How Would You Like Your Grade? An Interview with George Verghese

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

black lines, indicating elements of heart beats, on red and white graph paper.

Electrocardiogram data, an example of measured signals. (Image courtesy of kenfagerdotcom on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.)

The syllabus for a typical MIT course spells out a familiar grading scheme that assigns fixed percentage weights to the different elements of the course: so many points for attendance and participation, so many for the quizzes or written assignments, and so many for the final exam or final project. Such a system is straightforward to implement and easy for students to understand, but there are times when both students and instructors want a little more flexibility. After all, not all students are the same, and they don’t all have the same needs.

In Spring 2018, Professors George Verghese, Alan V. Oppenheim, and Peter Hagelstein co-taught 6.011 Signals, Systems and Inference, an undergraduate course that covers a broad range of topics pertaining to communication, control, and signal processing. The material is complex, and the instructors support student learning in unique ways. We approached Professor Verghese for his insights on the course’s unusual grading system, and also on how the teaching team uses tutorials and an informal collaborative learning space called the Common Room to help MIT students succeed.

OCW: You offer three grading schemes in the course: regular, lower-friction, and project. This is so interesting! Tell us about your decision to offer students this kind of choice.

George Verghese: Ideally we’d like all students to attend all lectures and recitations, and for most students this is essential to their learning the material well and succeeding in the class. However, student lives can be complicated, their backgrounds and motivations are varied, and they optimize their trajectories through MIT in different ways. I know there is always a handful of students who can master the material with much less interaction, and I am fine with allowing them to do that, without getting in their way—hence the “lower-friction option,” in which the only components of the grade are their scores on the homework, the two quizzes during the term, and on the final exam. Students who opt for this have access to all the material in the class, but not to the tutorial sessions, as we don’t want them using the teaching assistants to help them make up for lecture and recitation material they may have missed. Unfortunately, there are always a couple of students who opt for the lower-friction version who really should not have, and their grade ends up suffering for it. But there are others—and these are the ones for whom this option is intended—who end up near, or even at, the top of the class. More power to them! My only regret is that we lose the benefit of whatever they may have contributed to class discussions if they had attended lectures and recitations.

Those students who do not elect the lower-friction option are, in effect, signing on to attending most lectures and recitations, and 15% of their course grade is allotted to attendance. I don’t actually take attendance directly, but every few lectures I will have them pair up in class to work out some problem related to the lecture material, then turn in their answer sheets at the end of lecture (with their neighbor’s name on their sheet, so they know I’m not looking to grade them on their answers!). Any student who misses a couple of these gets a note from me to urge better attendance. And recitation instructors have a good sense of who is attending and who isn’t, even if they don’t take attendance formally.

Lecture 22 image

An example of binary hypothesis testing from Lecture 22 (PDF).

There are also a few students each semester who feel they’d do better if they had a project to anchor their learning, and also to spread the course grade over (10% of the course grade is assigned to the project for students who choose this option, and the contributions of quizzes and the final exam are correspondingly reduced). Since there are typically only a few such students, I work quite closely with them over the semester, meeting at least every couple of weeks, to ensure the projects are related to course material and are moving along well. Some of these projects turn out to be good demonstrations for lectures in succeeding terms.

OCW: Please describe the tutorials offered to students and tell us about their role in the course.

George Verghese: Our tutorials are run by the teaching assistants on an optional, sign-up basis, limited to 5 students per session. Some students—perhaps a third of the class—attend them very regularly each week, others occasionally or not at all. The idea here is to actively engage the students, have them go the board to work things out, rather than having the teaching assistant give a summary of lecture at the board and then work out problems for the students. The teaching assistants go prepared with a small set of basic problems, simpler than those on homework, and illustrating points that have come up in lecture. However, the tutorials are also teaching assistant office hours, and students are encouraged to come with questions they may have. Any general guidance that the lecturer or the recitation instructors may have for the teaching assistants usually comes at our weekly staff meeting, held on Monday to set plans and directions for the week and beyond, but we typically leave the teaching assistants to come up with specific problems for their tutorials, perhaps in coordination with each other. The teaching assistants also take turns helping the lecturer generate the problem sets and solutions.

OCW: Please tell us about the role of the Common Room in the course. What was the impact of having a space where students could informally ask questions and work alongside each other on course assignments?

George Verghese: I think the evening Common Room is one of the best elements of the class, for those students—around a third to half of the class—who take advantage of it. I got the idea for it many years ago when visiting another university campus center after dinner, and found clusters of students sitting at desks and working collaboratively on homework and projects, though with no instructors in sight. For 6.011 Signals, Systems and Inference, we reserve a classroom for the three or four evenings that precede the day homework is due, and guarantee that at least one of the staff will be present there for 1.5-2 hours; usually we have the lecturer or a recitation instructor, as well as a teaching assistant.

“Our staff invariably finds the Common Room to be the most rewarding of the various settings in which they interact with students.”—GEORGE VERGHESE

We find students working individually as well as collaboratively, and periodically interacting with the staff, either at the board or at their desk—very immersed and engaged in the homework problems, and in sorting out ideas and misconceptions related to these. The staff will typically respond to student questions with other (well chosen!) questions or hints that guide them along, rather than with answers—and that makes for a very fruitful dynamic. We have never found the Common Room misused as a place to come and get fellow students to feed one solutions to the homework. I would absolutely recommend this to other faculty, if they have the staff resources and time. Our staff invariably finds the Common Room to be the most rewarding of the various settings in which they interact with students, and it is where they get to know their students best.

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You can read more of Professor Verghese’s thoughts about teaching 6.011 on the Instructor Insights page of this course.

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

More OCW Courses Offered by Professors Verghese and Oppenheim

Artist's depiction of the Cassini spacecraft, with Saturn in the foreground and a dark blue, starry background.Introduction to EECS II: Digital Communication Systems

An introduction to several fundamental ideas in electrical engineering and computer science, using digital communication systems as the vehicle. The three parts of the course—bits, signals, and packets—cover three corresponding layers of abstraction that form the basis of communication systems like the Internet.

The course teaches ideas that are useful in other parts of EECS: abstraction, probabilistic analysis, superposition, time and frequency-domain representations, system design principles and trade-offs, and centralized and distributed algorithms. The course emphasizes connections between theoretical concepts and practice using programming tasks and some experiments with real-world communication channels.

An audio compact disc.Discrete-Time Signal Processing

This class addresses the representation, analysis, and design of discrete time signals and systems. The major concepts covered include: Discrete-time processing of continuous-time signals; decimation, interpolation, and sampling rate conversion; flowgraph structures for DT systems; time-and frequency-domain design techniques for recursive (IIR) and non-recursive (FIR) filters; linear prediction; discrete Fourier transform, FFT algorithm; short-time Fourier analysis and filter banks; multirate techniques; Hilbert transforms; Cepstral analysis and various applications.

More about Communication, Control, and Signal Processing

6-003f11-th.jpgSignals and Systems

This course, a prerequisite for course 6.011, covers the fundamentals of signal and system analysis, focusing on representations of discrete-time and continuous-time signals (singularity functions, complex exponentials and geometrics, Fourier representations, Laplace and Z transforms, sampling) and representations of linear, time-invariant systems (difference and differential equations, block diagrams, system functions, poles and zeros, convolution, impulse and step responses, frequency responses). Applications are drawn broadly from engineering and physics, including feedback and control, communications, and signal processing.

2-14s14-thAnalysis and Design of Feedback Control Systems

This course develops the fundamentals of feedback control using linear transfer function system models. Topics covered include analysis in time and frequency domains; design in the s-plane (root locus) and in the frequency domain (loop shaping); describing functions for stability of certain non-linear systems; extension to state variable systems and multivariable control with observers; discrete and digital hybrid systems and use of z-plane design. Students will complete an extended design case study.

