Spring 2021: Teaching & Research

Lessons Learned: Tips for teaching from faculty colleagues

General advice for remote teaching

Be flexible: Teaching Life Sciences 1a, Rachelle Gaudet and colleagues made it clear to students that they would be experimenting and might change how they do things. And they did make changes after the first few weeks. Students felt like their feedback was valued and they were participants in making the course a success.

Have a backup: Adam Hesterberg, who taught Computer Science 121, had a backup computer or tablet available with all of his course materials loaded on it, just in case his regular computer had any problems during class.

Be respectful of students’ time: Teaching MCB 60, a large class with over 100 students, Dominic Mao found that students would arrive late because their previous instructors had run over time, and then he would end up going over time himself, which caused problems for others. And students need the 15 minutes scheduled between classes to get a break from Zoom.

Teaching Physical Sciences 2, Greg Kestin found that students had difficulty scheduling a 3-hour block for a fully interactive and synchronous lab session, and had much better success with asynchronous projects that students could work on at their own pace during the week.

Share some of your own challenges about working from home: Teaching MCB 60, Dominic Mao would occasionally be interrupted by his daughters, or his dog, and he found that this helped to break the ice and made his students more willing to share their own challenges with working from home. This made it easier for him and the teaching staff to identify and reach out to struggling students proactively.

How to foster and sustain student engagement

Engage students by having them lead part of a class: While teaching a Freshman Seminar, David Foster had a student lead the second half of each class discussion. This engaged not only the student leader but also the other students, as they all realized that their active engagement, participation, and support was essential for the success of the discussion.

Connect one-on-one with students: Teaching Astronomy 17, which has about 25 students, Daniel Eisenstein met with each student one-on-one for about 10 minutes before the start of class. This short investment of time helped to break the ice and made up for the lack of informal meetings that would usually happen before or after class when teaching on campus.

In Gen Ed 1056, Martin Surbeck and Erin Hecht required each student to attend their office hours at least twice during the term, with a schedule and sign-ups. Martin found that students were much more willing to “attend” office hours on Zoom and participated more informally compared with when office hours were on campus.

In Applied Math 205, Christopher Rycroft hosted a “social hour” every few weeks where each student would bring a photo and discuss it. There might be a theme, like photos that feature colors, and students would get very creative and it was a nice icebreaker. Many students were overseas so that added additional interest.

In Gen Ed 1098, Brendan Meade had originally planned to have weekly lunches with students as an informal way to get to know them better, but that seemed too time-consuming and didn’t succeed. Instead, he showed up to each class 30 minutes early and invited students to come and socialize during that time. This was successful at least for some subset of the students.

In SCRB 180, Jeffrey Macklis added 30-45 minutes before and after each class just as a “student lounge time.” Often students wouldn’t have specific course-related questions, but instead just wanted to hang out, listen to some social banter, and feel connected to the class community.

Connect with the outside world: In teaching introductory math, Brendan Kelly and colleagues were able to invite outside speakers, such as a city council member from Boston, to meet with students and show how their academic work can connect with real-world applications.

In Gen Ed 1056, Martin Surbeck and Erin Hecht could invite outside experts for Q&A with the students. Even if they only had 10-15 minutes this really got the students energized and engaged.

In Gen Ed 1098, Brendan Meade invited outside experts (usually not academics) and found that students were incredibly eager to ask questions and engage with the visitors.

Explore new forms of assessment: In teaching introductory math, Brendan Kelly and colleagues de-emphasized traditional timed exams and instead focused on mathematical modeling and student projects, with authentic questions and real-world data.

In SCRB 180, Jeffrey Macklis focused on “effort-based assessment,” with an explicit acknowledgment that students have had a challenging semester. Students arrived at the course with very different backgrounds, so he tried to assess their progress and effort during the course instead of focusing on their performance on an exam at the end.

In Gen Ed 1018 Esther James and colleagues gave students 15-minute oral exams in Zoom breakout rooms instead of giving a traditional final exam. This really helped them to see how much the students knew, and how they could apply and explain their understanding. They are likely to use this format even once teaching returns to campus.

Use your course staff for direct interactions with students: In Physics 15c, Matteo Mitrano had both a TF and a CA to help support the course. He asked them to focus their time on holding online office hours and help sessions so students could get lots of face time with them, spread out during the week.

How to get students to connect with their peers

Make breakout rooms more effective: In Life Sciences 1a, Rachelle Gaudet and colleagues used rooms with about 5-6 students, and perhaps 2/3 of the rooms also would have a member of the teaching staff (instructor, TF, or CA). Especially at the start of the term, they would have explicit “ice breaker” activities as part of the breakout room instructions—for instance, find the person whose birthday is closest to a particular date, and then that person takes the lead on sharing the screen or summarizing the discussion in the chat. Sometimes students would be given a homework question and asked to start working on it in the breakout rooms, so they had a real “payoff” if they worked hard and solves the problem.

