Empowering students to make key decisions

November 29, 2021

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

Phuong PhamDr. Phuong Pham, Assistant Professor and Director of Humanitarian Studies, teaches the required course for HSPH Humanitarian Studies Concentrators, Field Methods in Humanitarian Crises, and oversees a set of ongoing online modules titled, “Build a Better Response.” Dr. Pham stresses the need to ground studies within reality through experiential learning. She and others have created a library of case studies for students to practice analyzing complex scenarios. In addition, they collaborate with an expansive network of people each year to pull off a remarkable feat: a weekend-long humanitarian response simulation at Harold Parker State Forest where the students navigate an assigned role within a real-life humanitarian crisis simulation. “We try to provide students the opportunity to engage with a scripted real-life scenario. It gives them a tangible way to interact with simulated situations other than reading a text and listening to secondhand stories.”

The benefits: Through experiential learning, students develop and sharpen skills they learned in the classroom and apply them to challenging contexts they may face in the professional world. Moreover, Dr. Pham emphasizes that the simulation offers the gift of letting students learn from mistakes within the support of the classroom rather than in a professional setting. Students often say, “I can’t believe I made that decision” or “I thought I knew how to react in that moment or how to make a decision, but this provided me a whole new perspective.” Reflection is also a critical part of learning. “Going back and learning from your decisions is great because, in real-life, sometimes you learn on the job,” she says. “That’s how we learn and gain experience.”

“Students need to have a capacity to systematically diagnose the problem and come out with the best solutions to alleviate human suffering.”

The challenges: The simulation runs with the help of over 200 people, including volunteers from prior classes and students from the US Naval War College in Rhode Island participating as military officials, UN agencies, professional humanitarians, media, and even, as applicable, rebel military groups. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the team conducted these simulations remotely. “It’s hard to respond to a real physical disaster via Zoom” she notes. “But in reality, humanitarians like myself are having to conduct research and respond to humanitarian situations remotely right now. In global work, everything we do is with partnerships. So, students were able to see how they could respond when their physical presence is not needed or not possible.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Access valuable resources. “We try to make the experiences as realistic as possible,” Dr. Pham explains, “and the challenge with that is there are so many elements and factors you have to incorporate. We try to focus on the ‘teaching and learning moments,’ and translate them into learning objectives and activities for the students.” To do this, Dr. Pham advises reaching out for help—from other faculty and departmental instructional support—and to give yourself time. “It’s like research in itself,” Dr. Pham laughs. “It does take investment in time. It does take some patience. It does take engagement with other people.”
  • Reuse valuable assets. “They say these videos and photos are worth a thousand words for students,” Dr. Pham smiles. “And when I’m in the field I try to capture as many videos and photos as possible where possible so students can see the environment.” The images enhanced the newly developed case studies, providing an immersive feel.
  • Get creative about grading assignments. When evaluating assignments, consider which parts of the experience you can evaluate students on and provide constructive feedback. At any time during the simulation, a student might need to work within a collaborative team, or individually write a grant proposal to secure funding. There are numerous ways for the instructor to evaluate a student’s performance during this simulation. “The feedback is especially critical to help students reflect and learn from their decisions, challenges they faced and mistakes.”

Bottom line: “Teaching activities that engage students and support them in making appropriate decisions based on available data are probably the best thing we can do.” For faculty looking to apply experiential learning to their own classrooms, Dr. Pham recommends building a library of case studies. To do that, she advises pulling from your own experience and the experience of those around you. “Document what you do in your professional settings. As faculty, we specialize in an area and it’s very focused and very finite, but in the classroom, we are trying to go beyond what we’re expert at, especially in developing a case study. So, leverage expert professional colleagues in the field.”