Simple examples lead to deep engagement

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

Simple examples lead to deep engagementThree years ago, Scot T. Martin, Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, decided to “start from scratch” with his approach to teaching thermodynamics. In his course Thermodynamics by Case Study, he found that by focusing on every day, concrete examples (e.g., running, the function of the heart) and demanding an intense level of participation, he could help students unpack layer after layer to rediscover and truly understand the fundamental laws.

The benefits: Martin mined eleven years of his student course evaluations and learned that “they want to sleep when I lecture, but I can keep the raw edge of students’ attention when the class involves in your face engagement (in a nice way)”—an approach that plays to his strengths as a teacher. That level of participation ensures that each student finds his or her own intellectual path from concrete example to fundamental law.

The challenges: Martin keeps his class size small to achieve this level of individualized instruction by capping enrollment at 18, and one day a week splitting the class into two nine-student cohorts (requiring him to teach the session twice).

Takeaways and best practices

  • Set clear expectations. Martin finds that students who prefer a linear, step-by-step way of learning struggle with his approach, and stipulates up front during shopping period that “if you’re looking for a structured course with lots of problem sets and lots of number crunching, this is not the course for you.” Each week has a “ping pong” design, in-depth discussion (“ping”) and a counterpart of formal review (“pong”).
  • Use demonstrations. Historically, thermodynamics as a field was very observational and common-sense based from which insights and laws followed, but has since evolved to be taught in the reverse paradigm, leaving many students unexcited about the material. Martin finds that observation is critical, and utilizes the active learning labs for simple demonstrations. “The examples are not that sophisticated, but the more we talk about them, the more questions emerge, and that eventually gets us to the very abstract laws, much like how the game ‘Go’ with simple rules can lead to seemingly endless complexities.” Martin was inspired to use this approach by Nobel Laureate in chemistry John B. Fenn’s cartoon book which explores the subject by drawing on everyday experience.
  • Get out of jail free. The participation-heavy structure of the course can be intimidating. Martin allows all students, and himself, a “get out of jail free” card during Q&A, especially at the beginning of the semester. This helps to break down the inevitable distance between instructors and students.

Bottom line: “Participation is the juice that makes it all happen.” Martin finds that without the intensity of feedback that comes from unpacking a concrete example through dialogue, he really doesn’t know what students know, or how to best help them understand.