Last summer, before his first semester as a college fellow in history at Harvard University, Zachary Nowak did some extensive thinking and writing about how he wanted to organize his course.
He knew that the success of his introductory course on
American environmental history
required the right content, learning outcomes, and active-learning strategies. But he also wanted to think through how each class would play out, what he and his 30 students, mostly sophomores, would be doing, and when.
Why did structure matter so much? It is, he wrote to himself, "the visible, performative part of a larger network of pedagogical ideas, people, and learning locations."
Nowak consulted with the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and its director, Adam Beaver, to make sure the course was informed by education research. He was also influenced by the advice pieces that James M. Lang has written for
about how to structure the
five minutes of class.
One thing was clear: Nowak wouldn't lecture for an entire class. "It's a core part," he said, "but it's never the only part."
To make sure he didn't end up simply lecturing, he created a chart for himself, splitting each 75-minute class into four chunks.
The first 15 minutes are what he calls "study hall," a period when he makes announcements and presents a poll question, which can serve multiple functions. It might force students to retrieve information from the day's reading, which helps embed the content in their memory. Or it could give Nowak a sense of where they might be confused. It also serves as an attendance-taking tool.
The next 20 minutes are for lecture, though he usually takes a little time at the beginning to set up his presentation so that students are able to reset and focus their attention.
And then, for 30 minutes, he has his students engage in active-learning exercises, like "think-pair-share," in which students split into small groups, compare ideas, and report back to the whole class. These activities can reinforce the content while also developing a skill, like using the historical method. "Being able to look at fragments of the past and a narrative with an argument is something that will be valuable whether you become a professional historian or not," he wrote in his teaching statement, which he distributes on the first day of class.
The last 10 minutes are reserved for reflection.
A few weeks into the semester, Nowak asked researchers from the Bok Center to survey his students on how they felt about the structure and its emphasis on active learning. The responses fell into a classic U-shape: Those who loved and hated it were the most vocal.
After the semester ended, he shared a few snippets from his course evaluations. Several students said they appreciated how intentional the structure was.
"The planning around the structure of his classes and the appropriate time for lecture and discussion shows a deep level of reflection about how we would retain the knowledge after leaving his class," one student wrote.
"There was a lot of group work and group discussion," another wrote, "which I did not really appreciate at first, but I grew to actually really enjoy it as the course went on."
Others remained unconvinced: "Having both 'section' and 'lecture' split into material and discussion was a bit frustrating because it fragmented the subject matter in a way that was not always helpful, often leading to less actual content."
Responses to active learning can be complicated, of course, and the value of lecturing has become heavily contested. A
by Norm Friesen that framed Nowak's thinking calls the lecture "a remarkably adaptable and robust form."
Nuances in the use of lectures are covered in a recent piece by David Gooblar in
Simply telling students information can be an excellent method, he wrote, when the task at hand is to communicate specific information. But it isn't very good, he wrote, for "teaching students complex ideas, conceptual knowledge, or difficult skills."
– by Dan Berrett, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education