A Teach-in on Teaching

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences convenes professors to talk about activity-based learning

David Malan, Diane Paulus, and Christopher Winship participate in a panel discussion on engaging teaching and active learning.

The first in a series of “Conversations@FAS” convened by Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael D. Smith drew a standing-room-only crowd on February 11 to a lecture theater in Maxwell-Dworkin, where professors, lecturers, tutors, and teaching fellows engaged with three panelists in discussing “active learning.” As he told the faculty on December 7, Smith created the forum series to air subjects of interest to FAS as a whole. During this term—at the inaugural event, and two others to follow (on March 25 and April 1)—the conversations will focus on “redefining teaching and learning for the twenty-first century”—a subject Smith has made a focal point of his deanship.

Smith introduced the notion of “active learning” broadly, as an array of activities extending beyond traditional lectures to which students listen passively. Among classroom examples, he cited Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics Eric Mazur’s pioneering use of “clickers” to get real-time assessments of students’ comprehension of material presented in class; Bass professor of government Michael Sandel’s interactive lectures in “Justice”; and case-method teaching in Harvard’s business and law schools (see “Making the Case,” by David A. Garvin, Christensen professor of business administration). Smith also talked about a variety of “activity-based learning” techniques and experiments that tie internships, field and laboratory work, and community service to course work. The education literature, he said, demonstrates that such activities enhance student learning, and so merit further exploration by the faculty. He hoped, he added, that audience interaction with the panelists would be a model of such active engagement.

Exploring Boston

Diker-Tishman professor of sociology Christopher Winship, the first speaker, talked about his course, “Reinventing Boston: The Changing American City,” one of about 30 courses launched since 2005 to test the teaching challenges associated with, and the efficacy of, activity-based learning. (A formal assessment was begun in 2008, he said, but has been slowed by the subsequent downturn in University and FAS finances; the trial of courses, and the assessment, nonetheless continue, encompassing subjects ranging from his own course to foreign-language classes that involve immersion in a community setting where the language is spoken.)

His goals, Winship said, include engaging students; showing them the connection between the classroom, the real world, and the lives they lead; connecting with what they already know; pushing back on their assumptions (what he called “de-centering” and “de-habituating” the students); and deepening their knowledge.

As designed, he explained, the course combined both sociology and civic education, without being preachy about the latter. It began with an intellectual conundrum: how did Boston, one of the most economically troubled (and racially divided) major American cities in 1970, come today to be seen as among the most successful cities? To answer that question, he sought to get students out of the “Harvard Square bubble,” and, at the end of the term, engaged them with a normative dilemma: for whom is Boston successful, given living costs among the highest in the country, rising income inequality, and the challenges facing minority and immigrant residents who lack higher educations?

After an overview on Boston economic and demographic conditions, students learn how to conduct interviews and ethnographic field studies. Guest lecturers introduce diverse perspectives, and students then undertake six neighborhood visits; report on each; have section discussions about what they learned; and prepare an extended analytic paper. Anecdotally, Winship said, course evaluations convey a very enthusiastic response to the diverse learning experiences.

“Experiential” Theater

American Repertory Theater (ART) artistic director Diane Paulus, who is a professor of practice, then discussed the ART as a “big classroom” in which she has staged highly participatory performances. She has also conducted two General Education courses with Kenan professor of English and of visual and environmental studies Marjorie Garber (with whom Paulus studied when she was an undergraduate). The first tied in to ART’s performances of three updated versions of Shakespeare plays; students attended rehearsals, had discussions with performers, and then attended the productions and wrote reviews, as critics. In the second, in progress this semester, students are studying Porgy and Bess before it is staged at the ART next autumn. Their possible assignments include writing a brief on how part of the performance should be directed, a stage design for a scene, or the treatment of a song. The classes, like the performances, Paulus said, are all “experiential.”

Programming and Pizza

The final speaker, David J. Malan, the lecturer who runs Computer Science 50, spoke about overcoming antipathy shaped by students’ high-school Advanced Placement courses in computer programming—which he described as exercises in drudgery. Although the course has the traditional structure of lectures and sections, he said, the lectures themselves involve activities (he demonstrated a search algorithm by having the audience stand up and take a census by dividing themselves, repeatedly, on a binary basis), and are available any way students want them: in person; recorded; with slides and notes.

The sections, many with undergraduate teaching fellows, cover both problem sets and actual programming in which students create something (read Undergraduate columnist Sarah Zhang's take on CS 50). One problem set involved recovering the original contents of a camera’s memory card that had been reformatted; doing so introduced the students to the computer sciences faculty, and so encouraged them to explore the field more deeply. A programming “hackathon” took students by bus to Microsoft’s Kendall Square laboratories for an evening of pizza, followed by programming, followed by Chinese food in the wee hours, followed by programming, followed by a dawn trip (for those still awake, or newly roused) for pancakes.