2-161f08-thSignal Processing: Continuous and Discrete

This course provides a solid theoretical foundation for the analysis and processing of experimental data, and real-time experimental control methods. Topics covered include spectral analysis, filter design, system identification, and simulation in continuous and discrete-time domains. The emphasis is on practical problems with laboratory exercises.

More on Assessment and Grading

6-01scs11-thIntroduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I

Professor Dennis Freeman reflects on the advantages and limitations of using oral exams to assess student learning, and considers how online exams might help instructors offer scalable assessments that are personalized and productive.

6-034f10-thArtificial Intelligence

Teaching assistants Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes describe the unusual grading system for this course, in which the final exam is optional, with each of its sections serving as a make-up exam for one of the course’s regular quizzes.

18-821s13-thProject Laboratory in Mathematics

Project Laboratory in Mathematics is designed to give students a sense of what it’s like to do mathematical research. In the Grading section of this course, Professor Haynes Miller and Susan Ruff describe their approach to grading and their experiences in developing (and revising!) grading rubrics.

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

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:

More on Women in Science, Technology, and Academia 

Astronauts Dr. N. Jan Davis and Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman in space, work as mission specialists on board the STS-47 mission in 1992.Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A Problem-Based Learning Experiment

This course explores an ever-growing body of work to which feminist, anti-racist, and other critical analysts and activists have made significant contributions. It challenges the barriers of expertise, gender, race, class, and place that restrict wider access to and understanding of the production of scientific knowledge and technologies.

National Youth Administration trainees at the Corpus Christi, TX Naval Air Base, Evelyn and Lillian Buxkeurple are shown working on a practice bomb shell, 1942. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)Technology and Gender in American History

This course centers on the changing relationships between men, women, and technology in American history. Topics include theories of gender, technologies of production and consumption, and the gendering of public and private space, men’s and women’s roles in science and technology, the effects of industrialization on sexual divisions of labor, and gender and identity at home and at work

Cartoon depiction of a female student sitting between two male studentsGender Issues in Academics and Academia

Does it matter in education whether or not you’ve got a Y chromosome? In this discussion-based seminar, students explore why males outrank females in math and science and career advancement (particularly in academia), and why girls get better grades and go to college more often than boys. This course explores if the sexes have different learn ing styles and if women are denied advanced opportunities in academia and the workforce.

More on LEGO®s

Lego robotLEGO® Robotics

LEGO® robotics uses LEGO®s as a fun tool to explore robotics, mechanical systems, electronics, and programming. This semester is primarily a lab experience which provides students with resources to design, build, and program functional robots constructed from LEGO®s and a few other parts such as motors and sensors.

Small mobile robotIntroduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I

This course provides an integrated introduction to electrical engineering and computer science, taught using substantial laboratory experiments with mobile robots built with LEGO® components. The primary goal is for students to learn to appreciate and use the fundamental design principles of modularity and abstraction in a variety of contexts from electrical engineering and computer science.

Students holding up green cards in active learning exerciseIntroduction to Lean Six Sigma Methods

This course covers the fundamental principles, practices and tools of Lean Six Sigma methods that underlay modern organizational productivity approaches applied in aerospace, automotive, health care, and other sectors. It includes lectures, active learning exercises, a plant tour, talks by industry practitioners, and videos. One third of the course is devoted to a physical simulation of an aircraft manufacturing enterprise using LEGO®s [PDF] or a clinic to illustrate the power of Lean Six Sigma methods.

Icon featuring dice and a graphSTEM Concept Videos

The STEM Concept Videos are designed to help students learn a pivotal concept in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM). These ideas are the building blocks of many engineering curricula, and learning them will help students master more difficult material. Two chemistry concept videos (Buffers and Kinetics & Equilibrium) use LEGO®s to help students visualize key ideas.

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

Venturing outside the norm to engage learners

Lecture slide with two composite images. The first image is of Alloy FE-12Cr-2Si, with grains and grain boundaries demarcated. The second image is of the cut surface of cheddar cheese.

Lecture slide from Nuclear Science Professor Michael Short’s cheese-tasting class.

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Why did you become a teacher? For most people, the opportunity to catalyze students’ curiosity about the world into understanding was a major factor in deciding to pursue education as a profession. When you entered the classroom for your first year of teaching, you probably discovered quickly that before students could learn anything, they first had to focus their attention on what you were teaching. This was easier said than done! Cultivating and sustaining students’ attention to the myriad nuances of the curricular content and experiences you were developing most likely consumed most of your energy that first year in the classroom. I, for one, remember remaining at school—long after cars had cleared the parking lot—to construct a life-sized tree out of paper and masking tape. It was a novice educator’s attempt to pull students into a series of complex literacy experiences. It worked, but boy, was it exhausting.

The challenge of helping students attend to what you are teaching is as important today as it was on your first day in the classroom. Probably more so, given just how “plugged in” students are to what’s going on outside of the classroom while they are inside of the classroom. “Today’s instructors,” observes Lincoln Laboratory Fellow Dr. Jeremy Kepner, “compete with laptops, cell phones, and social media for students’ attention. Lectures have to be engaging.”

But as you learned early on, the desire to engage students in the learning process is not enough. You need strategies. MIT faculty members and instructors understand this, too. Through the Instructor Insights sections of their OCW course publications, many have shared specific (and often outside of the norm) approaches they have used for engaging learners in their residential courses. I’ve included a sampling of highlights below. You won’t find “Constructing Paper Trees” on the list (yet!), but you will find concrete strategies for using analogies, non-traditional examples, humor, and music for helping students engage with curricular content. As you gear up for the academic year, I hope you find a strategy that inspires you!

Analogies

Nuclear Systems Design Project

Thumbnail image of logo designed for class project.This capstone course is a group design project involving integration of nuclear physics, particle transport, control, heat transfer, safety, instrumentation, materials, environmental impact, and economic optimization. Professor Michael Short includes a class session in which various cheeses demonstrate the properties of metals under the high temperature and stress of a reactor. “To teach them about the granular structures of metals,” describes Short in his Instructor Insights on making content tangible, “we talked a little about cheddar cheese, because if you break real cheddar cheese apart, it actually fractures on the curd, so curds in cheese are like grains in metal, and there are grain boundaries or curd boundaries. That helped the students understand key ideas. What are grains? How can they fail? Do they always break through the grains, or do they break around the grains?” Yum. What student wouldn’t want to attend to the properties of metals when they come served on a cheese platter? I’m guessing if you add crackers to that “unconventional pairing,” you’ll have everyone’s attention.

Non-Traditional Examples

Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century

A woman doing agricultural work.This course explores the issue of human trafficking for forced labor and sexual slavery, focusing on its representation in recent scholarly accounts and advocacy as well as in other media. In her Instructor Insights, Mitali Thakor notes that she uses non-traditional examples to broaden students’ understanding of human trafficking, including exploitation in the food processing, modeling, and sports industries. “When we say the word trafficking,” notes Thakor, “a lot of different images come to mind, but usually beef production and migrant workers are not among them.” Using examples that challenge students’ conceptions of how the world works can help engage them in exploring phenomena they previously thought they understood.

Humor

Principles of Chemical Science

Graphic depiction of equations and bondsThis course provides an introduction to the chemistry of biological, inorganic, and organic molecules. Professor Catherine Drennan purposefully uses humor to engage students in lectures. “MIT is a relatively serious place,” she says in her Instructor Insights video on this topic. “But the MIT students are really fun people. They’re willing to make fun of themselves and be a little geeky.” She incorporates elements such as videos about dogs teaching chemistry, references to comics, funny chemistry t-shirts—and even acts out buffering, all in the service of capturing students’ attention. According to Drennan, “it really helps people remember when you do something a little bit different.” Agreed.

Music

Artificial Intelligence

Artist's rendering of man going from agricultural work to computer work.This course introduces students to the basic knowledge, representation, problem solving, and learning methods of artificial intelligence. Professor Patrick Henry Winston uses music to fuel anticipation for learning experiences: “I like to play rock and roll music in the room as students are entering the lecture hall. I usually select something from the Rolling Stones, because it’s the kind of music that gives me an edge and energizes the audience. When the music stops, everybody knows the performance is about to begin.” In his Instructor Insights section on experiencing the large lecture as theater, he comments that he connects the music to curricular content. “For example,” he says, “we have a topic in artificial intelligence called constraint satisfaction problems. What else could you play, but the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” So true. Take a cue from this professor: To engage students, leverage your playlists!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

More OCW Courses Offered by Teresa Neff

Close up image of the strings of a guitar.American Popular Music

This course surveys the development of popular music in the United States and in a cross-cultural milieu relative to the history and sociology of the last two hundred years. It examines the ethnic mixture that characterizes modern music, how it reflects many rich traditions and styles, and provides a background for understanding the musical vocabulary of current popular music styles.

Thumbnail image of “The Erlking” by Albert Sterner, ca. 1910.Beethoven to Mahler

This course surveys Romantic musical genres including song, choral music, opera, piano sonata, character cycle, concerto, symphony, and symphonic poem, including the composers Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.

Thumbnail image of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a painting attributed to Jacopo Vignali.Monteverdi to Mozart: 1600-1800

This course surveys seven Baroque and Classical genres: opera, oratorio, cantata, sonata, concerto, quartet, symphony, and includes work by composers Bach, Handel, Haydn, Monteverdi, Mozart, Purcell, Schütz and Vivaldi.

More on Musical Analysis

Thumbnail of musical scoreMusical Analysis

This class is an introduction to the analysis of tonal music. Students study rhythm and form, harmony, line and motivic relationships at local and large scale levels of musical structure.

Introduction to World Music

This course explores the ways that music is both shaped by and gives shape to the cultural settings in which it is performed, through studying selected musical traditions from around the world. Specific case studies will be examined closely through listening, analysis, and hands-on instruction. The syllabus centers around weekly listening assignments and readings from a textbook with CDs, supplemented by hands-on workshops, lecture/demonstrations and concerts by master musicians from around the world.

 More on Meeting a Wide Range of Student Needs

Four yellow dots and the word Life on blue backgroundIntroductory Biology

Several hundred students take Introductory Biology each spring semester. In the Instructor Insights section of this course, Professor Hazel Sive discusses how her teaching team helps struggling students, while also challenging advanced learners.

Credit cardsMicroeconomic Theory and Public Policy

Professor David Author shares his multi-pronged strategy for supporting students in mastering the content of 14.03 Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy. One key to his success is teaching through multiple modalities.

Pricing model diagramTopics in Mathematics with Applications in Finance

The instructors in this course share how they use a course project to meet the needs of diverse learners. They also discuss a challenge they encounter in “designing problem sets suitable for the mixed mathematical backgrounds of students.”

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

The Facts Don’t Speak for Themselves

Graphic with thin vertical color bands going from dark blue to lighter to red.

What story do you get from this visualization of annual global temperatures from 1850-2017? (Image: Ed Hawkins, License CC BY-SA)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Big data is the signature feature of the Information Age. It reveals patterns we could never see before, patterns in consumer behavior, medical treatments, weather events, just about anything we can think of.

But those patterns have to be discerned, and their stories shaped before they can have an impact.

Shaped how? By collection and presentation methods, and then by researchers who interpret and explain what they have discovered.

Or so says Rahul Bhargava, the instructor of CMS.631 Data Storytelling Studio: Climate Change, a course just published on OCW:

“…The idea that facts could ever speak for themselves is a total misunderstanding of data. Everything from data collection (decisions about “who counts”) to presentation (choices about what kind of chart to use, where the vertical axis starts, what colors to use, etc.) comprise rhetorical decisions that change how someone understands what you’ve done. The minute you make the smallest decision about how to gather or present information, you’ve already turned data into speech. It’s not objective truth; it’s rhetoric.”

So if you want to use data to change the world, you need to devise a compelling argument. How to formulate and share that argument is the subject of this course, which uses climate change as its special focus.

The OCW course site has a full set of readings, lecture slides and notes, plus a variety of assignments to foster creative thinking.

