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%).
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.’”
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