Shake Up Your Teaching with OCW Instructor Insights

When you’re faced with an unexpected teaching challenge, OpenCourseWare’s Instructor Insights can help.

lecture seating

Photo courtesy of ladylong on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Imagine: You’re an experienced math instructor at a respected university, and you’ve just heard some alarming news. The university’s president has announced a new initiative to improve students’ communication skills by incorporating writing assignments into the curricula of introductory-level courses in all departments. One of your standby courses, Intro to Non-Euclidean Multidimensional Geometry, falls under the new policy.

What are you to do? For the past fourteen years you’ve taught the course in a tried-and-true format that works for you, with straightforward lectures, weekly problem sets, and regular quizzes and exams. How are you supposed to go about incorporating writing assignments?

Acting on the advice of a colleague at another institution, you pay a visit to MIT’s OpenCourseWare website. At the OCW Educator portal, you search for Instructor Insights on the topic of “Teaching Communication”⁠—specifically, on the subtopic of “Writing.” To your surprise (and delight), the search results turn up three OCW math courses featuring Instructor Insights on that very topic:

screen shot of finder tool

Structuring the Course

The Instructor Insights page for 18.310 Principles of Discrete Applied Mathematics includes links to three subpages on which Michel Goemans, Peter Shor, Lorenzo Orecchia, and Susan Ruff discuss aspects of how they designed the course to teach students the fundamental principles of writing papers in mathematics. They explain how the course’s recitation sections help students develop a critical appreciation of writing in mathematics by examining the mathematical content of a writing sample and discussing how the content is communicated. They also reveal how they’ve structured the final term paper assignment in the past and how they might change it in the future. Finally, they discuss how they use norming meetings and other techniques to ensure consistency in assessing students’ writing.

Giving Feedback and Encouraging Revision

In the “Writing” section of the OCW site for 18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics, Professor Haynes Miller and Lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric & Professional Communication Susan Ruff describe the criteria for good mathematical writing and the components of the writing workshop, and they explain how students use feedback on earlier drafts of their writing to improve later drafts. This section also features links to two actual student papers from the course, including the first drafts, Miller’s and Ruff’s comments on those drafts, a video of a “debriefing meeting” for the first draft of one of the papers, and the final versions of both papers.

Teaching the Elements of Mathematical Style

Dr. Andrew Snowden, the instructor for 18.904 Seminar in Topology, shares his insights into ways of teaching students to give mathematical presentations and write mathematical papers. As added resources, he includes links to two .pdf documents that he provided to his students: a guide to writing papers using the LaTeX document preparation system and a general style guide to common student mistakes in writing math papers and how to avoid them.

Moving On to Future Challenges

The resources above represent OCW’s offerings on a very specific topic, the teaching of writing in math courses. We hope you’ll return to the Educator portal many times in the future when you’re facing a new pedagogical challenge or even when you just feel the need to shake things up and enrich your teaching with new techniques!

A Panoply of Language Offerings at MIT and on OCW

A cup and a piece of paper with hand-written Japanese kanji characters on it

Studying Japanese culture goes hand in hand with studying the Japanese language. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Pack on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

There’s more to learning a language than just working your way through a textbook, say these MIT instructors.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Aside from English, MIT offers courses in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. (MIT students wishing to study a language not on this list, such as Arabic, Irish, Swahili, or Tibetan, can do so by cross-registering for courses at Harvard or Wellesley.) Many of MIT’s language course offerings are represented on OpenCourseWare, and several of their OCW course sites include Instructor Insights either in text or video form. Here are five OCW offerings that feature Instructor Insights on approaches to teaching languages:

21G.101 Chinese I (Regular)

Haohsiang Liao believes strongly that, as he puts it, “the way you behave in a second culture is as important as your use of the language.” In the videos on the Instructor Insights page for this course, which are presented in both English and Chinese, Dr. Liao says that this is why cultural competence is a core part of MIT’s Chinese curriculum. He also explains the importance of creating an immersive classroom environment, and the rationale behind the curriculum’s covering speaking and listening before reading and writing. Among the helpful details Liao shares in the videos are explanations of how he uses a daily grading system to provide continuous feedback to students, how students can develop their ear for a language by listening to audio filesand why he asks struggling students to physically show him how they prepare for class.

“The way you behave in a second culture is as important as your use of the language.”
-Haohsiang Liao

21G.1007 Chinese I (Streamlined)

In Min-Min Liang’s Instructor Insights videos, which like Haohsiang Liao’s are offered in both English and Chinese, she discusses her philosophy of teaching (“The main philosophy for me is to have a welcoming environment to help students to speak the language, not to talk about the language”) and explains why the curriculum and structure of the streamlined course is well suited for heritage learners of Chinese. She also shares practical details about how using an online tool makes it easier for students to practice and receive feedback on their pronunciation, how she assesses student learning, and how authentic texts might supplement the somewhat contrived material presented by language textbooks.

“The main philosophy for me is to have a welcoming environment to help students to speak the language, not to talk about the language.”
-Min-Min Liang

21G.410 Advanced German: Professional Communication

A man seated in his office, gesturing with his hands as he speaks

Peter Weise engaged in conversation in his office on the MIT campus. (Photo by OCW.)

When Peter Weise set out to teach an advanced German course on the kinds of language used in professional settings, he discovered that there was no textbook available for the kind of course he wanted to teach. “It’s much easier for students to learn language through content they find relevant and engaging than it is through textbook materials,” he observes. In his written Instructor Insights, he describes how he assembled a customized curriculum based on authentic texts, how he uses video recording and native speakers to provide feedback on students’ speaking skills, what role guest speakers can play in modeling authentic speech and speech behaviors, and how he uses reflective practice and student feedback to improve his teaching.

“It’s much easier for students to learn language through content they find relevant and engaging than it is through textbook materials.”
-Peter Weise

21G.503 Japanese III

The Instructor Insights page for this course features English and Japanese videos in which Takako Aikawa discusses various aspects of how she and her co-instructor Emiko Rafique approach the teaching of Japanese, using separate grammar sessions and drill sessions, daily grades along with two interview tests to assess students’ fluency, the incorporation of body language lessons and cultural tips in each grammar lesson, and community social events that give students opportunities to interact with native speakers.

“Language needs to be learned together with context.”
-Takako Aikawa

21G.711 Advanced Spanish Conversation and Composition

A woman on a bicycle and a man on a motorcycle, both looking at their mobile phones while they are stopped in traffic

Life in European cities, like elsewhere around the world, has been radically transformed by technologies such as smartphones. (Image courtesy of Simona on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

Like Peter Weise, Margarita Ribas Groeger finds that the best way to motivate students to develop their ability to write and speak in a second language is to give them something to write and talk about that they’ll find relevant and interesting. On the Instructor Insights page for this course, she describes how “looking at Spanish-speaking societies through the ways they have been affected by science and technology offered an alternative thematic focus to the fifth or sixth semester Spanish language curriculum.” She also lists the recurring questions that the course explored, all themed around the social and cultural impact of technology in Hispanic societies.

“Looking at Spanish-speaking societies through the ways they have been affected by science and technology offered an alternative thematic focus to the fifth or sixth semester Spanish language curriculum.”
-Margarita Ribas Groeger

How You Can Make Almost Anything

MIT poster for makers

Poster for MIT Project Manus, charged to create the gold standard in next generation academic makersystems.

Teaching and learning can take place beyond the traditional classroom, sitting at desks, giving or listening to lectures and doing paper assignments. MIT students and faculty know that some of the most important learning comes from doing stuff with your hands, designing and building things in the real world.

The growth of a vibrant “maker” culture is the MIT motto mens et manus (mind and hand) in action. Use these OCW courses to inspire your own hands-on explorations.

From building a printing press to building your own camera or wearables, OCW offers quite a few courses to help you hone your skills and engineering know-how. What will you make today?

Girls Who Build Cameras

The Girls Who Build Cameras workshop for high school girls is a one-day, hands-on introduction to camera physics and technology (i.e. how Instagram works!) at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Beaverworks Center. The workshop includes tearing down old dSLR cameras, building a Raspberry Pi camera, and designing Instagram filters and Photoshop tools. Participants also get to listen to keynote speakers from the camera technology industry, including Kris Clark who engineers space cameras for NASA and MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Uyanga Tsedev who creates imaging probes to help surgeons find tumors at MIT. During lunch, representatives from the Society of Women Engineers and the Women’s Technology Program at MIT will present future opportunities to get involved in engineering in high school and college.

CMS.608 Game Design

This course is built around practical instruction in the design and analysis of non-­digital games. It provides students the texts, tools, references, and historical context to analyze and compare game designs across a variety of genres. In teams, students design, develop, and thoroughly test their original games to better understand the interaction and evolution of game rules. Covers various genres and types of games, including sports, game shows, games of chance, card games, schoolyard games, board games, and role-­playing games.

21H.343J / CC.120J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today

This course explores the impact of new technology on the recording and distribution of words and images at three different times: The invention of the printing press ca. 1450; the adaptation of electricity to communication technology in the 19th century (telegraph, telephone, phonograph); and the emergence of digital media today. Assignments include essays and online projects. Students also participate in the design and construction of a hand-set printing press.

Collaborative Design and Creative Expression with Arduino Microcontrollers

This is a 9-day hands-on workshop about collaboration, design, and electronics prototyping. No previous experience with computer programming or electronics is required. Beginning students will be taught everything they need to know and advanced students will be challenged to learn new skills. Participants will learn about microcontroller programming using Arduino, collaborative software development using GitHub, solderless electronics prototyping, electronic sensors, rapid prototyping, and small team management.

Learn to Build Your Own Videogame with the Unity Game Engine and Microsoft Kinect

This is a 9-day hands-on workshop about designing, building, and publishing simple educational videogames. No previous experience with computer programming or videogame design is required; beginning students will be taught everything they need to know and advanced students will be challenged to learn new skills. Participants will learn about videogame creation using the Unity game engine, collaborative software development using GitHub, gesture handling using the Microsoft Kinect, 3D digital object creation, videogame design, and small team management.

Girls Who Build: Make Your Own Wearables Workshop

The Girls Who Build: Make Your Own Wearables workshop for high school girls is an introduction to computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering through wearable technology. The workshop, developed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory, consists of two major hands-on projects in manufacturing and wearable electronics. These include 3D printing jewelry and laser cutting a purse, as well as programming LEDs to light up when walking. Participants learn the design process, 3D computer modeling, and machine shop tools, in addition to writing code and building a circuit.

22.S902 Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Geiger Counters

This experimental one-week course is a freshman-accessible hands-on introduction to Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. Students build and test their own Geiger Counter, and so doing, they explore different types and sources of radiation, how to detect them, how to shield them, how to accurately count / measure their activity, and explore cryptographical applications of radiation. This course is meant to be enjoyable and rigorous at the same time.

16.810 Engineering Design and Rapid Prototyping

This course provides students with an opportunity to conceive, design and implement a product, using rapid prototyping methods and computer-aid tools. The first of two phases challenges each student team to meet a set of design requirements and constraints for a structural component. A course of iteration, fabrication, and validation completes this manual design cycle. During the second phase, each team conducts design optimization using structural analysis software, with their phase one prototype as a baseline.

20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye: Writing and Hosting the Educational Show

Becoming the Next Bill Nye is about using video production techniques to develop your ability to engagingly convey your passions for science, technology, engineering, and / or math. You’ll have the opportunity to script and on-screen host 5-minute YouTube science, technology, engineering, and / or math-related shows to inspire youth to consider a future in science.