Webpage screenshot with martini glass image, "The Olive," and photo of young blond white woman in exercise clothes.

This student project shows that satire and data do mix!

Sample coursework highlights how the students put their learning into practice, including a board game about the refugee experience, an online quiz about bikeshare programs, and a satire in the style of The Onion whose humor points are backed by creative data presentations.

Teaching with a Compass instead of a Map

Photo of a smiling man standing by desk and workspace, looking to the side.

Instructor Rahul Bhargava.

CMS.631 has its roots in workshops taught by Bhargava, and needless to say, teaching students who spend a lot of their time working on projects requires a flexible, somewhat improvisational approach. As Bhargava explains in one of his Instructor Insights:

“The Data Storytelling Studio is a compass-led course. I point students in the right direction, and then follow where they go. My role is to be with them on the journey to make sure they don’t fall into a giant crevasse…I’m definitely the guide in the classroom and I’m in charge of the course, there’s no question about that. But I respect and honor the skills that students bring into the classroom. It’s an essential part of the course design.”

In other Insights, Bhargava shares tips for building student confidence in working with data and for getting students to work productively in teams.  He notes further how he engages participation by having students create “data sculptures” with craft materials and by getting them to write in a common blogspace.

In their own series of Insights, several students identify the data storytelling techniques they found most compelling, and they offer their advice for future students and educators.

We think it makes a fabulous success story! But don’t take it from us. Look at the data yourself!

Good Vibrations Making Big Waves

Photo of water drop rebounding off surface of water, with several circular waves rolling out.

Vibrations and waves caused by water drops. (Image courtesy of erwan bazin on Flickr. License CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Good, good, good, good vibrations . . . are not just fundamental to love, but to the structure of the universe itself.

In fact, “without waves and vibrations, we would not be able to even recognize this universe,” says Professor Yen-Jie Lee, in his introductory video to Physics III: 8.03SC Vibrations and Waves, a course just published on OCW. Think about it: light, sound, brain activity, and even gravitation all involve vibrations and waves. These phenomena are everywhere. To understand them is to understand the universe.

The latest OCW Scholar course, 8.03SC has a tsunami of resources for those interested in discovering the physics that describe these phenomena. The course site has full video lectures, lecture notes, problem sets, exams with solutions, and a free online textbook. A second series of videos by Professor Wit Busza shows how to think about and solve problems.

Like other Scholar courses, 8.03SC is arranged sequentially, by learning units, so you can progress through the semester just the way Professor Lee’s students did. But there’s also a handy resource index to help you quickly zero in on specific resources that might be of interest.

As the description says, “This course will provide you with the concepts and mathematical tools necessary to understand and explain a broad range of vibrations and waves. You will learn that waves come from many interconnected (coupled) objects when they are vibrating together. We will discuss many of these phenomena, along with related topics, including mechanical vibrations and waves, sound waves, electromagnetic waves, optics, and gravitational waves.”

Demos to Make It Real

Man gesturing at a table with a wave demonstration apparatus, saying "Let's see what is going to happen."

Professor Lee conducts one of his many in-class demonstrations which are part of the course videos.

In most lectures, Professor Lee conducts reality-checks for the mathematics he presents by including a variety of physical demonstrations. You’ll see how sound waves can propagate across different systems, how a moonwalk works by having one wave moving forward over another moving backward, how optical fiber transmission is made possible by the way light waves bounce off surfaces, and much, much more. For user convenience, each lecture section also lists the demos separately, so you can go directly to the demos if you like.

Insights into How It Is Taught

In his video Instructor Insights, Professor Lee explains why these demonstrations are so important, how he weaves them into his lectures, and how they must be carefully staged before each lecture. In other insights, he shares further pedagogic stratagems, like how he uses humor to enliven his lectures and reinforce student learning, how he employs questionnaires to adjust the pace of the course to the particular mix of students in a given class, and how and why he has changed the course from the way it was previously taught.

So why not explore 8.03SC? You might catch a wave and find that you’re sitting on top of the world!