It often seems that the current generation of students is more distracted than ever, especially given the proliferation of technology at our fingertips. In the face of ever-present distractions, how can we cultivate students’ attention in order to foster deep learning? In this first meeting of the Research-Informed Teaching and Learning (RITL) Affinity Group, we will share research-based insights from James Lang’s new book Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (2020) and collectively brainstorm applications to our own work as educators. (No need to read the book beforehand!) We will also make time to discuss future directions for this affinity group.
Ryan Buell, Finnegan Family Associate Professor of Business Administration, leveraged Scribble for his remote course to help students engage with case discussion longitudinally and collectively. The virtual board platform allowed students to engage online in lieu of an in-person experience in which the blackboard operates as a coordinating element for case discussion. “It helps students put the pieces together, allowing them to track any idea shared by the faculty and shared by the students.”
Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership, helps students develop leadership skills and a deeper understanding of the work involved in being a systems-level leader. In her two-term course, The Workplace Lab for System-Level Leaders (WPL), students actively collaborate with school districts across the nation, including the local Cambridge, Lincoln and Boston public schools. Jewell-Sherman intentionally scaffolds the course from personal introspection to undertaking significant problems of practice for sitting superintendents and CEO’s of educational entities. Before students are assigned to teams that maximize diversity in leadership and communication styles, they deeply reflect to identify their core values. “In terms of practice,” she notes, “it’s important to know who you are and for what you stand.” Groups collaborate on simulations and analyze case studies based on real-world problems while leveraging recent research. Later, students work directly with community partners and present recommendations in a “New Haven” run before hosting an on-campus final “Broadway” run to a full audience. In January, Jewell-Sherman typically takes students on a four-day trip to a school district or educational entity in another state to collaborate on new projects.
John Asher Johnson, Professor of Astronomy, aims to cut through dominant constructs of what teaching looks like and to disrupt hegemonies in his classes through collective norms setting and conveying to students that they are “intellectual peers with the professor.” He structures his courses around the Tao of TALC method in which students work on assignments in collaborative groups while the instructor and TFs use the Socratic method to stimulate collective problem-solving.
When William Fisher, WilmerHale Professor of Intellectual Property Law, was approached to create an online course version of his Harvard Law School Copyright course, he agreed with the stipulation that CopyrightX be paired with the residential version, that enrollment be limited to 500, and that students meet in discussion sections of 25. Both online and residential students watch the same 90-minute lecture video prior to class time. When the class meets, Fisher facilitates case study discussions with residential students and 15-20 teaching fellows do so for sections of online students. Sometimes, residential and online students meet virtually to hear from a guest speaker.
Jorrit de Jong, Lecturer in Public Policy, combines practice, research, and engagement with learning and teaching in his course Innovation Lab: Public Problem Solving in Massachusetts Cities, in which students participate in a field-based, problem-oriented, and experiential setting, immersed in local city governments. Students observe, first-hand, the work of public servants—going on inspection tours, triaging cases, analyzing geo-spatial data, reconciling competing priorities and politics—and then pitch proposals to city mayors, usually building on the work of previous students.
Cheryl Giles, Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Care and Counseling, shares her own experiences, missteps, and successes to demonstrate self-awareness for students in her course Counseling for Wellness and Resilience: Fostering Relational Wisdom. She encourages students to listen deeply to themselves and others without judgment by practicing mindfulness throughout the course.
In his Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics course (a core class for physics concentrators) Matthew Schwartz, Professor of Physics, tries to move his students away from a binge-learning exam-based model, common in science classes, to one of sustained learning throughout the semester. To do this, he persuades students to read the course materials before class through comprehensive pre-class quizzes, replaces the midterm with a non-collaborative problem set, and assigns a take-home final weighted the same as two problem sets.
Manja Klemenčič, Lecturer on Sociology, has scaled a small research-based seminar course for sociology concentrators to one of Harvard College’s newest general education courses, Higher Education: Students, Institutions, and Controversies. While the previous iteration asked students to conduct an individual research project, the new version emphasizes the importance of group work and collaboration. “Students will learn how to conduct social science research and practice working as a research group exploring issues close to their student experiences.” Projects will culminate in a symposium presentation about student research findings and will be showcased on the platform Harvard Undergraduate Research into Higher Education.
Virginie Greene, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature, transfers the theme of her Freshman Seminar course, The Grail Quest of Marcel Proust, to the classroom by holding every class session in a different location around the Harvard campus or in the Boston area. “Teaching a freshman seminar allows you to do something a little rash and provoke students. A knight going on a quest never stays in the same spot twice.” Whether they are exploring Sanders Hall, the Harvard Art Museum, or the Boston Public Library, class time is split between exploring the space and discussing the week’s reading.
IM spotlights reflective instructors from across the university using high-leverage teaching strategies applicable to multiple settings and grounded in teaching and learning research. Moves are anchored in videos that combine class footage with reflections from instructors and students, and these videos are supplemented by relevant research on the move’s efficacy, tips for enacting this move in diverse settings, and related resources that facilitate deeper exploration.
L Mahadevan, Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics in SEAS, and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and of Physics in FAS used a 2017-2018 SEAS Learning Incubator LInc Faculty Fellowship to emphasize active learning in his Mathematical Modeling course. He implemented a flipped classroom approach to enable students to come to class with problems and questions to collaborate on, time to develop their own problems from scratch, and work on modeling with peers. The foundational arc supporting this process has students move from observations through abstraction, analysis and communication, and iteration.
Rachel Carmody, Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, explores a burgeoning new field in her course Gut Microbiome and Human Health. The main goals are for students to develop the skills to understand how experiments are designed and conducted, and to critically evaluate existing studies and emerging research papers. Students are challenged to generate new data of their own and run experiments to investigate a predetermined hypothesis individually and collectively during the semester. They regularly discuss the results of their experiments and produce final research papers that use the collective data to explore any aspect of the hypothesis that interests them.
Benjamin Sommers, Professor of Health Policy and Economics, finishes his Healthcare Safety Net and Vulnerable Populations course with a debate: students are randomly assigned to roles—as senators, witnesses, or experts—and probe aspects of healthcare policy, simulating deliberations that take place on the Senate floor. Somewhat similar to real hearings, each witness makes an opening statement and then takes questions from acting Senators.
A digital publication based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education produced for educators everywhere. Usable Knowledge was founded to connect research to practice. They make education research and well-vetted strategies accessible to a wide audience: teachers and principals, district leaders, policymakers, university faculty and higher ed professionals, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, members of the media, and parents.
Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein, Clinical Professors of Law, pull back the curtain on pedagogy for students in the seminar Advanced Skills Training in Strategic Human Rights Advocacy by making them part of a learning community and giving them ownership over the learning process. For example, each year students work to improve simulations in which they originally were participants, in an earlier prerequisite seminar attached to the International Human Rights Clinic.
Students in Japanese art and architecture courses taught by Yukio Lippit, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, often encounter cultures quite different from their own. Lippit immerses them in those cultures through deep engagement with material artifacts, by examining roof tiles or carpentry, visiting the Japanese house at the Boston Children’s Museum, or participating in a tea ceremony.
Course design resources from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, including 1) Backward Design, 2) Functions of the Syllabus, 3) Formative ("low-stakes") vs. Summative ("high-stakes") Assessments, 4) Assignment Modalities, 5) Framing and Sequencing Assignments, and 6) Grading and Responding to Student Work.
Resources on in-class teaching from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, including 1) Building Rapport, 2) Classroom Contracts, 3) Active Learning, 4) Instructional Strategies, and 5) Technology and Student Distraction.