2.007 Design and Manufacturing I

This course is a first subject in engineering design. This course will expose you to interesting material, challenging you to think deeply, and providing skills useful in professional practice. A major element of the course is design of a robot to participate in a challenge that changes from year to year. From its beginnings in 1970, the 2.007 final project competition has grown into an Olympics of engineering. This year, the theme is cleaning up the planet as inspired by the movie Wall-E.


IAP: A Fusion of Fun and Learning at MIT

A Texas Hold’em game from a player’s point of view. (Courtesy of Peter Hopper on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

Every January, MIT students, faculty, and staff come together and design a special learning experience. Infused with creativity, inventiveness and fun, the four week term, known as Independent Activities Period (IAP), gives rise to some of the most ingenious courses that aren’t all part of the MIT curriculum.

From beekeeping to Japanese archery and computational law to academic resilience storytelling, the variety of workshops and sessions are created and organized by MIT members passionate about their subject area.

On OCW, there are more than 100 IAP courses that are available for you to work through at your own pace. The following are a sample of IAP courses, but you can find all of the IAP courses on OCW.

15.S50 Poker Theory and Analytics

This course takes a broad-based look at poker theory and applications of poker analytics to investment management and trading.

This course is offered during the Independent Activities Period (IAP), which is a special 4-week term at MIT in January. IAP provides members of the MIT community including students, faculty, staff, and alums with an opportunity to organize, sponsor and participate in a wide variety of activities and topics that are often outside of the regular MIT curriculum.

18.S097 Applied Category Theory

Category theory is a relatively new branch of mathematics that has transformed much of pure math research. The technical advance is that category theory provides a framework in which to organize formal systems and by which to translate between them, allowing one to transfer knowledge from one field to another. But this same organizational framework also has many compelling examples outside of pure math. In this course, we will give seven sketches on real-world applications of category theory.

6.S095 Programming for the Puzzled

This class builds a bridge between the recreational world of algorithmic puzzles (puzzles that can be solved by algorithms) and the pragmatic world of computer programming, teaching students to program while solving puzzles. Python syntax and semantics required to understand the code are explained as needed for each puzzle.

6.057 Introduction to MATLAB

This is an accelerated introduction to MATLAB® and its popular toolboxes. Lectures are interactive, with students conducting sample MATLAB problems in real time. The course includes problem-based MATLAB assignments. Students must provide their own laptop and software. This is great preparation for classes that use MATLAB.

21W.794 Graduate Technical Writing Workshop

This course is designed to improve the student’s ability to communicate technical information. It covers the basics of working with sources, including summarizing and paraphrasing, synthesizing source materials, citing, quoting, and avoiding plagiarism. It also covers how to write an abstract and a literature review. In addition, we will cover communication concepts, tools, and strategies that can help you understand how engineering texts work, and how you can make your texts work more effectively.

Learn to Build Your Own Videogame with the Unity Game Engine and Microsoft Kinect

This is a 9-day hands-on workshop about designing, building, and publishing simple educational videogames. No previous experience with computer programming or videogame design is required; beginning students will be taught everything they need to know and advanced students will be challenged to learn new skills. Participants will learn about videogame creation using the Unity game engine, collaborative software development using GitHub, gesture handling using the Microsoft Kinect, 3D digital object creation, videogame design, and small team management.

Climate Action Hands-On: Harnessing Science with Communities to Cut Carbon

This course explores how citizen science can support community actions to combat climate change. Participants will learn about framing problems, design ways to gather data, gather some of their own field data, and consider how the results can enable action. Leaks in the natural gas system—a major source of methane emissions, and a powerful contributor to climate change—will be a particular focus.

Understanding the past to prepare for the future

Image of antique map

Leo Belgicus by Petrus Kaerius (Pieter van den Keere), 1617. (This image is in the public domain.)

OCW covers 17 MIT special subject areas in History

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I believe that the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.”

At MIT, the study of History teaches different ways to think critically about the past, present and future of the world. Students develop a rich, empathetic understanding of the people, events, and circumstances that ultimately prepares them to be active members of their local communities and an increasingly global society today.

Tailored to put the modern world in historical perspective, MIT History subjects explore the social, cultural, economic, and political transformations that shape the present.

On OCW, you can browse lists of courses on 17 History subtopics:

African History
American History
Ancient History
Asian History
Comparative History
European History
Historical Methods
History of Science and Technology
Intellectual History
Jewish History
Latin American History
Medieval History
Middle Eastern History
Military History
Modern History
World History

OCW has recently published these history courses:

21H.102 American History Since 1865, Spring 2018
This course examines the social, cultural, political, and economic history of the United States, from the Civil War to the present. It uses secondary analysis and primary documents, such as court cases, personal accounts, photographs, and films, to examine some of the key issues in the shaping of modern America, including industrialization and urbanization, immigration, the rise of a mass consumer society, the emergence of the US as a global power, and the development of civil rights activism and other major social movements.

21H.132 The Ancient World: Rome, Spring 2017
This course covers the history of Rome from its humble beginnings to the 5th century A.D. The first half covers Kingship to Republican form; the conquest of Italy; Roman expansion: Pyrrhus, Punic Wars and provinces; classes, courts, and the Roman revolution; Augustus and the formation of empire. The second half covers Virgil to the Vandals; major social, economic, political and religious trends at Rome and in the provinces. There is an emphasis on the use of primary sources in translation.

21H.357 South Asian Migrations, Spring 2018
This course provides a global history of South Asians and introduces students to the cultural, social, economic, and political experiences of immigrants who traveled across the world. It studies how and why South Asians, who have migrated to America, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East, are considered a model minority in some countries and unwanted strangers in others. Through literature, memoirs, films, music, and historical writing, it follows South Asian migrants as they discovered the world beyond India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

21H.155 Modern Japan: 1868 to Present, Spring 2017
This course surveys Japanese history from the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 to the present and explores the local and global nature of modernity in Japan. It highlights key themes, including the emergence of a modern nation-state, the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire, the development of mass consumer culture and the middle class, and the continued importance of historical memory in Japan today.

>Peruse all History courses on OCW

OCW YouTube Subscribers: Because you mean so much to us.

Dear YouTube Subscriber,

We ♥️ you! Thank you for hitting our subscribe button. You are an amazing community of learners.

Passionate, opinionated, grateful, and inspirational, you watch and learn and become experts of your own knowledge. You are fiercely loyal and ‘get’ that sharing makes us better for one another and for the world.

You mean so much to us. Let us count the ways:

  1. You really watch our videos! You’ve watched them more than 187 million times!
  2. You discover us and want to learn more. More than 3 million of you have dived into our resources.
  3. You ♥️ us more than you troll us.
  4. You helped make us the #1 channel.
  5. You tell us how we’ve changed your lives.
  6. You have some of the most interesting handles.
  7. You make us want to be better.
  8. You share us with your friends and family.
  9. You inspire us.
  10. You show how learning can happen along side great entertainment videos.

Thank you for being an incredible community and a strong force for learning.


The MIT OpenCourseWare Team


M. Amah Edoh on Creating a Supportive Academic Culture

Close up photo of woman in blue shirt standing in Killian Court at MIT

M. Amah Edoh, Assistant Professor of African Studies (Image courtesy of Jonathan Sachs Photography.)

Educators can’t just be providers of information, Professor Edoh argues; they have to be nurturers of their students’ intellectual growth.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is a young faculty member, young enough to remember what it felt like to be a student. Her approach to teaching reflects this fact. The Instructor Insights section of the OpenCourseWare site for her course 21G.026 Global Africa: Creative Cultures provides interesting details about how she taught that specific course, but it also offers a generous helping of observations about pedagogy in general and the role faculty members can play in helping students move from mystery to mastery. Here are a few highlights.

