What kind of classroom environment do you want to create? What kinds of strategies will you use to teach your material? It’s easy to assume, because your course appears in the catalogue numbered as a “lecture,” “seminar,” “tutorial,” or “lab,” that you ought to adopt the instructional methods most commonly associated with those formats. But why do we assume that courses of a particular size or nomenclature ought to correspond to any particular instructional strategy? Why should any class period consist of just one type of activity? Particularly at an institution like Harvard, where many class enrollments fall somewhere in between a seminar and a lecture, there really is no reason why you shouldn't feel empowered to experiment with multiple strategies in the classroom, distributing the class period into segments of lecture, problem-solving, or small-group discussion.
Whether you are teaching a large lecture class or a small seminar, it is important to take time to consider the classroom presence you hope to project, the community norms you and your students will abide by, and the learning environment you’ll create. You should choose your instructional strategies purposefully, with an eye to the method that seems most likely to produce the most evidence of student learning.
The First Day of Class
As you are preparing your course materials, it is important to think about what kind of environment you want to begin creating on the first day of class. How do you plan to introduce yourself? What do you want the students to start thinking about, in terms of the course material? What expectations will you set? How do you want them to engage with you, and with each other? Building rapport and thinking about classroom contracts are important considerations for inclusive teaching as you lay the foundation for a great term.
In recent years, the lecture has come in for a healthy dose of criticism, including more than a few predictions of its extinction as a standard classroom practice. (Even Harvard's alumni magazine has spoken of the lecture's "twilight.") The arguments against it seem difficult to ignore: given the growing volume of research demonstrating the benefits of having students engage actively in their learning—not to mention what we know about how easily large, anonymous rooms lend themselves to student distraction—asking our students to sit passively in a darkened auditorium and listen to a "sage on the stage" might seem tantamount to educational malpractice. At the Bok Center, however, we think it's likely that this criticism will result not in the disappearance of the lecture, but rather in a re-examination of its purpose—and that, as often happens in such cases, instructors will wind up rediscovering some of the things which lectures do extremely well.
Active learning includes any type of instructional activity that engages students in learning, beyond listening, reading, and memorizing. As examples, students might talk to a classmate about a challenging question, respond to an in-class prompt in writing, make a prediction about an experiment, or apply knowledge from a reading to a case study. Active learning commonly includes collaboration between students in pairs or larger groups, but independent activities that involve reflection or writing—like quick-writes, or real-time polling in lectures—are also valuable.
Technology and Student Distraction
In many ways, the ubiquity of laptops and mobile devices in lectures has been a boon to higher education—students can now respond instantaneously to online polls, collaborate in real time on written work, and engage with a range of media more flexibly than ever before. With those advantages, of course, come an equal and opposite set of possible disadvantages, and for many instructors the latter outweigh the former. As a result, an increasing number of instructors now include specific policies regarding technology in the classroom, many of them opting to ban laptops and mobile devices outright. Other instructors, however, opt to embrace—or at least resign themselves to—these technologies as means of rethinking the dynamic between student and instructor in teaching spaces.
Beyond the Classroom
Students' experiences of a course go beyond the time which they spend with you in your classroom. As an instructor, you will interact with students electronically, via email (and/or Skype, Twitter, or other social media), as well as in your office hours, whether because they need guidance on a paper or problem set, or because they look to you for additional mentoring on topics ranging from their course selection to their career path. Depending on the nature of the course or of your students' needs, these kinds of out of class interactions may be even more meaningful than the time you spend in class. Helping students learn how to interact with you via email and in office hours is no less important than helping them understand the contracts which operate within the classroom; it is an important part of their own learning and development, and can help you become more effective and successful as an instructor.
Grading and Responding to Student Work
Grading is among the most meaningful tasks we undertake as teachers, and it’s one that, even at its best, can require what feels like an outsized amount of time and energy. To be sure, we use a lot of that time and energy just doing the difficult job of grading, but a lot of time—and probably more energy—can get taken up weighing factors that, at their worst, make the task feel discouragingly fraught. These are questions that raise themselves nearly every time we sit down to grade a pile of papers or exams, and in fact they’re exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves—they reflect the complexity we would expect from so many overlapping and intersecting feedback loops taking shape over a period of months. With that in mind, our goal shouldn’t be to avoid the questions or iron out their fraughtness or hope for one-size-fits-all solutions to grading. In the end, those fixes just create bigger problems that lead us away from the meaningfulness of grading. What we can aim for, however, are general principles that will make grading as useful, fair, and efficient as possible.