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.
Jelani Nelson, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, assigns students real programming problems in his introductory algorithm courses, CS124Data 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. Read more about Real problems: Teaching theory through practice
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. Read more about The hidden curriculum: Engaging students on another level
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.”
An exam can be a powerful learning opportunity. Immediately after each midterm exam, students completed the same exam in groups of three, accounting for 20% of their score (though not penalizing those who scored higher individually). “The level of engagement is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” Deslauriers observed. “It’s very intense.”
Combining active learning and feedback eliminated final exam failures, a phenomenon Deslauriers has witnessed in five similar course transformation efforts. The shift also benefited top performers (the percentage of students finishing above 90% on the final exam jumped from 5% to 12%).
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.
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