Course Planning

Every academic course has a central topic or idea, but Professor Edoh emphasizes that the instructor should also consider what the central question is, so that the course can be an exploration rather than a mere transfer of information:

“It’s crucial to be clear on what the core issue is, what the question is that animates this class….As long as the core question is clear, you can tailor the building blocks to your interests.”

Of course, students will bring more energy to the classroom if their work there also draws on their own interests, not just their professor’s. So Professor Edoh used the final project assignment in 21G.026 to draw on the different creative skills–cooking, drawing, horticulture, creative writing, and so on–that each student brought to the course.

“I had no idea how it would turn out, because I didn’t know what they were bringing to the table, what particular creative skills they had. But I want to believe—this is something I try to enact in my own life—that we all have creative skills, and that whatever you have, we can do something with it.”

The Need for Flexibility in Teaching

New faculty members, Edoh suggests, may not immediately realize that successful teaching depends on not always having every moment of every class planned in advance, and that lecturers need to be able to revise their teaching plan constantly in response to the needs of the moment. Doing this effectively doesn’t necessarily come easily, but it’s a core competency for a master teacher:

“When you’re a student, the professors up front seem to know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about; you don’t fully appreciate the fact that it’s a lot of intuitive and improvisational work. You can be surprised at how taxing it is.”

Teaching at MIT

To counteract the tendency of the university to become a closed circle or the proverbial ivory tower, Professor Edoh asks her students to attend cultural performances out in the world to supplement and enrich their in-class learning:

“Even the experience of leaving MIT is really useful. Part of our duty as educators is to help broaden our students’ horizons, not only in the classroom but also by encouraging them to explore beyond campus.”

She also seeks to show students that the humanities have something to say about technology, and that we can fruitfully examine the meanings and cultural implications of technical systems and practices, not just the details of their operation or their practical potentials:

“At MIT in particular, we tend to fetishize technology and consider it as existing in a realm outside of other material practices, other ways of knowing. One of my personal missions is to show that technology is no different from these other practices—they’re all objects, ways of doing, ways of knowing. So whether we’re talking about plant healing or developing the next nano-technology, we can think about these things next to each other, no matter where they’re happening.”

Academic Study and the Wider World

As Professor Edoh sees it, the so-called ivory tower is an illusion; it’s neither possible nor desirable for the academy to remain divorced from the wider world. At its best, she suggests, academic work exists in constant dialogue with real-world experience, with each enriching the other:

“What we do in the classroom is not separate. Academic work isn’t separate from life, and it’s not something that’s only accessible to some people. We’re always theorizing. Making sense of our experience is about theorizing. If we can help students make links between what they’re reading for school and what they’re experiencing in the world around them, we’re in great shape as educators.”

Nurturing Student Growth

Professor Edoh distinctly remembers what it was like to be a student struggling to make sense of the often-obscure writings one encounters in academic life:

“When I was in grad school for my PhD, I was frustrated by the fact that academic texts often feel like they’re written to not be understood. This made me really angry. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been in school for many years. How is it that this still makes no sense? If it makes no sense to me, what are we doing here? What is the point of the academic enterprise if we produce work that can’t be understood?’…The danger when you’re a student, especially at elite institutions, is that when you don’t understand, you think there’s something wrong with you: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. But it’s actually a structural issue, and it’s the writers’ responsibility to write better work, to write more clearly.”

She feels passionately that it’s a professor’s job to make academic discourse less intimidating, and to encourage students as they take their first tentative steps toward being confident participants in scholarly and intellectual work:

“What made the biggest difference for me in the classroom as a student was instructors who made me feel like I had something to offer. Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously.”

“My teaching philosophy stresses the importance of using classroom time to build students’ confidence, to instill in our students a sense that they’re capable of doing this work, to undo some of the damage that academic work has done for so many people—to try to make it less alienating. To say, ‘We can do this. And we know how to do this. It’s OK not to know this particular material, because we’re in school to learn. We’re not supposed to know everything when we come here. But we know how to learn and that’s what we’re here for.'”