In Computer Science 121, Adam Hesterberg found that breakout rooms were most effective as a place for students to meet, question, and discuss challenging concepts after they had been introduced in lecture. Asking students to tackle difficult problems on their own in breakout rooms was too challenging, and students often sat around feeling frustrated.

In Astronomy 17, Daniel Eisenstein had groups of about 4 students in breakout rooms and found it challenging to know what was going on in the groups, so he asked them to write their questions into Slack or take notes on a Google doc so he could see in real time when a group was stuck and needed help. He notes that breakout rooms are “incompressible chunks of time,” and he found it helpful to prepare in advance a schedule for each class meeting in 10-minute increments to keep the entire class on time.

In Engineering Sciences 100, Patrick Ulrich used a shared Google slide deck, where each breakout room could have their own slide to take notes and ask questions. He could quickly glance at all of their work and see if there were groups that could benefit from his help (or not).

In Physics 123, David Abrams had a small class with only 3 or 4 breakout rooms. He opened separate Zoom sessions for each room and had them all up on his screen simultaneously as a way to “eavesdrop” on all of the breakout rooms at once. (There is a setting on Zoom that allows you to open multiple sessions on one device.)

In Engineering Sciences 181, Michael Aziz had students collaborate on Google Jamboards during breakout rooms, which allowed the course staff to see what students were working on, and to jump in to a room to help out if needed.

Create assignments that require group interaction: In their Gen Ed course, “Human Nature,” Martin Surbeck and Erin Hecht assigned students to groups at the start of the term (based in part on their shared time zones), and required group assignments throughout the course. This created a core peer group for each student. Then, during lecture, the breakout rooms were grouped randomly so that students could interact with different groups.

Teaching Applied Math 205 to a mix of graduate students, advanced undergrads, and students from other Harvard schools, Christopher Rycroft created about 20 group activities throughout the semester. They were very different in structure—some were like programming tutorials, others were more open ended research questions. Students had to choose and do four of these during the course. Especially with this course which had lots of students who didn’t already know one another, this was the main way that students had a chance to meet.

In Applied Physics 286, Sharad Ramanathan got students to introduce themselves on Slack and form groups of three based on their introductions. He then assigned group projects at the beginning of the term and met with each group about every other week. Although the projects themselves weren’t very successful, they were very effective in getting students to meet and collaborate with each other in the course.

In Physical Sciences 2, Greg Kestin used Panopto for students to submit their projects and presentations, which allowed other students to then go and comment on the projects. It was a bit like a virtual seminar, but with asynchronous questions and replies about the presentations.

Why is it important to help students work in groups? In Physics 15c, Matteo Mitrano found that students were much less successful in creating study groups to work on challenging homework assignments. Trying instead to complete the homework alone, they got frustrated and spent more time than they otherwise would. And doing homework alone is not as much fun as working on it together.

Technology tools and tips for using them

Suggestions for effective use of Zoom: In Life Sciences 1a, Rachelle Gaudet and colleagues used blue “raise hands” features, thumbs up/down and yes/no feedback buttons, poll tools, and then one or two breakout sessions during each 75-minute class period. A mix of different tools helps to keep things interesting and engaging. Especially in a large class like this one, it was essential to have a TF or two handle different aspects of these logistics so the instructor could focus on teaching.

In both his freshman seminar and in Gen Ed 1098, Brendan Meade supplemented the Zoom chat function with an online Google Form so that students could ask questions anonymously if they preferred. He would get 30-40 questions in each class and would try to respond to them during class if possible.

In SCRB 180, Jeffrey Macklis drew on a large “flip chart” with a (physical) pen, and found that with today’s high-resolution cameras the image was quite clear and readable over Zoom. Students could watch him as he drew on the chart, and he could save and post the images afterward. His TF could act as “video producer” by spotlighting different Zoom streams, either the flipchart video or pre-prepared PDF slides, while the class was being taught.

Many faculty encouraged or required students to keep their cameras on during class, especially if there would be activities like polls or breakout rooms. Students found it frustrating to arrive in breakout rooms and discover that their peers had their cameras off.

Try other tools for virtual social interactions: While teaching SCRB 180, Jeffrey Macklis found that software called spatial.chat was effective for informal online social interactions, where students could wander around in a virtual room and talk with each other. The audio is “ambient,” so people who are nearby are loud and clear while others sound more distant.

The Physics department used Congregate to create an online version of “physics night” that would usually be held in one of the House dining halls on campus. Students set up virtual tables for different physics courses, and could drop in on a table to work with peers and ask questions about their homework. TFs and instructors could hop from one table to another.

