Harvard College

Designing, scaffolding, and assessing student discussion leadership

Inviting students to plan for and facilitate discussions can have the effect of, as Tim McCarthy puts it, “provoking robust debate.” Though Tim McCarthy plays an integral role in class discussions, students themselves are responsible for leading the majority of classes, all of which are discussion-based. McCarthy refers to this exercise as a “provocation.” Leading such “provocations” affords student facilitators powerful, pedagogical perspectives while challenging them to participate more broadly in classroom discourse. In this video, McCarthy walks viewers through the intentional...

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Asserting political opinions in discussion

An instructor’s personal or political opinions might be less relevant when it comes to some topics, but asserting your opinions on certain controversial issues may be crucial. In this video, Christina “V” Villarreal and Tim McCarthy reflect on when and why they choose to assert certain political positions or strongly held beliefs in a discussion, particularly when “a line is crossed” or when “stakes are high.”

Intervening selectively in a student-led discussion

Once students are in the habit of discussing ideas among themselves, a key question for a professor is when to jump in. When should we provide helpful context? When should we inject a probing question to encourage students to dig deeper? Is it good practice to always correct misinformation? In this video, Timothy Patrick McCarthy shares how he generally strives to hold back in discussion but will intervene when he notices that something “really crucial” to student understanding has not yet surfaced.

Modeling discipline-specific thinking through application

Challenging students to step into the shoes of experts within their fields and consider problems from specialized points of view can make material more relevant and help students develop crucial disciplinary instincts. The ultimate goal of the history instructor, for instance, is for his/her students to be not only well-versed in the content but also able to think like historians. In every one of Paola Arlotta’s class sessions, she presents multiple experiments for students to design or interpret so they can gain confidence and practice thinking like scientists. In this video, she...

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Dedicating class time to repeated practice with key skills

Most academic fields require close, textual analysis. Despite this, some instructors lecture entire class sessions without affording students focused periods for practicing and sharpening their analytical skills. Understanding how crucial it is that students leave his course with particular skills in their repertoire, Brett Flehinger devotes significant portions of class time to hands-on engagement with analysis or, what he calls, “the fundamental historian’s task,” seeking to strengthen students’ discipline-specific skills through guided practice. In this video, Flehinger hands out new...

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Capturing students’ contributions on the board

While slides can be helpful for displaying class material, they also tend to be static and relatively passive. Conversely, co-constructing knowledge on the board with students can help make definitions and key concepts come alive. In this video, Paola Arlotta describes how recording students’ ideas on the board engages them in collaboratively “building the class material” and involves them more deeply in the learning process.

Breaking up lecture with frequent questions

A lecturer who acts primarily as a “sage on the stage” for an entire class session will likely struggle to gauge or sustain student attention and energy. By incorporating frequent, purposeful questioning into lectures, instructors can keep students energized and deepen their understanding. Brett Flehinger uses factual, analytical, and overarching questions during his lectures to draw out student voices and check the class’s “temperature.”

Warming Up the Class With Foundational Questions

Just like athletes in team practices, students can benefit enormously from a brief warm-up period at the start of class. To invigorate and prepare his students before diving into analytical conversations, Brett Flehinger frequently kicks off lectures with a flurry of factual and brainstorming questions. Once he observes that students have co-constructed some common understanding, Flehinger ups the stakes and challenges students to dig deeper into the material.

Encouraging Students to Put Each Class in Context with the Broader Course

Instead of viewing each class session as an independent, stand-alone component, some lecturers effectively weave together material across classes to create a coherent learning trajectory for students. As Brett Flehinger advances from topic to topic, he makes transparent for students his thinking about the specific curriculum choices. In this video, Brett describes how he uses his syllabus as an “atlas” to elucidate links between classes and concepts. He encourages his students to do the same.

Planning ahead to facilitate the inclusion of student contributions

One of the lecturer’s biggest fears remains ending class without having addressed enough of the material he/she planned to cover. To prevent this, Paola Arlotta identifies four or five key topics to address in a particular lecture before class. If discussion runs long on one of those topics, she makes quick decisions about how to reshuffle timing to ensure her objectives are met by the end of the lesson.

Sequencing materials to build student energy and excitement

Tapping into the energy in the classroom to make real-time decisions for keeping students engaged, curious, and challenged may prove more effective than blindly following a scripted lesson plan. In this video, Paola Arlotta describes how she uses advance planning and in-the-moment data from students to know when is appropriate to increase the level of difficulty or reveal surprises in the content.

Fostering a culture of valuing different ways of thinking

Students enter classrooms expecting to learn new material from the sources instructors select as well as from instructors themselves. An often underappreciated source of new learning, however, remains a student’s classmates. Fellow students’ fresh perspectives can foster new ways of thinking and yield constructive, unconsidered insights. In this video, Brett Flehinger describes why he refers to his class as a “collective brain,” a metaphor for the collaborative, participatory learning process he strives to create in his lecture classroom.

Building on Student Comments to Teach Academic Concepts

Instead of using lectures to simply deliver information, instructors can also use them to create opportunities for students to construct new knowledge themselves. In this video, Paola Arlotta explains how she presents material to students so they first construct their own understanding of concepts, then builds on their ideas to develop more formal disciplinary knowledge and vocabulary.

Acknowledging Publicly and Precisely What Students Do Well

Effective lecturers don’t just teach content; they also teach key ways of thinking about that content. When instructors hear or see a student demonstrating strong analytical skills, publicly verbalizing what that student is doing can demystify complex thinking and positively reinforce key skills. When a student draws a conclusion based on multiple pieces of evidence, Brett Flehinger purposefully spotlights what he observes. These moments propel class forward and advance his lesson.

Modeling norms for actively listening and building on comments

Powerful class discussions feel and sound conversational, not forced. They brim with incisive commentary, active listening, follow-up questions, and thoughtful rejoinders. But these characteristics of rich academic discourse do not always come naturally to students. The discussion facilitator plays a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for such authentic dialogue by both articulating expectations and personally modeling those expectations. In this video, Tim McCarthy consciously uses students' names, makes eye contact, and articulates connections between students' comments to...

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