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In a previous article, Allison Jegla and I emphasized the importance of experimenting to create more effective classroom teaching. We discussed two different approaches that faculty members we know tried and the results they had, and we shared other information we had gleaned in our research for our new book, Becoming Great Universities. In this piece, I will describe a teaching experiment that I recently conducted, also featured in the book.

I routinely teach first-year seminars for new students at Harvard University—classes specifically targeted to first-year students, with enrollment capped at 14 people. The whole point is to encourage students to speak up, get some airtime in class and develop connections with both one another and the professor. The only requirement for the professor is that they host all students for a meal at some time during the semester. This encourages conversation in a more informal setting and helps to foster the sense of community that is a core goal of freshman seminars at many colleges.

I decided to try a simple teaching experiment over a two-year period in which I would teach a freshman seminar called Tackling Tough Challenges for Modern American Higher Education. I would teach the same seminar twice, using a different teaching method each time, and then compare the outcomes of each method. I posed an identical starting point to each group of students each year:

You have just received a $150 million grant from a generous foundation. They give you this astonishing gift because they admire your creativity and your ability to think in unique ways. Your task this semester is to design a new liberal arts college from the ground up. Everything can be done in novel ways. You can organize the hiring of faculty, the student admissions process, the way your new college is staffed, the curricular requirements, how you hire food services employees and janitorial staff … anything within reason that you wish. The only rules are that you will need to balance your budget each year. And of course, you must run your new college with impeccable ethics. You will be the founding team of this new campus. Good luck.

Since each entire seminar class at Harvard consists of freshmen, most of whom have little or no experience with any college, I felt I had to give the students some questions—basically a set of categories—to help them get started in thinking productively. I distributed a list of questions that anyone designing a new college would need to think about, such as:

  • What is our target enrollment?
  • Should the college follow the traditional four-year model? Or should it perhaps be adjusted, for example, changing the time frame to be 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 academic departments, such as history, chemistry and religion?
  • Shall we give admissions preferences to any particular group or subgroup of applicants?
  • What two or three factors can be most useful for differentiating our newly created college, where you have practically no constraints at the outset, from other colleges? What will make us “special”?

For one semester, I taught this class by leading an active discussion among the first-year students, posing the key questions to the entire group. The students then engaged in vigorous and enjoyable discussions in our roundtable class conversations. I also led the follow-up discussions and summarized students’ consensus at the end of each week’s class session. My only two requirements for the students were that they (a) come to class having completed their reading assignments thoroughly, and (b) that each student contribute by speaking in class at least twice during each seminar session.

Each student did speak at least twice during each class meeting. Even better, this simple requirement became the source of much laughter for our class all semester. The students seemed to take enormous pleasure in figuring out who had spoken how much, and sometimes one student would nominate a classmate to have their “moment in the sun to transform everyone’s thinking.”

On a 1-to-5 scale, where 5 is most favorable, the overall aggregate student rating for this first-year seminar was a 4.6. That is relatively high—although several seminars taught by other faculty do score higher. I was, on balance, happy with the outcome.

When Students Lead the Class

The qualitative responses turned out to be particularly helpful for giving me good ideas about how to design Seminar 2 that would use a noticeably different pedagogical format. In summary, the qualitative course evaluations featured about four of my 14 students telling me ever so graciously, kindly, respectfully and politely that they thought they could be far more creative in class if I as the instructor invited them, the students, to organize and to lead each week’s discussion, even if it were for just a small part of our class sessions. They pointed out that because I was the one always steering the conversation, they didn’t all feel a full sense of agency or urgency to “take charge of our own learning” (those 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 from the previous year. But the instructional plan was different. Now I divided the 14 freshmen into seven pairs. Each pair received a schedule on the first day of class, informing them that they would be in charge for 30 minutes during a particular week. I suggested what their main topic of focus should be, but each pair was tasked with leading the discussion around the table. The student discussion leaders had near total freedom to design their half hour. Their only constraint was they needed to actually lead the discussion and pose good questions to the class that focused on their assigned topic.