Use Panopto for pre-recorded class material: In Gen Ed 1098, Brendan Meade used the Panopto software to pre-record his lectures. This produces a transcript that is synchronized to the video, and students can easily search or scroll through the video to find parts that they wanted to review.

In Life Sciences 1a, Monique Brewster and colleagues used Panopto to intersperse interactive quizzes during the recorded lectures. These helped to break up what might otherwise be an overwhelming amount of information.

In Gen Ed 1018, Esther James had students make videos for their final project and asked students to view each other’s videos on their own and write at least one question about each one. Then during class, instead of viewing the full presentation, each student would just give a quick summary of their presentation and dive into Q&A, so the class time was spent on interaction rather than on watching presentations.

Undergraduates in on-campus research (NEW for Spring 2021)

Can undergraduates participate in research on campus?

Students who are living on campus in College housing may participate in on-campus laboratory research. The laboratory PI should add the student to the lab re-occupancy form and ensure that all requirements for COVID safety are met (e.g. square feet per person, sufficient fresh/highly filtered air flow, scheduling of common spaces and equipment). Please see general poilicy statement below.

Note that students who have returned to campus housing this spring are under quarantine ("Level 0") until they have had their third negative test, which will typically be 8 or 9 days after arrival. Thus, on-campus students should not expect to return to labs until January 30 at the earliest.

Enrolled students who are living off campus but are near enough to come to work in labs may be eligible to do so, following the policy listed below. Students must be enrolled in a research course/independent study for credit, or must be receiving funding for their research. Laboratory access for off-campus students will begin no earlier than February 15.

On-Campus Mentored Research Policy for Harvard Undergraduates


The following policy allows enrolled Harvard undergraduate students, including those off campus, to gain access to on-campus, mentored research experiences. The process is tied to compliance with all public health protocols (including whatever level of COVID-19 testing is recommended by the medical advisory group) and building occupancy levels on campus. To participate, a student must be sponsored by a faculty member and comply with all testing requirements and the Off Campus Community Compact. For students to participate, they must be enrolled in independent study, a research course, or conducting paid research.

1) Faculty mentors attest that they are willing to sponsor an enrolled undergraduate (residing on-campus or off-campus) for mentored research using on-campus resources, such as labs (this policy may be expanded to include other on-campus resources, if public health guidance allows those buildings to open).


2) Faculty mentors refer students to the Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Office (uraf.harvard.edu) to be entered into the College’s centralized system to assess student eligibility to participate in mentored research, and ensure awareness of the parameters of the Off-Campus Community Compact for off-campus students (http://uraf.harvard.edu/mentored-research). Faculty must commit to including undergraduate researchers in their laboratory occupancy plans, as appropriate. Faculty mentors confirm with their department or building administrators that the labs or other resources can accommodate the student given current protocols for safe occupancy and provide access to viral testing.


3) Students must commit to participating in a specified COVID-19 testing regimen (currently three times per week for students residing on-campus, and twice per week for Harvard affiliates who reside off campus but regularly work on campus).


4) Students must commit to adhering to the community compact for their residential status, including the Off-Campus Community Compact. The compact and compliance with it are overseen by College staff.


5) The students and faculty mentors must understand that approval for enrolled undergraduate students to use on-campus resources for mentored research is contingent. It can be revoked if the student does not comply with the testing regimen or adhere to the community compact—or if the public health situation changes.


The College’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships will be the central resource for students and faculty participating in mentored research. Please contact undergradresearch@fas.harvard.edu with questions.


A checklist for faculty in the FAS Division of Science may be found here.

A checklist for faculty in SEAS may be found here.


Can students who are on leave participate in research?

Undergraduate students who are on leave should not engage in research supervised by Harvard faculty members, regardless of whether the research is paid or unpaid.

Students who are on leave will not have access to Harvard resources (including online library resources, computing tools, databases, etc.). Faculty may not hire undergraduates who are on leave (e.g. as research assistants).

Students who are on leave may not be paid through any Harvard payroll.

Students who wish to do research advised by Harvard faculty should enroll and do research remotely (or on campus, if they are seniors participating in laboratory thesis or capstone projects).

Can students who are on campus come to the teaching labs?

Spring 2021: The College, FAS, and SEAS have decided that all instruction in Spring 2021 must be strictly online.

Undergraduate students may not enter the teaching labs this spring term.

This is in part to ensure the safety of our students and staff, and in part to ensure that all students—whether on campus or remote—will have equal educational opportunities this semester.

The FAS is considering a pilot program to have some limited on-campus instructional activities later in the spring term. More information will be forthcoming. If this happens, faculty will submit a proposal sometime in February, and approved activites could take place later in March or April.