Peer Review: Learning How to Give and Take

Photo of a traffic sign for "two way traffic" with two arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down. By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Peer review! Hardly are those words out than a writing instructor’s heart starts to stir—but with joy or trepidation?

Peer review! That activity in which students review each other’s work and give each other feedback. It’s an essential writing skill, after all, being able to assess a piece of writing critically and offer suggestions for making it more effective without sending the author into a tailspin of despair.

It’s what every good editor does.

Writing is an art, like playing a musical instrument, and to learn how to do it well, you have to practice, so students in writing courses have to write a lot if they are going to improve. But even the most conscientious writing instructor can’t analyze everything the students in a class produce, and it’s often helpful to get more than one perspective on a piece of writing, so peer review offers an attractive solution on more than one front. It can also allow an instructor the breathing space to focus on higher-level things, like getting the students to think like writers.

Not Sweating the Small Stuff

Running a peer-review workshop is not easy, as anyone who’s tried it knows. Great advice from a veteran of many workshops is offered by Jared David Berezin, whose 21W.035 Science Writing and New Media: Communicating Science to the Public appeared this month on OCW.

Rather than just throwing the students into the workshop environment, he begins by holding a discussion, where he shares his own experience on the best and worst of workshopping and gets students’ thinking “about the value of peer-review in the workplace, and ways to solicit peer feedback in a professional, non-classroom setting.”

In the workshops, he wants students “to focus on the larger, global issues in the drafts, rather than editing sentences.” How come? “For many readers, it’s easier to focus on the little things, because they can be commented on with confidence and fixed quickly. Instead, I’d rather students use the precious time in the classroom to discuss the more difficult and nebulous issues within a text.”

Paraphrase as a Passport to Understanding

Nonetheless, he asks students “to provide evidence for all comments by referring directly to the text. Referencing single moments in the text can allow readers and authors to engage in a concrete discussion of ways to improve the overall draft, rather than speaking in vague abstractions.”

Students are required to take notes on each other’s work and to ask others to paraphrase what they have written. This “allows the author to assess whether the reader’s understanding aligns with the intent and desired meaning.”

Active Experiments

Aside from these and many other practical tips for making peer-review workshops a success, the course site has a gold mine of detailed assignments, in-class exercises, and “communication experiments” designed to foster creativity and versatility (Berezin shares his reflections on these experiments, peer review, and other facets of his teaching in his Instructor Insights). Most experiments, like “reverse-engineering metaphors” and descriptions of a green space from assigned perspectives, involve group work as well as individual writing. In this class, isolation is not an option.

If you are a writing teacher, or an aspiring writer hoping to make your mark, you’ll want to take a look at 21W.035. It has a lot to offer, both to you and to your peers.

The Once and Future City

“A cloudy evening on the bridge between Boston and Cambridge. In 2015, this course focused on the 100th anniversary of MIT’s move across the Charles River, from Boston to Cambridge. (Courtesy of nd-nʎ on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA.)”

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Walk around a neighborhood in your city or town, and you might notice the different styles of buildings, the width of the streets, the kinds of trees or other plants, the open spaces, the way the wind whistles. Taking it all in, you might feel caught up in the moment. Ah!

But maybe you’re just trapped in the present.

Stretching your time frame is a major focus of 11.016J The Once and Future City, just published on OCW as taught by Professor Anne Whiston Spirn in Spring 2015.

 

Identifying the Pieces

“Cities are the products of the actions of millions of people and countless decisions, public and private,” Professor Spirn notes in one of her three videos that kick off the assignments. “How do all the pieces, styles, and times fit together?”

Early in the class students investigate maps of Boston, discovering how the city has changed over the centuries. “Who has the power to erase roads, to consolidate hundreds of properties?” a second video asks. “Why do some things persist and others disappear?”

A big part of the course is learning how to look, how to find “significant detail.” This process can be awkward for students accustomed to finding a right answer to a given question. The students are “not just taking a text and applying it, or critiquing something that already exists. They are developing visual thinking skills, and they have to make observations using their own eyes and mind. Many are not prepared for this.”

 

Stepping outside the Classroom Box

Professor Spirn helps them see for themselves by taking them on short field trips, where she asks provocative questions to get students thinking. As she explains in “Leading Productive Field Trips,” one of her Instructor Insights,

“The field trips are designed to give the students an introduction to methods of observation before they have to go out and perform field observations on their own at the sites they choose for their projects. We walk around and I show them how to look at things, how to find significant detail. But what is significant? Some students don’t see anything at all . . . Others see so many things that they can’t make sense out of what is significant and what is trivial. The field trip helps both kinds of students.”

 

Seeing Patterns Emerge

This form of teaching is very different from how Professor Spirn originally taught the course, back when she imparted knowledge through class lectures. Several years ago she decided to flip her classroom. Now instead of lecturing, she says

“I put together a series of images—mostly maps and photographs . . . Depending on the current assignment, the images emphasize different phenomena. But they always consist of puzzles . . . I’ll project an image on the screen and say, ‘What pattern do you see here?’ Sometimes nobody sees a pattern, so I say, ‘OK, do you see any anomalies? Does anything stick out or seem odd?’”

From the puzzles emerge patterns, and from the patterns, a hypothesis.

 

Opening the Mind’s Eye through Projects

The course site has extensive descriptions of the assignments, in which students select a site to explore, observe the natural processes at play in it, analyze its changes through time, and see what all of this bodes for the future.

Included on the site are examples of student projects from four different iterations of the course, among them papers on Coolidge Corner, The Bullfinch Triangle, and Boston’s West End.

11.016J turns the present into a portal for time travel. If it sounds fantastic, that’s because it is.

Courses from MIT’s 2017 MacVicar Fellows

Photos of three MIT professors

MIT professors Maria Yang (left), Caspar Hare (center), and Scott Hughes have been named 2017 MacVicar Fellows. (Photos by Bryce Vickmark (Yang), Patrick Gilooly (Hare), and Justin Knight.)

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

For the past 25 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors Caspar Hare (philosophy), Scott A. Hughes (physics), and Maria Yang (mechanical engineering).

OCW is honored to share courses from two of this year’s Fellows.

Caspar Hare

24.06J/STS.006J Bioethics

Scott A. Hughes

8.962 General Relativity

Through the OCW Educator initiative, we have also collected teaching insights from several current and past MacVicar Fellows.

Arthur Bahr

21L.460 Medieval Literature: Legends of Arthur

21L.705 Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf

Wit Busza

Vibrations and Waves Problem Solving

Dennis M. Freeman

6.01SC Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I

Lorna Gibson

3.054 Cellular Solids: Structure, Properties and Applications

Steven R. Hall

16.06 Principles of Automatic Control

Anne E. C. McCants

21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective

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

21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History

Haynes R. Miller

18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics

18.915 Graduate Topology Seminar: Kan Seminar

Hazel Sive

7.013 Introductory Biology (Spring 2013 version)

Insights on teaching Humanities, Arts, and Social Science at MIT

PHoto of several people around a wooden workbench.

History professor Jeff Ravel and students build a working printing press based on early modern European designs, in 21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today. (Photo by Jonathan Sachs / Jonathan Sachs Graphics, Inc.)

One of our favorite things at MIT OpenCourseWare is to shine a spotlight on fascinating subjects and great teachers that might otherwise escape notice. We’ve written before on the strength of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS), both in their own right and in community with MIT’s more widely recognized STEM and business programs. OCW is pleased to freely share material from nearly 800 courses from across all SHASS disciplines.

Where to begin among all this free learning material? If you’re an educator (or just curious about teaching and learning process), you’re in luck!  OCW Educator project manager Sarah Hansen recently worked with SHASS colleagues to compile a list of OCW highlights, which we republish here. Each of these links goes to the course’s “This Course at MIT” section, where the instructor shares detailed insights about their teaching approach.

Anthropology

21A.445 Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century (Spring 2015), Mitali Thakor
Mitali Thakor describes how she uses non-traditional examples to broaden students’ understanding of human trafficking, how she thinks about students’ emotional responses to triggering topics, how she navigates teaching as a new instructor, and her thoughts on using writing assignments to encourage students to complete reading assignments.

Comparative Media Studies/Writing

21W.758 Genre Fiction Workshop (Spring 2013), Shariann Lewitt
Shariann Lewitt shares unique aspects of teaching fiction writing at MIT and discusses how she teaches students to challenge texts.

21W.747 Rhetoric (Spring 2015), Steven Strang
Steven Strang describes how he facilitates writing workshops and how he changes the course from year to year.

CMS.590J Computer Games and Simulations for Education and Exploration (Spring 2015), Eric Klopfer
Eric Klopfer describes the form and function of teamwork in this course. He also shares tips for facilitating project-based learning.

CMS.611J Creating Video Games (Fall 2014), Philip Tan, Sara Verrilli, Richard Eberhardt, and Andrew Haydn Grant
The instructors share their pedagogical approaches in 8 videos. Topics include: teaching students how to solve creative problems as teams; sequencing learning experiences; encouraging iteration, fostering diversity of voice in the course; assessing students’ projects; refining the course; advice for other educators; and their reflections on the collaboration between MIT and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Society during the course.  

CMS.608/CMS.864 Game Design (Spring 2014), Philip Tan and Richard Eberhardt
Philip Tan and Richard Eberhardt discuss how they prepare for the semester and class sessions, how they help students build game-playing experience, their assessment design, and factors, such as student background and feedback from students, that impact how they teach the course.

Global Studies and Languages

21G.101 Chinese I (Regular) (Fall 2014), Haohsiang Liao
In video interviews, recorded in both English and Chinese, Haohsiang Liao shares how the curriculum in this course helps students develop cultural competence. He also describes the daily grading system in the course, the importance of listening to audio files, reasons to prioritize speaking and listening before reading and writing, how he supports struggling students, how he creates an immersive classroom environment, and how he motivates students to engage in language study. 

21G.107 Chinese I (Streamlined) (Fall 2014), Min-Min Liang
In video interviews, recorded in both English and Chinese, Min-Min Liang shares her philosophical approach to language teaching, her insights about teaching heritage learners, her use of technology in this streamlined language course, her approach to assessment, and her hopes for incorporating more authentic texts into the curriculum in future iterations of the course.

21G.735 Advanced Topics in Hispanic Literature and Film: The Films of Luis Bunuel (1999-2013), Elizabeth Garrels
This course was taught at MIT seven times between 1999 and 2013. Elizabeth Garrels shares a history of the course, her film selections, and how she facilitated discussions in Spanish with students at different language proficiency levels.

RES.21G-001 The User-Friendly Classroom, A.C. Kemp
A.C. Kemp discusses the importance of focusing on International Teaching Assistants (ITAs), shares how user experience can be applied to ITA training, and ways to use the materials in this video training series.

History

21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective (Spring 2012), Anne McCants
Anne McCants shares insights about using a survey at the beginning of a course to understand students’ needs and backgrounds, to help students see that different students have different needs, and to encourage students to get into the habit of writing. She also discusses how she frames the humanities as problem solving endeavors and how she infuses the course with current events. Other topics include: teaching communication, the intersection of research and teaching, and adapting the course from year to year.

21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today (Spring 2016), Anne McCants, Jeffrey Ravel and Ken Stone
The instructors of this course, in which students built a printing press, discuss using archival experiences to ground readings and allay educators’ skepticism about facilitating a hands-on course in the humanities.

21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History (Fall 2014), Anne McCants
Anne McCants shares how she engages students in archive-based research, how she infuses the course with multiple voices, and how she helps students develop professional competencies.

Literature

21L.011 The Film Experience (Fall 2013), David Thorburn
David Thorburn shares his pedagogical approach to teaching film in seven videos. Topics include his approach to lecturing, how he views the course as literary in nature, how the course has changed over the 30 years that he has taught it, the role of video lectures, and the themes structuring course.

21L.315 Prizewinners: Nobelistas (Spring 2015), Wyn Kelley
Wyn Kelley shares how she selects Nobelistas to spotlight in the course, how she facilitates discussions, and her approach to teaching novices.

21L.460 Medieval Literature: Legends of Arthur (Fall 2013), Arthur Bahr
Arthur Bahr describes how he sets the stage for the study of Arthurian literature with a key question, how he encourages participation during classroom discussions, and his ideas for alternative assessment strategies in the course.

21L.501 The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger (Spring 2013), Wyn Kelley
Wyn Kelley describes her motivation for developing the course and how she organizes it. She also describes her text selection, the digital tools she uses in the course, workshops, and unique aspects of teaching literature at MIT.

21L.705 Major Authors: Old English (Spring 2014), Arthur Bahr
Arthur Bahr describes the curricular scope and sequence of the course, his textbook choice, how he assesses student learning, and how he develops rapport with students.

Linguistics and Philosophy

24.191 Ethics in Your Life: Being, Thinking, Doing (or Not?) (Spring 2015), Sally Haslanger, Patricia-Maria Weinmann, Brendan de Kennessy
Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Brendan de Kenessey share the history and design of this course, how they cultivated a classroom culture conducive to honest discussions, and how they experimented with a new discussion format.

Music and Theater Arts

21M.065 Introduction to Musical Composition (Spring 2014), Keeril Makan 
Keeril Makan describes his pedagogical goals in the course, which include helping students develop different ways of listening to music and to their environments and providing students with a hands-on introduction to music. He also shares pedagogical strategies, such as emphasizing student performance, using paper and pencil before employing software to complete projects, and engaging students in composer forums and concerts.

21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design (Spring 2016), Florian Hollerweger 
Florian Hollerweger discusses course design, teaching with technology (and without), learning actively in groups, using surveys to get to know students, assessing student learning in creative contexts, and engaging students deeply in the design process.

Political Science

17.445/17.446 International Relations Theory in the Cyber Age (Fall 2015), Nazli Choucri
Nazli Choucri comments on the importance of active participation during seminars and shares how she uses questions to promote engagement.

Science, Technology, and Society

STS.080/11.151 Youth Political Participation (Spring 2016), Jennifer Light
tudents take an active role in this course. They help the instructor, Jennifer Light, write the exam questions, lead presentations, and examine primary sources at the MIT Museum. In addition to instructor insights, visitors to the OCW course will find student perspectives about the pedagogical strategies shaping the learning experiences in this class.

Women and Gender Studies

WGS.151 Gender, Health, and Society (Spring 2016), Brittany Charlton
Brittany Charlton shares teaching techniques she uses to engage students, her insights on teaching content rooted in real-world contexts, and her thoughts on teaching students with a broad range of background experiences. She also discusses students’ final projects.

Actively Teaching Active Learning

Image of students

Students in 5.95 engage in “lightning round” discussions.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

When you think about education, it’s easy to feel jaded. After all, waves of education reform have swept over American schools and colleges for decades, and tangible improvements—let alone a sea change—don’t exactly spring to mind.

But new hope has arisen in recent years, and with good reason, because for the first time teaching practices are being aligned with how the mind actually works. Studies are showing that there are certain things that teachers can do to make substantial improvements in student learning.

Action and Interaction

One of the key discoveries is that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own learning, rather than sitting back passively and just listening (or not) to an instructor. And they learn even better when this active engagement is accompanied by interactive exchanges with other students.

How to put this wisdom into practice is at the center of 5.95 Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering, just published on OCW. As taught in Fall 2015, the course surveys all aspects of teaching a STEM course, including what is known about student learning and cognition, how to design a course and develop learning outcomes, how to design effective assignments and assessments, and even how to grade.

The instructor is Dr. Janet Rankin, the acting Director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab, which has been helping to boost effective educational practices on campus for many years.

Well-Informed Practice  

The centerpiece of the 5.95 course site is a collection of videos that show why Dr. Rankin is such an avid advocate of active learning and how she puts active learning to effective use in her own classes. In other words, she doesn’t just preach. She practices.

Three class videos show how Dr. Rankin combines short lectures with a variety of active learning techniques to bolster student learning and knowledge retention.

In a number of video Instructor Insights, Dr. Rankin explains the virtues of active learning in its various manifestations, and footage from her class shows how the different techniques played out. With experience teaching in a variety of settings, from discussion-based seminars to large lectures, Rankin knows how to adapt the techniques to different situations in order to get the best results and avoid missteps.

 

Many Methods to Success

The techniques often have intriguing names: mud cards, think-pair-share, debate, beach ball, personal response systems, lightning round, jigsaw. And they often produce scenes that would surprise STEM educators accustomed to giving non-interactive lectures. How can serious learning take place with students tossing a beach ball around the classroom?  If each student who catches the ball has to say what they think about a given question, discussion is rapid-fire, participation is high, and the often inhibiting dynamic in which the all-knowing instructor puts students on the spot with pointed questions never comes into play.

In the lightning round, students line up face to face so that each person briefly shares with their counterpart their views on a given question. Then students shift places in the line, and begin again. In this way, students can quickly get a sense of how others in the class think about a topic. They get comfortable talking to one another.  They have fun! And their understanding is broadened and made more sophisticated. Knowledge gets reinforced.

Coming up with productive questions can make a big difference in these activities, and Dr. Rankin offers advice on this as well.

**********************

OCW has another version of 5.95, taught in Spring 2009 by Sanjoy Mahajan, also an advocate of active learning. Now a Professor at Olin College, Mahajan was at the time Associate Director of the Teaching and Learning Lab. The course site has full videos of the class sessions and is also worth a visit.

Mind and Hand and Ears

Collage of a Pure Data patch, consisting of several labeled boxes connected by lines, overlaying a black-and-white photo of a steam locomotive with steam blowing up out of the whistle.

One of the sound design exercises in 21M.380 challenges students to synthesize a steam train drive-by, with each group working on a different sound related to that problem. (Steam train photo is in the public domain, from Flickr Commons.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

People love sound effects. They have for generations. Just think of the original King Kong’s roar, created for the 1933 film by weaving together lion and tiger roars and playing them backwards. What would the movie be without that signature sound?

Certain sound effects are so iconic they have legs, so to speak. Like that bird whose call tells you the setting is deep in the jungle, no matter the continent. Or the scream of the guy who meets his doom by being attacked or falling from a cliff. That same scream has been used again and again in over 50 years of movies.

And what about those sounds that must be fully imagined? Like those space ships careering across the galaxy? The sound of the engines is so compelling the audience is happy to forget that, in the vacuum of space, sound does not exist. How did that sound get made?

Actually, it was designed. Design is a key part of the MIT “mind and hand” education. The art and science of sound design is the subject of 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design, the latest in a series of courses on sound and technology that OCW has up on its site.

This most recent publication reflects the teaching of Dr. Florian Hollerweger, a sound artist and sound technology researcher in MIT’s Department of Music and Theater Arts.

Teaching with Technology (and Without)

The course site has lecture notes, readings, assignments, and samples of student projects through multiple iterations, so you can see how the projects evolved. MIT students and OCW learners alike benefit from the course’s use of a free open-source program called Pure Data. Dr. Hollerweger’s extensive notes include linked audio samples and working examples of Pure Data code, creating a dynamic learning experience.

Dr. Hollerweger explains the central practice of the course in the Instructor Insights on his This Course at MIT page:

 . . . we take real-world sounds and try to understand how they work. We then recreate them from scratch without using any recordings. Instead we rely on oscillators, noise generators, and filters, which we control through computer programs that students learn to write as part of the course . . . The prospect of engaging with students in the process of aestheticizing everyday sound experiences was a major impetus for teaching the course.

Learning to Listen

Before creating sounds, students must first learn how to listen. Or, as Dr. Hollerweger puts it, “Your main tool for sound design is really your ears.”  The soundwalk assignment is where it all begins. The students

 . . . describe, in as minute detail as possible, their aural experience from a listening excursion that we conduct across the MIT campus together. This assignment teaches them to verbalize their sonic impressions and communicate them to others. It trains students’ ears to attend not only to individual sound sources, but also to flutter echoes, comb filters, and other subtle acoustics effects that are due to the abutting architecture.

In other Instructor Insights, Dr. Hollerweger explains how he uses surveys to get to know his students and to tap their various talents, how he gets them learning actively in groups (he employs only the shortest of lectures), how he teaches the iterative design process, and how he assesses and grades creative projects.

Offering Advice

A lot of the instruction takes place the old-fashioned way—meeting one on one during office hours:

A lot of the support I offer students during the design process occurs during office hours. This is because their projects are so individualized. Every student has to come up with their own idea. When a student gets stuck, we need to get together to identify the key challenges of their design through an open-ended discussion.

[Applause!]

21M.380 is but the latest course in which instruction in the iterative design process is represented on OCW. Some other recent examples are CMS.611J Creating Video Games, 6.811 Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology, and 20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye: Writing and Hosting the Educational Show.

Participating Actively to Shape What Comes Next

Photo from 1909 showing two girls wearing banners that read "ABOLISH CHILD SLAVERY" in english and yiddish.

Children at the 1909 May Day parade in New York City protesting child slavery. This course discusses the history of youth political activism and participation in the United States. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Students writing their own exam questions? Students submitting questions that will guide discussions in class? Students running discussions based on their own presentations?

What’s going on here? Has the world been turned on its head? Students actively shaping their own education?

Such are the techniques that Professor Jennifer Light uses to teach STS.080 Youth Political Participation, a course that has just been published on OCW. The course surveys young Americans’ participation in political activism over the past 200 years and assesses the impact of young people’s media production and technology on politics.

Why Get Students So Involved?

Professor Light explains the thinking behind her innovative approach to instruction in the Instructor Insights on her This Course at MIT page.

Having students write exam questions, that’s something Professor Light has some experience with, having done this for 20 years. Why? “It encourages students to take a more active role in their own education, consider how course content is related to their own interests, and figure out exactly what they have learned in the class.”

The discussion questions she requires students to send not only ensure that the discussions will be of interest to them, but the questions allow Professor Light to see how well students understand the readings, which are extensive. Writing questions also allows students to let her know when they are confused, without opening themselves to embarrassment in front of the entire class.

The student-led presentations in the Spring 2016 course addressed topics assigned by Professor Light and ranged from young people’s participation in World War I to conservative youth movements to the relationships between cultural and political expression. The presentations “sparked many conversations in class about how to define what ‘counts’ as political participation,” which interestingly “reflects the newly developing consensus that we need to revise our scholarly understandings of the meanings of political participation, past and present.”

How Do Students See It?

And how do the students view all this participatory classwork that Professor Light demands of them? You can see one student’s reflections about her own learning experiences in STS.080 on the This Course at MIT page.

Professor Light’s approach seems to have worked beautifully. Regarding the exam questions, the student says, “Even modern history can seem detached from students’ lives when we are learning it, but in this way, Professor Light made what we had just learned applicable to something we cared about. Not only that, but it made it easier to remember and to appreciate the history as well!”

What else can you say but, “Right on!”?