Analysis: Pedagogy, Practice, and Teaching Innovation at Harvard

The context for a major new initiative on teaching skills, classrooms, learning technology, and evaluation

Gustave and Rita Hauser

By chance, the Boston Globe on October 16 ran comments by President Faust and her three predecessors on the occasion of Harvard’s 375th anniversary, looking ahead to its 400th. Focusing on a theme he has sounded for decades, Derek Bok, president from 1971 to 1991 and again in 2006-2007, devoted his remarks to Harvard’s “great opportunity to lead in reforming undergraduate education to engage students more fully and help them develop to the full extent of their abilities.” These remarks resonate today with the University's announcement of a $40 million gift to launch the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching.

Bok listed three priorities for improvement:

  • Faculty members should lecture less and experiment with new, more active methods of instruction.
  • The faculty should participate in developing reliable methods of assessing student progress to determine which forms of instruction are most effective in helping students learn.
  • Departments need to help restructure graduate education to acquaint future faculty with what is becoming known about how students learn, what methods of instruction are most successful, and how technology can be used to engage student interest and help them progress.

Although progress is being made on all those fronts here and there, Bok wrote, “major universities have not played a prominent part in these efforts. They feel little pressure to do so, since they attract far more students than they can accommodate. Yet their participation is critical, since their example has such a powerful effect on hundreds of other colleges.” He might have added that faculty members at research universities are often—and rightly—acclaimed for their research, the influence of which can be measured relatively readily in citations, grant awards, and opportunities to lecture to and write for the wider world. At the same time, their complex teaching responsibilities for both graduate and undergraduate students tend to receive far less public and even internal attention.

Tuning Up Teaching. That discrepancy has given rise to the impression that undergraduate teaching, in particular, commands less priority in universities than in liberal-arts colleges and other settings. These challenges have been widely aired in the education profession; see earlier reports from this magazine on these subjects (“Taking Teaching Seriously,” 2006, and “Tackling Teaching and Learning,” 2011, with references to experts including Lee S. Shulman, a past professor of educational psychology and then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Macalester College president emeritus Michael McPherson, now president of the Spencer Foundation, a leading supporter of education research.)

Among the most persistent synthesizers of this research is Bok himself, whose book Our Underachieving Colleges (published in late 2005, just before he was summoned back to Massachusetts Hall) emphasizes the importance of systematic efforts to assess and improve teaching and learning. He was an important supporter of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) Task Force on Teaching and Career Development, and of its 2007 recommendations that much greater attention be paid to teaching—from the president’s and deans’ agendas to evaluation of initial faculty appointments and promotions, through peer observation and evaluation of professors’ classroom teaching, and encompassing salary reviews, rewards, and recognition within the community.

Progress has clearly been made on some of these matters within FAS—the most diverse of Harvard’s schools, given its array of disciplines and departments, its liberal-arts mission, and its undergraduate and graduate student body. According to the faculty’s dean, Michael D. Smith—an engineering professor who emphasizes his appetite for measurements and metrics—appointments now take teaching into account much more thoroughly, and the divisional deans now receive much better annual appraisals of each faculty member's teaching engagements and accomplishments (and can use that information in salary reviews).

Within the science disciplines, there has been professional concern about waning student interest (caused by rote introductory classes) and attrition in enrollments and under-enrollment of women and minorities. The National Science Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute have offered funding to study the problems and to improve student engagement and retention. As a result, introductory courses have been redesigned to introduce practical problems and the doing of science. There are even instances of faculty members inviting peers to observe their classroom teaching and to mentor them to improve performance.

One of the leaders in this movement at Harvard, Cabot professor of  biology Richard M. Losick, head tutor in molecular and cellular biology, is an enthusiastic champion of the progress being made, yet he remains wary, given the work still to be done. As reported, he wrote earlier this year about the challenge of overcoming the valorization of research at the expense of teaching, and the need to “educate faculty about research on learning,” much as they already continue to educate themselves in their academic specialties.

Attending to Learning. The challenge of determining what students learn looms even larger (particularly, as President Faust noted, where one wants to measure judgment or critical thinking, rather than a specific professional skill). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, published in January, depicts four-year college students doing so little writing and reading that nearly half show no gain in critical thinking and reasoning skills after two years of higher education, and more than one-third score equally poorly after four years. 

Whatever the relevance of the Arum-Roksa sample to students at Harvard, the issue of assessment is rising to the fore. During the past year, the Chronicle of Higher Education has highlighted debates over educational outcomes. But as Bok wrote in 2007, “efforts to promote assessment at Harvard (and other universities) have encountered much passive resistance.” He signaled interest in the subject by arranging to have the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA, the tool used in Academically Adrift) administered on a trial basis to a cohort of students, as well as a vehicle for measuring writing competency. The experiment in using the CLA—the efficacy of which is contested, particularly at the most selective schools—has not been repeated, but writing assessments, and an evaluation of the General Education curriculum, are being planned or discussed.

