Bringing the best parts of a seminar into larger courses

October 1, 2018

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

MichelleSanchez Profile Photo

When enrollment for seminar After Luther: Faith, Will, Law, and the Question of Goodness doubled last year, Michelle Sanchez, Assistant Professor of Theology, was concerned that the depth and quality of the connections—with and among students and the texts they read together—would diminish. In response, she modified some logistical elements including assigning different pairs of students to circulate brief response papers before class and then lead discussion each week.

The benefits: This approach allowed for rotating perspectives and democratized the class by giving students space to be the voice of authority. “It worked well in the sense that at some point in the semester, every single person had to talk.”

The challenges: Although students were given designated speaking roles at various points throughout the semester, Sanchez noticed that it didn’t fully diversify weekly participation in class discussion. Some students struggled to find ways to participate but were also resistant to being called-on in class, even after conversations during office hours.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Make strategic use of Teaching Fellows (TFs). TFs joined students in facilitating the opening segments of discussion. In addition, when the class focused on a single text two weeks in a row, Sanchez and the TF divided students into two equal sections, each leading one group for the first week—then switching student groups for the second week. “A number of students said they enjoyed the smaller sections. They got to know each other and the instructors really well, and I think it helped the quieter students to talk and engage.”
  • Framing helps students engage productively in heated discussion. Larger enrollment means more voices and opinions, so Sanchez is deliberate in linking historical texts to present debates: “It’s important to start by helping students connect why these ideas matter in the real world—historically, politically, economically—and set up problematics for students to remember as they carefully read through the texts.”
  • Implement recommendations from students. In another class, Sanchez received feedback that adding an additional author would enrich the course and, in consultation with that student, added a reading by W. E. B. DuBois. “I’m really interested in trying to open my syllabi to a wider variety of authors. Don’t be afraid to listen to students and allow them to teach you something.”

Bottom line: Sanchez structured her larger course to maintain the best aspects of seminar-type discussion, creating an open, welcoming space for student voices and viewpoints.