The Audience Engages

To begin the subsequent discussion, Dean Smith asked how conducting an activity-based course changes the role of the professor from the traditional one of lecturing. Winship said that he saw teaching as a producer might, rather than focusing on the delivery of content to the exclusion of all else. Thus he was engaged in scheduling the guest lecturers, overseeing the field assignments, and organizing multimedia content, such as databases of demographic and economic information that students could use in their analyses of Boston. Malan said that in his class, the lectures were no longer the essential part of the course. Given the variety of formats available, students could take them in as suited their learning styles. He found that liberating, but also said that devising lectures with participatory exercises to make material vivid was a continuing challenge.

A psychology lecturer asked how activity-based learning could be evaluated. Winship said there was a need for further research on and improvement in evaluation tools; moreover, he said, many course don’t have well-defined learning outcomes (one can assess whether a student can do a calculus problem, for example, but many courses are not defined by such skills). He expects substantial gains in the ability to evaluate learning during the next decade.  Malan said that CS 50 tracked students’ performance relative to their attendance at lectures as compared to other ways of accessing course content.

A Harvard Medical School professor noted that clinical education in the affiliated hospitals is certainly activity-based, but lamented that medical professors picked up their teaching techniques anecdotally and from their remembered experiences. He hoped that the University could teach teachers how to do their work better. Winship said he hoped there could be a University-wide teaching center. Smith said that the existing Bok Center for Teaching and Learning represented merely the outset of efforts to be more systematic about such teacher training; he has previously said that he hoped forums like the “Conversations” series would help the faculty to begin exploring and sharing best practices with one another. Paulus thought the ART could convene faculty members to talk about ways theater professionals engage their audiences.

Another faculty member said that students themselves could be effective innovators in active learning. In one course, he said, students launched a website on which they posted links to and digested literature relevant to the course contents—subject to teaching-fellow evaluations of the commentaries; the tool managed to involve both Cambridge students and distant learners enrolled electronically, and had taken on a life of its own for interested readers everywhere.

A mathematics preceptor asked how students, arriving at college from lecture-style elementary and secondary classes, could be acculturated to active-learning formats. Malan suggested experimenting with teaching formats in General Education courses, always with a willingness to discard techniques that don’t work (he had earlier cited a chat function posted with videos of lectures, intended to get students involved in conversations about the material; students simply did not use it). Paulus noted that to encourage interaction and overcome social isolation, she had taken the seemingly radical step of banning laptops from her classroom.

Cabot professor of biology Richard Losick, already well known for his pioneering and innovative teaching, urged Harvard to enhance the reach of the Bok Center’s activities, and to invest in a program of research and teaching on college-level learning at the Graduate School of Education, the results of which could be shared across the University.

An FAS development officer asked about the demands of organizing activity-based classes. Paulus said she could not undertake her course work other than with a co-teacher. Winship said his course was very time-intensive, and depended both on a full complement of teaching fellows and on small section sizes—both substantial expenses. Malan said he thought technology could help, as successful activity-based lectures could be captured and reused, rather than being restaged anew each year; he also advocated a different style of grading, assessing the quality of students’ learning (with a check plus, check, or check minus), rather than trying to assign an exact letter or number grade based on testing each cell of a student’s enormous spread sheet. Such grading, he said, led to better discussions with students, conversations where their learning challenges and successes could be talked through.

Professor of Romance languages and literatures Virginie Greene, the department chair, said that activity-based-learning courses in that field had enabled students—placed in community centers—to develop language skills while also gaining exposure to a culture. She did emphasize, however, that reading was very much one of the activities that her discipline required and encouraged, and that any evaluation must not lose sight of that fundamental task. Paulus acknowledged that in the current context, one challenge for theatrical and other performers was simply attracting audience members and then keeping them awake—if need be, by the expedient of keeping the house lights on.

Astronomy senior lecturer Philip Sadler suggested that pedagogy ought not be left to chance. He advocated mandatory courses on teaching for all graduate students. Winship said there was such training within sociology. Dean Smith said that such training had taken hold in some departments, but not across the board—yet another indication of a nascent, but hardly mature, effort to enhance teaching throughout FAS.

The Series, Continued

Smith thanked the participants and attendees, and invited all to attend the March 25 discussion of global perspectives in teaching, moderated by Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Allan Brandt, and the April 1 session on teaching with the University’s collections, moderated by Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds.


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