Dean Smith acknowledged the student side of the relationship. But how should learning be measured? The Q Guide (an annual rundown of courses), he indicated, is “important but not sufficient.” Although questions remain about what metrics will work, he noted that there are “faculty proponents for being much more explicit about learning outcomes.”

The Harvard Responses. Examples of engaging with, and in some cases making great progress on, these problems already exist across the University. The challenges involve accounting for differences in culture between, say, the skills- and practice-based professional schools and the more qualitative teaching and learning at the core of much of FAS’s work; encouraging individual faculty members’ initiatives and bringing the successful ideas into wider use; and, in a highly decentralized university, coordinating the results of diverse initiatives. A few are highlighted here.

Educating educators. FAS’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning would seem a natural venue for synthesizing knowledge on cognition and effective teaching, for evaluating learning outcomes, and more. But its initial funding is largely exhausted, according to Dean Smith, and its role has been largely confined to providing basic skills training to graduate students who become teaching fellows, and offering remedial advice to faculty members who encounter problems in the classroom.

Smith and faculty advisers have now elaborated a more expansive vision for the Bok Center’s role in enhancing pedagogy within FAS—and, pending the results of fundraising to bring it all to life, have begun to proceed on a vital first step. With support from Richard L. Menschel, M.B.A. ’59 (another of the University Campaign’s national chairs), Smith announced in his recent annual letter that he has been able to authorize a search for a new faculty director of the center.

The new leader, Smith recently advised FAS colleagues in an e-mail, “will support faculty members in enriching their classes with new materials, methods and technologies, and assessing their efficacy in teaching undergraduates. The director’s portfolio will also include research in innovative pedagogies and assessment, and notifying faculty of important developments in higher education instruction, broadly defined. Even while exploring new or unconventional teaching methods and as yet unimagined instructional technologies, the faculty director will ensure that the Bok Center continues to offer and develop core programs and services that foster the fundamentals of good teaching.” The job description specifies that the successful applicant “will have made significant contributions to scholarship and teaching in his or her academic field, as well as to the development and evaluation of innovative pedagogies in liberal arts education” and will be responsible for “manag[ing] the significant growth planned for the Bok Center in the coming years.”

That vision, if effected, would represent a quantum leap in FAS’s faculty-wide, in-house expertise on pedagogy, and in its ability to promote more teaching innovation and evaluation.

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

Eric Mazur

Investing in classroom infrastructure. In the same letter, Smith disclosed that as part of the Old Quincy renovation, the pilot project for comprehensive renovation of undergraduate Houses, a “21st-Century Classroom Committee” will pursue a “pedagogy-driven discussion of the future of learning spaces” within FAS, focusing on the best use of the terrace-level space being created there. The chair is Eric Mazur, Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics (and area dean for applied physics within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)—nationally known as an innovator in peer learning among students. (To read about Mazur's own ventures in pedagogical innovation, see the main article about the Hausers' gift and the Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching.)

Photograph by Richard Howard

Youngme Moon

On a wider scale, as the Business School introduces a new first-year field course, it has also fitted up an entirely new kind of classroom. Unlike the famous teaching amphitheaters that have evolved to maximize case-based discussions, these “hive” classrooms, according to Youngme Moon—David professor of business administration, the senior associate dean and chair of the M.B.A. program, and another member of the campaign-planning committee whose work engaged the Hausers—are tailored to student working groups preparing for their assignments at companies around the world this coming January. (For more on Moon's work with Business School students, see the main article.) Installed on the second and third floors of 125 Western Avenue—also the site of the new Harvard Innovation Lab, opening next month—the physical spaces and their use represent “a choreography” of video materials and envisioned learning experiences as students, and the school, embark on a whole new form of pedagogy.

Something similar is under way at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where McKay professor of electrical engineering Gu-Yeon Wei, associate dean for academic programs, is leading an effort to renovate Pierce Hall’s third-floor library into a new kind of teaching space—neither lecture hall nor conference room. The aim, he said, is to enable small groups of students to work together, focusing on a teacher when needed, reassembling for common discussions or presentations, but maintaining maximum flexibility for different learning configurations throughout a single class session.

In each case, a drive for new kinds of teaching is propelling interest in new physical spaces to make such innovations both possible and effective. HILT can complement and encourage these activities, in turn encouraging each school to make its own pedagogical and curricular plans and investments informed by wider knowledge of what works in its own disciplines and in others.

