5 tips for getting to know your students

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Several stacked pizza boxes

Professor Catherine Drennan uses pizza forums to connect with students in her large lecture class.

Students learn better when you see them as individuals and care about their success. But it can be challenging to get to know your students when you teach large lecture classes, or interact with a new group of students (or several!) every 15 weeks.  MIT faculty members face these challenges, too. We’ve mined their Instructor Insights to bring you 5 creative ways to get to know your students this semester.

  1. Start Your Lecture Sitting Down

Four yellow dots and the word Life on blue backgroundWith 300-400 students taking Introductory Biology each year, Professor Hazel Sive has ample experience getting to know students in the context of large classes. One of her strategies is to make use of the time before class starts to connect with students. In her Instructor Insights, she notes that “before class, I sometimes walk around the room and meet groups of students. Sometimes I start the lecture sitting down with a group of students and have them introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of the lecture, so that we have a bit of personal interaction going on.”

Still, she admits it can be difficult to get to know every student. “I worry,” she notes, “that if I know the names of some students, and I speak to them by name in class, other students might feel a bit excluded. I don’t like there to be a feeling of, ‘Oh, she didn’t even bother with me.’ … So I always try to make sure that when we’re speaking about our class, we talk about ourselves as a group and that the group is our measure of who we are. I want students to feel that there’s a greater whole, that we’re a community.”

  1. Ask Students to Place Themselves on the Talkativeness Spectrum

Several women breastfeeding babiesGender, Power, Leadership, and the Workplace is an undergraduate discussion-based course that equips students with an analytic framework to understand the roles that gender, race, and class play in defining and determining access to leadership and power in the U.S., especially in the context of the workplace. To get a feel for how to facilitate dialogue with the group of students who took the course in Spring 2014, the instructor, Dr. Mindy Fried, asked students “how they viewed themselves along a spectrum . . . of ‘talkativeness’ . . . (e.g., very talkative to very quiet).” In her Instructor Insights, she notes that “I also asked them what helped them to be more talkative in class. This information provided me with a baseline of understanding about how they viewed themselves.”

Fried goes on to say that, “I didn’t adjust my expectations based on this information. Instead, I provided opportunities for everyone to speak and be heard. I employed various methods to create a ‘safe’ environment where people of all backgrounds and with all opinions could articulate their thoughts and beliefs.”

  1. Launch a Survey

Close up of a model of a campus buildingTo get to know their students, Professor Eric Demaine and his co-instructor gave students a survey during the first lecture of Algorithmic Lower Bounds: Fun with Hardness Proofs. The survey helped them understand the prior knowledge students brought to the course, along with students’ specific interests that could shape the curriculum, which was still being actively developed. “There were a few topics that stood out as particularly interesting to the students,” comments Demaine in his Instructor Insights video. “And then one thing I was curious about was the use of fun examples. I was worried that students would not take the material seriously if I only used fun examples. But the feedback I got was that a lot of people wanted to see games and puzzles . . . So I took that as permission to use a lot more fun examples . . . I used the survey to really get to know the students. And to see where they were coming from, and to help aim the class in a direction that would help them get the most out of it.”

  1. Create Student Profiles

A landfill with birds circling above it.D-Lab: Waste is an introductory course that provides students with a multidisciplinary approach to managing waste in low- and middle-income countries, with strategies that diminish greenhouse gas emissions and provide enterprise opportunities for marginalized populations. With 10 students in the course, co-instructors Kate Mytty and Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar used one-on-one check-ins to get to know students: “During our first check-in session,” notes Mytty in her Instructor Insights, “we asked students questions, such as, What brought you to this class? Why are you interested in waste? What do you hope to get out of this class? How can we help you get the most out of your learning experience? and What kind of resources can we send you throughout the semester that will help you explore waste through your own interests? As the semester progressed, our check-in sessions also involved conversations about students’ individualized final projects.”

“This approach for getting to know students,” she continues, “grew out of my experience serving as a teaching assistant with a colleague who was a very engaging educator. We had 25 students in our class and he created a profile for each student. The profile included information about the student’s major, interest in the course, career path, and the kinds of resources the student would find helpful. Every few weeks we sent students new resources based on their profiles. We also documented the resources we sent them. This system allowed us to develop personalized relationships with students and to provide them with an experience that extended beyond the explicit learning goals of the course”

Mytty says, “I found that intentionally creating similar opportunities to get to know students in  D-Lab: Waste was valuable for Pedro and I because it allowed us to learn from students’ expertise. Doing so also helped students understand that we, as the instructors, were deeply invested in their education, which is something I think is often missing from students’ post-secondary learning experiences.”

  1. Use Pizza (but you already knew that)

Graphic depiction of equations and bondsPiazza digital forums are great, but don’t neglect the in-person analogy joys of pizza. Professor Catherine Drennan uses pizza forums to connect with students in Principles of Chemical Science, her large lecture course. “The idea,” she notes in her Instructor Insights video, “was that in a big class of 300 students, most of the students are not going to have an opportunity to really meet the professors. They may go to office hours, but even then, you can’t schedule office hours at a time when all 300 people in the class are available . . . But with the pizza forums, which are every few weeks during the semester, students get to know the faculty and vice versa.” She goes on the explain that the pizza forums help the staff to learn about how students are experiencing the course, and how they are experiencing MIT, in general. Drennan says, “I love to ask them, ‘What is one thing about MIT that is exactly what you expected and what’s one thing that really surprised you when you got here?’ . . . It’s always a lot of fun to get to know them.”

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Have another great strategy for getting to know students? Share with your colleagues by posting an idea in the comments. And, thanks!

Spotlighting important (mini)figures in STEM: An interview with Maia Weinstock

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Lego minifigure of scientist.

LEGO® figurine of Shirley Ann Jackson by Maia Weinstock. (Image courtesy of pixbymaia on flickr. License: BY-NC-SA.)

Women scientists and engineers have long played significant roles in shaping STEM disciplines and advancing technological innovation, yet many go unrecognized. (Case in point: How many women scientists can you name right now?) Maia Weinstock is committed to changing this. In the fall of 2017, she taught WGS.S10 History of Women in Science and Engineering, a course for MIT undergraduates that spotlighted the contributions of women in STEM and created space for uncovering how biases in academia and popular culture impact scientific achievements.

The course also had this: LEGO® minifigures depicting women scientists, created and photographed by Weinstock herself. (We know. History + LEGO Minifigures + Science = Where Can I Sign Up? Thanks, MIT, for being awesome and for sharing it all on MIT OpenCourseWare, for free.)

We interviewed Weinstock to learn about what inspired her to teach this course, how she helped students edit “the most popular encyclopedia in the world” to better include the achievements of women scientists, and of course, how she’s rocking the world of LEGO® minifigures with her depictions of scientists like chemical engineer Paula Hammond, and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. (Breaking news: Weinstein’s Women of NASA Lego® Prototype has just been added to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum!). You can read excerpts from our interview below. Whether you’re an educator wanting to spotlight the role of women in STEM, a LEGO®s fan—or both—we think you’ll enjoy listening in on the conversation.

OCW: The history of women in science and engineering is an important (and often neglected) topic. What inspired you to teach the course?

Maia Weinstock: I’ve been interested in the topic for many years, and have worked on numerous writings and projects relating to the history of women in the STEM fields. The most well-known of these is a series of LEGO® minifigures I’ve been crafting and photographing featuring scientists and engineers. Four of these became part of a real set sold in stores in the late fall of 2017 (LEGO® Women of NASA). I wanted to teach the course as a way to impart the considerable knowledge I’ve amassed about this area over the years, and to give students a sense of MIT’s own history in relation to the women who have come through and made their mark.

Two women standing in an office. One woman is holding a LEGO minifigure.

Maia Weinstock (left) with Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa and her LEGO minifigure. (Image by Maia pixbymaia on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.).

OCW: You asked students to edit or add an article to Wikipedia about women in STEM. Tell us about your decision to develop this assignment.

Maia Weinstock: I have been a longtime contributor to Wikipedia, with the goal of improving the representation of women both on the pages of Wikipedia as well as behind the scenes as editors. We know through various surveys that 85 to 90 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, which means that only 10-15 percent of editors are women. Over the past 5 years I’ve organized quite a few edit-a-thons aimed at countering bias in terms of women’s representation, so I wanted to bring that kind of experience to the classroom. Our 3-hour class served as an abbreviated edit-a-thon: I prepared a class page on Wikipedia and facilitated both the selection of subjects that might work and the hands-on editing. In the end, each student did create a new article, so this gives participants a way to feel that they’re contributing directly to improving the most popular encyclopedia in the world—while giving recognition to an underappreciated woman in engineering or science.

OCW: As you noted above, you’ve done a lot of creative work with LEGO minifigures. Tell us more about this work and the role of LEGO®s in the course.

Maia Weinstock: I started creating LEGO®s in the likeness of scientists and engineers in early 2010, when I made one as a gift to my friend Carolyn Porco, who is a planetary scientist. I had been inspired by a minifigure of Ada Lovelace that I’d come across, but I wanted mine to depict current-day personalities because so few people can actually name a living scientist or engineer, much less a female one. Since then I’ve made over 100 of these figures of real individuals, taken photos and posted them to social media, and people have gotten a kick out of it. In 2012 I learned about the LEGO® Friends line, which was a major push to provide a product aimed squarely at girls. Unfortunately, the line was problematic in a number of ways, so I started learning more about the history of female minifigures and writing about the lack of female characters in LEGO®’s offerings, especially women in STEM professions. It seems like a fairly commonplace discussion in the media these days, but back in 2013 no one was talking about this. I actually broke the story of the first female lab scientist that LEGO came out with as part of their minifigures line, and I followed up with popular articles on diversity in the LEGO universe.

“I started creating LEGO®s in the likeness of scientists and engineers in early 2010 . . . I had been inspired by a minifigure of Ada Lovelace that I’d come across, but I wanted mine to depict current-day personalities because so few people can actually name a living scientist or engineer, much less a female one.” — MAIA WEINSTOCK

Around that same time, I learned about a crowdsourcing contest called LEGO® Ideas (originally known as Cuusoo) whereby people can suggest ideas for LEGO to consider making. I was an early champion of the Female Minifigures set that surfaced on that site, which was later rebranded the Research Institute; LEGO® chose to feature three scientists instead of women in very different professions. Anyway, I wanted to try suggesting ideas focused on actual women, since I’d been doing that for a few years already on my own at that point. My first go, a depiction of the four women who have been U.S. Supreme Court justices, unfortunately didn’t make it into the contest at all because it went against house rules about politics—but it went viral anyway when I shared photos on social media. A second try featuring women in bioengineering didn’t get much traction. But my third try, a set featuring five women in NASA history, was extremely successful, getting all 10,000 votes needed to be considered for the grand prize in just two weeks. A modified version of the set was released to the public last year and ended up shooting up to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-selling toy list on the first day it was available, and selling out its first printing very quickly. So that was fun.

LEGO minifigure depicting Dr. Paula T. Hammond.

MIT Chemical Engineering professor, Dr. Paula T. Hammond, depicted as a Lego® figurine. Dr. Hammond’s work concerns the use of electrostatics to generate functional materials with highly controlled architecture. (Image by pixbymaya on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.)

In terms of LEGO®s in the course, I sprinkled my own LEGO® photos in with historic images of women who we were reading about and watching films about and listening to podcasts about. I found it was a great way to have fun with the subject, and students enjoyed figuring out which people the minifigs represented based on the physical characteristics of the LEGO® pieces I selected. Interestingly, one of my students for her final project did something similar except with Japanese-style crochet dolls: She crafted dolls of and then made photo essays featuring several STEM women in MIT history, including Shirley Ann Jackson, Millie Dresselhaus, and Sheila Widnall. It was awesome! Finally, I kept my class in the loop as we approached launch day for my Women of NASA LEGO® project, and most of the students attended a launch party I held at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in nearby Somerville, which featured special guests Margaret Hamilton and Nancy Grace Roman, who are depicted in the set, and Bear Ride, the sister of Sally Ride, who is also in the set (but who passed away in 2012).

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You can read the complete interview with Maia Weinstock on the Instructor Insights page of her OCW course.

Keep learning! The following courses may be of interest to you:

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Like what you’re learning? Find more open educational resources and teaching insights at our Educator Portal.

Emulating the Beatles, learning from each other: An interview with Teresa Neff

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Four bronze statues depicting the band members.

The Beatles cast in bronze. Artist: Andrew Edwards. (Image courtesy of lwr on flickr. License CC BY-NC-SA).

MIT juniors and seniors recently had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the musical world of the Beatles. Students enrolled in 21M.299 The Beatles surveyed the music of this iconic band, mapping how the Beatles’ musical style changed from skiffle and rock to studio-based experimentation. They examined the cultural influences that shaped the band, as well as the group’s influence worldwide. While some of the students had prior experience with music analysis, others did not. Yet, a spirit of collaboration pervaded the course and enhanced the written analyses students completed on a weekly basis. So how did this happen?

We interviewed the instructor of the course, Music and Theater Arts Lecturer Dr. Teresa Neff, to find out how she facilitated learning experiences to meet the needs of students with diverse skill sets. You can read excerpts from our interview below. Whether you’re an educator facing a similar situation, a Beatles fan—or both—we think you’ll enjoy listening in on the conversation.

OCW: Why did you select the Beatles as the topic for this musical analysis course?

Teresa Neff: I wanted to teach a course about the Beatles because of their popularity today and their influence on the 1960s. I hoped that by looking at the Beatles’ body of work, students could see where these musicians came from, how they were open to new influences, and how they influenced each other.

We also had ample materials that could support the course. Hunter Davies’ The Beatles and The Beatles Anthology served as the mainstays of the class. We had other texts about the Beatles owned by the MIT Lewis Music Library. These materials allowed us to supplement our studies beautifully.

“When you want to engage with music analysis, you either have to have people who are conversant, or you have to have a lot of good scores that can help bridge any gaps for participants who feel unsure about doing this kind of work.” — TERESA NEFF

The plethora of available materials helped equalize the skill sets that students brought to the course. This was important because when you want to engage with music analysis, you either have to have people who are conversant, or you have to have a lot of good scores that can help bridge any gaps for participants who feel unsure about doing this kind of work. The Beatles anthology provided that kind of support: it had all of the music, text, and individual lines. It also had the guitar tabs. So even if a student could not distinguish a tonic from a dominant, they were still able say, “This note is a D and this note is G.” It allowed me to open the class to an audience wider than that of only students with prior music analysis experience. I love the Beatles. But having materials that could support the music analysis work was incredibly important in selecting the Beatles as the topic of the course.

Image of a record.

“Strawberry Fields Forever:” A-side single by the Beatles with B-side “Penny Lane” released in 1967. (Image courtesy of Mark Sardella on Flickr. License: BY-NC-SA).

OCW: Tell us about the role of collaborative learning in the course.

Teresa Neff: The Beatles lived an insulated life in the 1960s. They couldn’t go out without being mobbed. As a result, the four of them were always together. They spent their time listening to and playing music together. In that process, they were constantly learning from each other. The opening of “Blackbird” has a lick that comes from the Bach Bourree in E-Minor. It’s come out in an interview with McCartney that they were trying to noodle through one part of the Bach Bourree, and it morphed into the opening of “Blackbird.” This happened because were just living with the music. That’s what was going on in the 1960s with the 45s and the LPs. You sat down and you listened together, without headphones. It was communal.

I wanted the course experience to emulate the Beatles learning from each other. As such, group work became a central component. I administered a questionnaire at the beginning of the course to gauge students’ musical skill sets and used that information to make sure that students with strong musical abilities were grouped with students who felt less confident in their abilities, so that they could help each other get better at the focal skills. We also constantly shifted groups so that everybody in the class worked with everybody else. My guiding philosophy was that everybody could bring something to the table.

Image of smiling woman standing near a painting.

MIT Music and Theater Arts Lecturer, Teresa Neff.

The focus of the course was on students’ group presentations, but they also needed some historical context for their analyses, and providing that became my role. I structured the class such that we all listened to one album every week. That was their preparation for my lectures, which were then followed by their own presentations in the next session. We went chronologically by British release of each album. I also threw in some singles and the Magical Mystery Tour as supplementary material. I tried to provide insight into who the band members were before they were The Beatles, context about George Martin, Capitol Records, the coming to the United States of the Beatles, the whole concept of Beatlemania, the other players at the time, how the Rolling Stones fit into the scene, and the blues artists John Lennon and Paul McCartney were trying to emulate. I gave them this context, and then let the students take it from there. I thought this strategy was incredibly successful. I was so pleased with the work the groups did that I’ve started to apply group learning to other courses I’m teaching.

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You can read the complete interview with Teresa Neff on the Instructor Insights page of her OCW course.

Keep learning! The following courses and Instructor Insights may be of interest to you:

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Find insights like these on many other teaching approaches at our Educator Portal.