersonation of the real people involved in the Darwinian controversies. Before section each student (or pair of students) is allocated a person and some historical text, and is asked to prep this person's point of view and defense of that view. We have a debate in section on the question is Mr Darwin's proposal feasible. Students grumble beforehand but they throw themselves into it and find it a fun way to learn that many different points of view were expressed, not just an either or situation between church and science, and that each view has some validity. They also like it if I provide a few hats and false moustaches.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
I've learned that students enjoy pretending to be historical personages and that it gives them better historical perspective. I have expanded this in other courses to give them projects as if they were a Victorian journalist, and suchlike. Obviously should only be done once per course but useful.

BENEFITS:
Breaks up the semester, gives quiet students a set piece to prepare and present, shifts section dynamics. Stretches the students imaginatively.

Secondary Data to Teach Qualitative Methods of Data Analysis

SUBMITTED BY:
Robert Selman, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Education and Human Development

WHAT YOU TRIED:
Learning how to undertake qualitative data analyses relevant to a wide range of both quantitative and qualitative methods requires active participation by research students in the actual hands-on practice of doing qualitative analyses, working with data they experience as relevant to their own research interests. Through carefully curated secondary data sets, qualitative analytic digital software, and the use of a combined developmental (etic, constructivist) and socio-cultural (emic, social constructionist) conceptual frameworks, this course provides an approach to guide novice researchers through this kind of analyses: the topical focus is on data sets that reveal what youthful study participants have to say that reveals their own perspectives on the intertwined social, moral, cultural, historical, digital, and civic events and experiences that effect their lives.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
The design of this course has evolved over the past 10 years (I have a lengthy essay on its history and current form. The problem this course attempts to solve is how to introduce students to "coding." Coding in qualitative analysis has analogies to learning to code in the computational world. As an analytic experience it is foundational to a wide range of data generation methods.

BENEFITS:
Qualitative analyses are very hard to teach in a way that are compelling, unless the data set itself is compelling to the students. This course is both basic and advanced. Coding is a fundamental research skill. Yet even undergraduates with very little hands on research experience can learn the techniques taught in this course, in large part because the approach is very hands on and experimental.

Sharks and rafts

SUBMITTED BY:
Andrew Warren, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities

WHAT YOU TRIED:
I use this exercise when teaching large or difficult texts, such as David Foster Wallace's 1,079-page Infinite Jest, where for long stretches students are forced to dwell in uncertainties. I first ask my students to think about their “raft”—the thing they hang onto as they read that keeps them from drowning in text. On the second day I ask them to discuss their “sharks,” those questions turning beneath their rafts and threatening to upend them. Each week I check in on everyone’s "sharks and rafts," what’s changing or holding steady, and discuss my own too. 

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
An unforeseen boon was how efficiently it interlaced form and content. It demonstrates how each reading of a text can be intensely private and idiosyncratic, but also a shared experience. While perhaps ideally suited for teaching literary or philosophical texts, I think the method could create a safe, fun atmosphere for teaching any complex topic.

Shifting the Audience

SUBMITTED BY:
Bernhard Nickel, Professor of Philosophy

WHAT YOU TRIED:
In a section-setting, I ask the students several questions (3-4) and give them 10 minutes to come up with answers, at which point I leave the room. The key instruction is: using playing cards, I'll randomly call on a student to give the answer, so everyone will be responsible for being able to answer on behalf of the group.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
It's important to make sure that students are given a time-line, otherwise they'll spend all of their time on the first question or two.

BENEFITS:
This strategy forces the students to think of their peers, not the instructor, as the audience. That means, in particular, that the students who speak need to monitor whether the people who are listening are understanding them; it also gives the quieter students a chance to speak up and make sure that they understand what other students are saying.

Use Skype for additional Office Hours

SUBMITTED BY:
Michael McCormick, Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History

Use Skype for additional Office Hours. Turns out undergrads are intimidated by sitting in an office with big bad prof, but much less so online.

Virtual Points

SUBMITTED BY:
Anonymous

WHAT YOU TRIED:
Challenge: Tests help people learn, but grades are really stressful. How do you dissociate the benefits of testing from the stress of grades? Virtual Points. Every class we began with a weekly quiz on the previous lecture’s materials. It was graded in two ways, with virtual points and attendance points, and both were recorded in Canvas. If you turned it in you got 10/10 attendance points. We also swap tests and grade it in class, and peers assign virtual points based on accuracy of the answers. These virtual points do not count toward your grade. The virtual points give the students a chance to test their knowledge of the previous classes material without fear of their grade. This also helps them get a sense of the kind of questions I’ll ask on the exam and gives both them and us an estimate of how they are likely to do on the final. The collected set of quizzes also provide a good study guide for the final. In selecting the content for the quiz, I also sometimes bring back content from even earlier lectures that is relevant for understanding the upcoming content, which helps contextualize new material.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
At first I cold-called people for answers to each quiz question but that didn't go well. Instead I would just put the rough answers up on the slide and ask students for any clarification questions about each question; this went faster and both the students and I liked it way better.

BENEFITS:
People really knew exactly what to expect about the final exam, it served as a really useful study guide, and it was really easy for me to estimate how people were doing in the class at any point based on their virtual points.

Warm Calling

SUBMITTED BY:
Robin Kelsey, Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography

WHAT YOU TRIED:
To make lectures more interactive and inclusive, I randomly called on students to answer a question about the assigned readings (I used a pseudo-random number generator to select a handful of students in each lecture). What made the questioning less intimidating -- warm calling rather than cold -- is that the question was circulated in advance and students had already submitted a brief response to it on the Canvas site.

WHAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN PRIOR:
I was surprised by how varied the responses were and how gamely even the most reticent students shared their thoughts when their number came up . Students did not look at notes and often put their thoughts into relation to those of other respondents or to points I had made earlier in the hour.

BENEFITS:
I think this practice enhanced the sense of collective inquiry and kept students in an active mode. It taught me a lot about how deeply or shallowly the students were thinking as they digested the reading. The student responses at times led to an extended discussion of one or more points raised.