У previous article Alison Jaggle and I stressed the importance of experimentation to create more effective classroom learning. We discussed two different approaches that familiar teachers tried and the results they obtained, and shared other information we gathered during our research for our new book, Become big universities. In this article, I will describe a training experiment I recently conducted, also shown in the book.
At Harvard University, I regularly teach first-year seminars to new students — classes specifically designed for first-year students, with a limit of 14. The whole point is to encourage students to express themselves, get some airtime in the classroom and develop connections with both each other and the professor. The only requirement for a professor is that they take all students to a meal at a certain time during the semester. It stimulates conversation in a more informal setting and helps foster a sense of community, which is a major goal of seminars for freshmen in many colleges.
I decided to try a simple teaching experiment for two years, during which I will be teaching a seminar for freshmen called “Solving Challenging Challenges for Modern American Higher Education”. I would conduct the same workshop twice, each time using different teaching methods, and then compare the results of each method. Every year I set the same starting point for each group of students:
You just received a $ 150 million grant from a generous fund. They give you this amazing gift because they admire your creativity and ability to think in a unique way. Your assignment for this semester is to build a new liberal arts college from scratch. Everything can be done in new ways. You can organize the hiring of teachers, the admission process, the staffing of your new college, the training requirements, the way you hire catering staff and cleaners … anything you want. The only rules: you will need to balance your budget every year. And of course, you have to run your new college with impeccable ethics. You will become the founding team of this new campus. Good luck.
After all, every class of seminar at Harvard consists of freshmen, most of whom have little or no experience any In college, I felt I had to ask students a few questions – mostly a set of categories – to help them start thinking productively. I have handed out a list of questions that anyone who is designing a new college will need to think about, for example:
- What is our target set?
- Should the college follow the traditional four-year model? Or maybe it needs to be adjusted, for example, by changing the deadlines to three regular academic years plus two full summers?
- How many courses (if any) should be required? How many electives?
- Should the new college create and organize traditional study departments such as history, chemistry and religion?
- Will we prefer when entering any particular group or subgroup of applicants?
- What two or three factors might be most helpful in distinguishing our newly established college, where you had virtually no restrictions, from other colleges? What will make us “special”?
For one semester, I led this class, leading an active discussion among first-year students, asking key questions to the entire group. The students then participated in energetic and enjoyable discussions in our roundtable discussions. I also led the following discussions and summarized the student consensus at the end of each weekly class. My only two requirements for students were that they (a) come to class by diligently completing reading assignments, and (b) that each student contribute by speaking in class at least twice during each seminar session.
Each student spoke at least twice during each class meeting. Even better, this simple requirement has been a source of laughter for our class all semester. Students seemed to have a lot of fun figuring out who was talking how much, and sometimes one student nominated a classmate so that “a moment in the sun would change everyone’s thinking”.
On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the most favorable, the overall overall student rating for this first-year seminar was 4.6. This is relatively high, although a few seminars taught by other teachers have higher scores. Overall I was pleased with the result.
When students lead a class
Qualitative answers proved to be particularly useful in order to give me good ideas on how to develop Workshop 2, which would use a markedly different pedagogical format. Summing up, the qualitative assessment of the course noted that four of my 14 students told me so politely, kindly, respectfully and politely that they thought they could be much more creative in the classroom if I, as a teacher, invited them, students to organize and lead a weekly discussion, even if it was only a small part of our classes. They noted that because I had always led the conversation, they did not all feel a full sense of freedom or urgency to “take responsibility for their own learning” (these words are a direct quote from one student).
So the following year I organized another first year seminar, again about designing a brand new liberal arts college from scratch, and the topics were similar to those of the previous year. But the curriculum was different. I have now divided 14 freshmen into seven pairs. Each pair received a schedule on the first day of classes in which it was reported that they would respond within 30 minutes during a specific week. I suggested that should be their main topic, but each couple was instructed to lead a discussion at the table. Leaders of student discussions had almost complete freedom to work out their half-hours. Their only limitation was that they needed to have a discussion and ask good questions from a class that focused on the topic assigned to them.
Also, a few months before teaching this second year of the workshop, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house. She had 12 people at the dinner table. Everyone spent the evening together, talking, and about midnight my master snapped his glass and said, “I want every gentleman here this evening to get up and move two places to your left. So now you will be sitting between two new dinner partners – two new friends – the rest of the time together. ”
I adapted the idea for our class of 14 students. In the middle of the semester, when each of the seven couples had the opportunity to lead one energetic discussion in the classroom, I surprised the students by creating seven new couples who would lead discussions on assigned topics for the second half of the semester.
Student assessments at the end of the course contained both good news and suggestions for future teaching. First, the average rating of our class with the same teacher (s), core program and reading homework and written assignments increased from the previous 4.6 to 4.9. It was an excellent course rating and clearly related to changes in course structure. After all, the instructor was the same guy.
In addition to a quantitative summary, anonymous qualitative responses opened eyes.
Finding 1: The students noted that one of the reasons they spent so much time in this class was that they knew that together with their seminar partner they would make two presentations. They also knew that every week they would have to come to classes exceptionally well-prepared and ideally ready to offer new ideas. One student wrote, “I knew I would be in the front of the classroom with my discussion partner who would lead our discussion at the workshop in two weeks. Of course, I wanted our class discussion to be successful. So I always worked hard to prepare well when other participants in our workshop had a discussion. I found it important to express my respect and commitment to my classmates, always well prepared to speak at their discussion sessions. I hoped that they in turn would reciprocate and do the same when it was my turn. “
Finding 2: Several (not all) students wrote that they had learned or honed two valuable skills thanks to this workshop format. One of the skills was – very simple – to learn to lead a constructive group discussion. Each of my students had to think carefully about a number of key questions: how do I want to structure the time we need to have discussions? How do I make sure I’m inclusive? To what extent should I speak as a discussion leader rather than inviting others into a constructive conversation? How do I know if it’s a good time to move from one topic to the next?
The second skill that students were taught was to learn to work effectively with a colleague to achieve good results, when each student had to not only lead, but also lead a group discussion to make the conversation productive. Implementing productive discussions requires some planning. Both students of each pair had to learn a good way to work constructively with their partner.
Finding 3: Many students in this second seminar format wrote in their course assessments that they expect to use the skills they learned in this seminar to become more effective members of their classroom communities over the next three years. I don’t have a systematic way to know for sure if that was the case for most of the class. However, as more than a few students picked up the idea of transferring leadership skills to other classes, I hope they had in mind what was said.
Keeping everything else the same, I believe that the idea of giving students some agency – to put them in office and, in fact, demand that they learn to manage – has led to a zoo of positive results that students describe as uniquely valuable to both college and the world is outside. This illustration emphasizes the value of experimenting with teaching and testing new class ideas. I taught for many years before the idea came to me to try this really modest device.
And how much does it cost a college or university professor to organize and implement something like this type of learning experiment? The correct answer – up to the third decimal place – is zero. The university doesn’t have to be rich to do that.
I was certainly pleased with the results of my experiments, but it is unrealistic to expect that every pedagogical innovation will lead to successful results. This will not happen. A strong university should encourage faculty to try new things and reward such innovative efforts independent whether a particular idea is successful or not. If the results of any particular new training plan turn out to be good, everyone wins. However, every university must anticipate that much of the new ideas will not work. If the new idea of learning was obvious or easy, it probably would have become widespread many years ago. Obviously, the continuous process of innovation and experimentation with classroom learning should always be rewarded.