Evaluating what works. Are teachers doing a skillful job? Are students learning? Often, no one really knows. Eric Mazur is exasperated—even vehement—as he notes that doctors, lawyers, and K-12 teachers undergo professional certification, but that college and university professors need only demonstrate subject mastery rather than mastery of practice before they appear in classrooms.

“To teach the future generation of leaders at Harvard, you need nothing else but a Ph.D.,” he said. Much of what professors bring to the classroom about teaching is learned solely from their personal experience as students—practices they perpetuate uncritically. Often, he said, professors “teach in a fashion that is not informed by any research or insight into how people learn.” And the result of their teaching is assessed only by examinations they have devised themselves: a closed and potentially self-interested process that would not pass muster for verification of scientific research. Nor are the “measures of popularity” (course evaluations administered at the end of a term) sufficient or even useful, he said: students often cannot tell until much later in their lives whether they learned anything meaningful and enduring from a class.

In a conversation about the Hausers' gift, President Drew Faust mentioned one interesting experiment in assessing learning now under way. Gale professor of education Richard J. Light has been developing such protocols with colleagues at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), where he also teaches. Their recent work is based on the premise, Light said, that “innovative pedagogy” is not the same thing as “what students are learning.” Changes in a curriculum, or new course content, or even updated ways of delivering that content, cannot be assumed to affect learning. The only way to know, he says, is to assess the results rigorously.

HKS dean David Ellwood and academic dean Mary Jo Bane have supported a Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) initiative, as part of which—in a professional-education context—Light and colleagues have begun trying to assess learning. For example, they are administering “before” and “after” exercises: at the outset of an academic year or course, they present the students with a complex problem in public administration (how to respond to an offer to purchase a municipal asset, how to assume leadership of an early-education program). The results are evaluated, on a blind basis, by outside readers. The same exercises are administered at the end of the class, and then evaluated again. The differences in scores are analyzed statistically to determine whether the students recorded a “gain” in proficiency, and if so, how large. (In the early trials, happily, the value added by the classes has been very large; but, Light says, he and his colleagues would have been equally interested to learn that the courses required revision.)

Such experiments will not, by themselves, transform education at Harvard overnight. But Light reports that other faculties are showing interest. An emerging theme, he says, is a serious effort to devise statistically valid assessments that can drive sustained improvements in teaching and learning.

Increasingly, faculty members and students will be able to pursue such assessments individually or as teams, courtesy of the newly announced Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT). During his presentation at an FAS forum last spring, for instanced, Computer Science 50 lecturer David J. Malan described how he had kept data on student participation in the course either in person, during regular classes, or by accessing recorded classes online. The next step, perhaps, might be assessing how well the different cohorts of students perform—a relatively straight-forward analysis that might be funded by a grant or undertaken by the initiative’s new director of assessment and evaluation.

Putting it all together. Youngme Moon (see above), said that visitors from other Harvard schools often marvel at the “magic that happens in an HBS classroom.” For the engaged case discussions that take place there to occur, she said, “ a whole lot of things have to happen first.” The first thing people see is the architecture: HBS’s precisely designed teaching amphitheaters, laid out for every student to participate from her or his seat. And indeed, Moon said, “We sweat the details,” down to the alignment of the boards in front of each theater, the pitch of the steps, and the timing and appearance of each visual element in a case presentation. The faculty members for each class prepare beforehand, and she said it was not unusual for her to invest 10 hours in preparation for a single hour before students.

Nor is the obligation solely the professors’. “We make a huge investment in student orientation and in their first few weeks of class,” she said, so expectations are clear. Students are not late to class, they aren’t absent, and—however addicted they may be to their BlackBerries or iPhones, those devices are not on or in use during class time. “It does create this virtuous cycle” of mutual preparation for teaching and learning, she said.

And when HBS innovates, “We don’t just throw some technology into a room”—as she knows well right now, with first-year M.B.A. candidates immersed in their new field-based course. The newly conceived “hive” spaces for the course are in effect a whole ecosystem of learning and teaching—with each element subject to major revision, as the course proceeds through its first year and faculty members and students determine what worked and what failed.

“Harvard students reap the benefit of centuries of refinement in how to teach,” Moon said. Looking ahead, she added, “We consider ourselves always unfinished, and are constantly experimenting with ways to be better. We are constantly staying in motion.”

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Harvard Portrait: Judith Grant Long

The associate professor of urban planning studies sports facilities and their impact.

The Way of The Blockbuster

In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule.

Picture-book Publisher

Claudia Bedrick ’85 of Enchanted Lion Books offers an international array of stories to young children.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults