Centering student need in gateway courses to the field

April 19, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Carmen MesserlianDr. Carmen Messerlian, Assistant Professor of Environmental Reproductive, Perinatal, and Pediatric Epidemiology, remodeled the department’s gateway Reproductive and Perinatal Epidemiology I course after her first year teaching it. Drawing on key observations and 6-8 hours of one-on-one student meetings per week, “I wanted to understand students’ learning needs and requirements, their goals for the course, and where their training was going to take them.” From there, she synthesized both her own experience in the field and quantitative student review data to radically revise the course’s structure. Now the course helps students develop their scientific research skills, explicitly scaffolding how to perform activities that students rarely get formal training in, like academic journal peer reviews, abstract writing, and poster presentations. At its core, the course trains students “how to become a reproductive epidemiologist,” and to learn how to put on “an epidemiological lens” when they produce, digest, or evaluate material in the field.

The benefits: The course “meets the students where they’re at,” whether they’re experienced with the material or learning about reproductive epidemiology for the first time. Across a variety of backgrounds and experience levels, students are able to “develop as scientists—in their research capacity and skillset—within the reproductive epidemiology context.” The result of hands-on practice with scientific products is that “students are gaining and practicing the skills they need that they don’t get training on.” Ultimately, the course is now ranked top in the department with an overall score of 4.9/5.0. As one student reflected, “the teaching team cares for your well–being and at the same time we actually gained valuable skills.”

“I redeveloped EPI 269 so that it’s aligned with what’s needed right now, in 2020, for students who want to pursue degrees in reproductive epidemiology and for where they’re going with that degree.”

The challenges: One of the core challenges is making sure that feedback is delivered in a timely fashion so students could grow and learn from it. To address this, Messerlian and her TA, Elizabeth Hentschel, are on-call after deadlines to start grading right away and get students feedback in real-time. It can be quite time-intensive for the teaching team, but Messerlian believes it’s well worth the effort.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Give students space to pursue interests. “Students today want training that’s relevant to their practice, to their work, to their future,” alongside “strong theoretical foundations.” Messerlian provides them with this foundation while explicitly encouraging students to pursue the topics in the field that interest them most. This allows students to stay engaged and get far more out of the course.
  • Tailor material and support to each student’s starting point. Messerlian pre-records some introductory material and then goes over it again in class to help make things accessible for students who might be introduced to the field for the first time. She also sets aside additional time to meet with students in groups and then also one-on-one. “Everybody is at a different starting point,” Messerlian stresses. “I tailor the course each semester to the group of students that I have.” The goal is to create an environment where it was safe and okay to make mistakes. “There’s no judgment on where you start. We’re all on a learning curve. My goal is to bring a student from one level to the next level.”
  • Get students to office hours. There was high attendance at group and individual office hours which Messerlian attributes to demonstrating vulnerability about her own uncertainty and struggles, and affirmation of students. She told students, “My job is to serve you. This is about you taking the most out of the classroom so you can leverage yourself to do the next thing. My goal is to help you get there.” This enabled a communal sense of safety that made everyone feel connected and more comfortable attending office hours.

Bottom line: With each shift made in the course, Messerlian underscores that understanding students’ needs was at the center of every action. Reinforce to all students: “This is about your learning, your goals, your career, your trajectory, and everyone is on a different path.” Communicate to students and be open to your own learning. It can transform the classroom experience.