Cassandra G. Extavour, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is one of six co-instructors for LIFESCI 50(A & B) Integrated Science, an intensive two-semester course created by Andrew Murray, Herschel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, covering methods and concepts from biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. They design class discussion and assignments as problems that require students to rely on one another to solve."We let them know it's normal to not be able to answer everything on the problem sets on their own. We've structured them that way. They learn to engage with classmates, or with us, to work it out."... Read more about Encouraging students to engage with one another to solve problems (and problem sets)
Elena Kramer, Bussey Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Noel Michele Holbrook, Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, co-teach General Education course OEB 52: Biology of Plants through lectures, labs, field trips, and weekly quizzes that students use to combine concepts into a creative project at the end of the semester. The prompt, “Trace the rise of the sporophyte,” results in the production of resources like videos, art pieces, fashion magazines, original songs, poems, and children’s books that students present in an arts festival during the final class.
The benefits: Students have to refer back to course activities to help crystalize what they’ve been learning all semester, which ultimately helps them prepare for the final exam. Students tell Kramer the creative projects help them better understand course concepts: “It’s not just busy work, it’s not just fun; it actually makes them think about everything they’ve learned through the semester.”
Karin Öberg, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Astronomy, taught departmental introductory course Stellar and Planetary Astronomy in 2016 by building on established material and modifying the curriculum using student feedback and her own observational assessment.
The benefits: Öberg saved pre-semester preparation time by using the same in-class worksheets of earlier iterations and retaining the course’s primary elements—three lab sessions; weekly blog post assignments; and an active, collaborative learning in-class format supervised and assisted by roaming instructors.... Read more about A balancing act: Making established courses your own
James Hanken, Professor of Biology and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), increases student engagement by taking students out of the traditional classroom. Whether organizing hisfreshman seminar around weekly excursions to Harvard’s museums, or guiding a spring break field trip to Costa Rica for undergraduates enrolled in OEB 167 Herpetology, these immersive experiences “provide opportunities for students to see and understand things they simply won’t get in the classroom.”... Read more about Engaging students via field trips, near and far
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.”
Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, rethought her teaching by rethinking her classroom. She created a flexible classroom, “the SciBox,” to encourage active learning, greater engagement, and student ownership.
The benefits: The entire 2,500 sq ft flexible space is on wheels – from the flat screen TVs to the lab benches to the couches – and can morph quickly to suit a given activity (small group discussions, hands-on labs), creating novel approaches to meet course learning objectives.... Read more about Getting the most out of classroom space