Learning from the Harvard Assessment Seminars

Listening to colleagues discussing student learning in the PlanSpiel the other day led me to re-read similar findings from the Harvard Assessment Seminar and outline them as talking points, below.

For this seminar in the 1990s, some 70 faculty and 2,000 students met in small groups and conducted extensive interviews on how faculty might better help students learn; their results include:

  1. Groups. Academic achievement is associated with the ability to create and participate in groups that support and “stretch” them: “rarely today does a professor tell students that they must do their homework alone”.
    1. Writing. Writing in groups students say is the one single most important skill they learned in their studies: “as a result, Harvard professors are increasingly asking students to distribute their papers to their classmates.” Motivating factors include recognition from peers, finding their ideas to be at the center of class discussion, and learning how differently students from different backgrounds and contexts think and work.
    2. Languages. They were surprised to learn that foreign languages and literature were among the most enjoyable and demanding courses, which they attributed to the way they were structured and taught: to maximize personal engagement and collegial interaction, to work in small groups in class and out, featuring lots of writing and feedback
    3. Feedback. The use of one minute papers asking such questions as “what was the big idea you learned in class today?” and “what was unclear in class today?” instructors have found enormously helpful to identify and address student needs
    4. Advising. Students arriving in college confronting any number of major decisions greatly appreciate faculty advice, and substantively that advice often best includes:

    a) Class Size. Take as few and as small classes as possible to better to maximize interactions (academic achievement is associated with decreasing class size)

    b) Avoid “core” courses. void required “core” courses in favor of electives as then you’ll have a chance to identify your research interests and develop a serious writing program from the start

    c) Study groups. Isolated students easily lose their way, but study groups can be highly informative and motivating: academic achievement is strongly associated with the participation in extra-curricular groups

    d) Time Management. “Lack of careful thought about time allocation is a predictor of academic trouble,” because some otherwise bright, ambitious students are simply overwhelmed in their first semesters by new demands on their time, and they profit greatly from some help

How their advice to instructors has changed.

Supporting these findings, current writing advice one now finds on the Harvard’s websites is designed to support tutoring: where in years past advice was directed toward problems of grammar and style, on the correction of student mistakes, and offering fragments of textbooks as if off-loading instruction onto the web, now one finds advice to on the purposes and genres of academic writing, practical advice on how to go about doing it, and support for the integration of writing in instruction.

A Brief Guide to the Elements of the Academic Essay

Writing an Argument

Responding to Student Writing