Encouraging learning by creating alongside diverse feedback

March 8, 2021

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

Paul BottinoPaul B. Bottino, Co-Founder, Executive Director, and Lecturer at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, offers Start-up R&D to undergraduate students across disciplines who are interested in the field and have a particular project idea in mind. Within the workshop course structure, “each student project is the educational centerpiece.” Student groups work on a variety of innovative startup projects seeking solutions to problems they care about. The course uses multiple approaches to help students build upon their ideas and receive constructive feedback: “challenge sessions” where students outline their biggest obstacles to a small group of peers; individual meetings with Bottino and teaching fellows; and connections with alumni. “It’s like a Greek forum of peers, near-peers, and mentors” with students learning that “entrepreneurship is a creative and iterative research practice of idea formulation, experimentation, and feedback.” At the end of term, students present and receive feedback on projects at a public event “Demo Day.”

The benefits: This structure allows students to learn from their own actions and direct observation of how peers decide to act on challenges, rather than from verbal instruction and hypothetical scenarios. The network-style environment where students “learn from exposure” to a diversity of experiences and ideas expands students’ own creativity. In addition, the challenge sessions allow students to achieve what positive psychology terms flow, or the introduction of continual challenges that is commensurate with and also pushes the boundaries of their current skillset.

“We’re trying to learn from where students authentically are with their current projects and where they want to take them. The projects are different in type, time, and trajectory—and that diversity helps the entire group learn.”

The challenges: “The biggest challenge is taking a group of students who are used to competing with each other and helping them learn to trust and care for each other.” Every semester, students come in assuming competition and hoping that “their idea is going to be the best.” The competitive mindset closes students off from expressing and learning from challenges that arise in their projects and from fully engaging with others. To address this, Bottino and his team facilitate ice breakers, values-setting (like emphasizing this space as a privilege), and have students introduce what they think is exciting about others’ work—all with the goal to encourage students’ vulnerability in sharing ideas for feedback and growth.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Help students focus on the problem, rather than the solution. “Solutions change. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together but the shapes of the pieces are changing all the time.” Instead, “I encourage students to be learning machines, to become the authority on what is known and what is not yet known about their motivating problem.” This pushes students to become mission-driven experts on their topic while being flexible to potential solutions, rather than locking into only one type of response to a given question. Moreover, students develop a greater stake in their own creations, which enhances engagement.
  • Create an environment where students appreciate each other’s ideas. Bottino underscores how critical connection is for student creativity. The class needs “trust, relatability, and some level of reciprocity” with each other in order to be engaged, give great feedback, and apply other groups’ findings to their own work. The teaching team tries to facilitate this value by “getting students to appreciate that this is a privilege, that we’re all here paying attention to each other’s ideas.” Bottino administers an application process for course enrollment and finds that students who are selected feel a deeper responsibility to their classmates.
  • Use assessment tools that permit a diversity of thought. Embracing students coming in at different stages of the start-up process and organically developing their ideas also require intentional assessment tools. Not every final project will, or should, look the same. Bottino and his team pay close attention to “what effort students are putting in and how they are dealing with and applying feedback.” He couples such assessment with both midterm presentations and the Demo Day at the end of term. This allows students to pursue and learn from a more diverse array of projects while maintaining rigorous assessment.

Bottom line: Instructors can deepen the learning experience by centering on students’ passions and holding space where they can “be the authority,” and actively associate with, remain accountable to, and depend on their peers. Such a social learning community supports each member’s unique exploration and development of a mastery of their own material. A major goal of the course is to provide an embodied experience. “Often, people underestimate the innovative capacity they and their ideas have,” so his classroom is designed to expose students to the attitudes, behaviors, and disciplined work that engenders belief in that potential.