Also, a few months before teaching this second year of the seminar, I had been invited to a dinner party at a friend’s home. She had 12 people around the dinner table. Everyone was having a great evening chatting, and roughly halfway through the evening, my host clinked her glass and said, “I want every gentleman here this evening to stand up and move two seats to your left. That way you will now be sitting between two new dinner partners—two new friends—for the rest of our time together.”

I adapted the idea for our class of 14 students. Halfway through the semester, when each of the seven pairs had experienced the opportunity of leading one vigorous class discussion, I surprised the students by creating seven new pairs that would lead discussions about the assigned topics for the second half of the semester.

The student evaluations at the end of the course contained both good news and suggestions for future teaching. First, the mean rating of our class with the same instructor (me), basic syllabus and homework readings and written assignments rose from the prior year’s 4.6 to 4.9. It was a remarkable course rating and clearly connected to the changes in course structure. After all, the instructor was the same guy.

Beyond the quantitative summary, the anonymous qualitative responses were eye-opening.

Finding 1: Students pointed out that one reason they spent a lot of time on this class was because they knew they, together with their seminar partner, would be making two presentations. They also knew they would need to come to class each week exceptionally well prepared and ideally ready to offer some new ideas. One student wrote, “I knew I would be at the front of the classroom with my discussion partner leading our seminar discussion in two weeks. Of course, I wanted our class discussion session to be successful. So I was always working extra hard to come well prepared when the other folks in our seminar were leading the discussion. I thought it is important to convey my respect and affection for my classmates by always coming well prepared to speak up in their discussion sessions. I hoped they in turn would reciprocate and do the same when it was my turn.”

Finding 2: Several students (not all) wrote that they learned or polished two valuable skills because of this seminar format. One skill was—quite simply—learning how to lead a constructive group discussion. My students each had to think hard about a variety of key questions: How do I want to structure the time we have to lead discussions? How do I make sure I am being inclusive? How much should I as the discussion leader speak versus inviting constructive conversation from others? How do I know when it is a good time to move on from one topic to the next?

A second skill students brought up was learning how to work effectively with a colleague to achieve good outcomes when each student was required not just to lead but to co-lead a group discussion to get productive conversations flowing. Implementing productive discussions takes some planning. Both students in each pair had to learn good ways to work with their partner in constructive ways.

Finding 3: Many students in this second seminar format wrote in their course evaluations that they expected to use the skills they learned in this seminar to become more effective members of their classroom communities for the coming three years. I have no systematic way to know for sure whether that was indeed the case for most of the class. Yet since more than a few students brought up this idea of transferability of leadership skills to other classes, I hope they meant what they said.

Holding everything else constant, I find that the idea of giving the students some agency—putting them in charge and essentially requiring that they learn how to lead—led to a menagerie of positive outcomes that the students describe as distinctly valuable for both college and the world beyond. This illustration drives home the value of experimenting with teaching and testing new classroom ideas. I taught for many years before the idea of even trying out this genuinely modest adjustment occurred to me.

And how much does it cost a college or university for a professor to organize and implement anything like this type of teaching experiment? The precise answer—to the third decimal place—is zero. A university doesn’t need to be wealthy to do this.

I was certainly pleased with the results of my experiments, but it is unrealistic to anticipate that every teaching innovation will lead to successful results. That won’t happen. A strong university should encourage faculty to try new things and reward such innovative efforts regardless of whether a particular idea succeeds or not. When the results of any particular new teaching plan turn out well, everyone wins. Yet each university should anticipate that a large fraction of new ideas won’t work. If a new teaching idea were obvious or easy, it probably would have been widely adopted many years ago. Clearly, it is the ongoing process of innovation and experimentation with classroom teaching that always should be rewarded.

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