Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Dennis Freeman and Dr. Dawn Wendell

Alternative Assignments & Assessments

Dennis Freeman, Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

Dawn Wendell, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Class: Mens et Manus, 6.a01
Semester: Fall 2020

Key Takeaways

  • Structuring course content around projects rather than skills can motivate students to learn challenging technical content. 
  • Students feel more confident asking questions and working through challenging problems when they see their TAs and instructors modelling similar types of inquiry. 
  • Even instructors of technical subjects should consider how their class format can support social and emotional aspects of learning such as: self-efficacy, self- and social-awareness, and psychological safety.

Interview Transcript

00:00 What class did you teach and how did you modify it for remote teaching?

DENNIS FREEMAN: This is a first-year advising seminar. And so we’ve always tried to make it kind of a fun activity to engage the students with their advisors to do something that’s very MIT. So we wanted to let the students build things that let them exercise what they were learning, and that’s always kind of happened in a maker space with lots of tools and lots of parts and lots of machine tools and all the kinds of things that students would like to have. And of course, the pandemic did away with all of that.

DAWN WENDELL: We went in with students who had never learned online, TAs who had never taught online, Denny and I who had never taught online. It really changed up everything because we took for granted so much the ability to be able to be with the students in the same place. And if they were having trouble they could say, I don’t know what– could you help me? And we could put our hands on the same circuit board.

DENNIS FREEMAN: From the beginning we knew we had to focus on two things. It’s not just a technical problem. It’s also kind of a motivational problem. It’s– so part of the goal of the seminar is to get students comfortable with technical content but at the same time to develop personally, learn about collaboration, learn about a community of people at MIT, so learn about– develop a sense of accomplishment. We want them to leave the seminar having built something and taking great pride in it.

01:33 How did you modify assignments for a fully remote semester?

DAWN WENDELL: When I think about what the pandemic gave us was really– I mean it exploded our whole class. It meant that we couldn’t just iterate on last year’s model or the year before and say, oh, where do we tweak it? Where do we improve incrementally? It was like disassembling the whole tower of blocks and starting again.

Denny and I would have these deep conversations. What do we really want them to know? What do we really want them to experience? Because we have all these other constraints, and so it really allowed us to come down and focus on what we really felt that at the end of the day they needed to walk away with both on the technical side and on that personal accomplishment side.

DENNIS FREEMAN: So we had previously organized things by– well, they need to know how to do computer automated design. They need to know how to fabricate. They need to know how to build a circuit. They need to know how to program, so we had this list of skills. So we really turned the whole curriculum on the side, and we refocused everything as a series of weekly projects.

So the idea was at the end of every week every student will have something that works. So instead of teaching, for example, circuits by showing them– yeah, the theory of circuits. This is how circuits work. This is how currents divide. This is how voltages are generated. Instead of doing that we had them build an LED flashlight.

We did a lot more planning. Almost all of the students finished almost all of the weekly projects on time within the 90 minute scheduled period. That’s amazing! And so it increased their enthusiasm. No one felt that they were behind, and they had a real feeling of accomplishment.

DAWN WENDELL: The students week one are taking videos and not just turning them into our class but also posting them online and saying, see what I’m doing at MIT. And they weren’t even physically at MIT but for us that was such a great sign that they felt the MIT-ness.

03:48 How did you provide individual feedback when you were not able to be in the same room with students?

DAWN WENDELL: The way we organized the structure previously was that the teaching assistants were able to help any student that had a question, and the students would add themselves to a digital queue. Our goal was for the students to never feel stuck. So as soon as they had a question a TA could come help them. But what we did differently because we couldn’t figure out how to quite simulate that online was this year we made individual Zoom rooms for one TA and a small group of students. And that was actually fantastic.

Even though I think individual students might have had to wait a little longer for questions they developed really deep relationships with their TA, and then they also developed a great relationship with a group of students that they were with. So they really felt this sort of cohort that they were all buddies. They named their room, so they had this nice little spirit with them. I think at MIT we think so much about efficiency. And we were maybe a little blinded by that efficiency model of we have to be super efficient about answering the questions. But actually some of the students and the TAs would tell us that people would learn things just because they had heard someone else ask the question in their group.

DENNIS FREEMAN: So before they would call me or Dawn they had already talked to the other students in the group. They had already talked to the TA. They had validation that this is a completely reasonable question. And you should go for it. So I think it was a really good training, too, because they learned that the things that they might be embarrassed about were not things to be embarrassed about.

DAWN WENDELL: And it was also really great because we don’t expect our TAs to know everything. We tell them that constantly. We do a run through with them earlier in the week so that they know what’s going to be coming up. But also we told them very clearly that we expect them to model good questions with Denny and I. That element of that personal connection and that feeling of safety as you’re learning that there’s sort of the psychological safety of it’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to be confused. It’s OK to say no actually I didn’t understand that explanation. Can you explain it a different way?

Our TAs were also modeling that for the students, which was really wonderful. And I think because this year it was really natural for us to share like I don’t know. I have to figure that out. That actually gave the students a lot more engagement, too, because they realized that this isn’t a skill set that they feel lost now and then magically one day they’ll know how to deal with everything in the world. We don’t know how to deal with everything in the world, and so we gave them some examples of how you keep going forward even when that’s happening and how you keep learning and you keep iterating and you keep getting better. And that’s just how we operate.

06:37 How did students respond to the changes you implemented?

DENNIS FREEMAN: Their reception to working on the projects was overwhelming. So we were not expecting posts on Facebook. (LAUGHING) We were not expecting that they would send a text message to their family. So I think that was kind of overwhelming. I think we were surprised by the teaching model, too. I think we didn’t realize it was with some trepidation that we set up the rooms for the individual students. So I think we were surprised that those interventions worked as well as they did.

DAWN WENDELL: Our grouping into those groups of six meant that there was sort of this natural ability for students to work in a larger group, or pair off, or come into groups of three as they got stuck on similar things or different things as a team.

07:28 How did you change your approach to assessment?

DENNIS FREEMAN: So one of the things was this idea of shifting to projects, so changing the focus from skills to projects. And I mean if I were to steal from Stephen Boyd from Stanford. He says every– students should leave every class being able to do something that they couldn’t do when they walked into that class. This idea of making it project-centric just totally highlighted that. Obviously you can do something with it because you just did something with it.

Previously we were thinking about the assessment of the seminar as kind of a series of checkboxes. Did you finish the fab project? Did you finish the circuit project? Did you finish this? Did you finish that? And I think what we’ve got now in terms of assessment is like a portfolio. I mean, at this point every student had uploaded 10 or so videos to demonstrate what they had done. What a nice thing! And it was something that was not only useful to the staff. It’s helpful for the students. They could show it to future employers. They could show it to their family. They could show it to their roommate. So I think it was a much richer way of thinking about assessment in this kind of a projecty framework.

08:48 What are the main takeaways you want to share from your remote teaching experiences?

DAWN WENDELL: For me redoing it in the COVID era really became about projects and people. I think that the projects were really great at giving students a sense of accomplishment and showing them what they could do with the things we just taught them in that exact class. But by focusing on the people and giving a structure to their learning of having a small learning community inside of a class with a dedicated TA really helped them develop their personal skills as well, as scientists and engineers and developed confidence and asking questions, confidence in learning and confidence in sharing what they had just learned.

DENNIS FREEMAN: I think as teachers we all know that things like being excited about the topic is important. I don’t think we know how important it is. So by making the central point of all the lectures and all the homework the technical contents we’ve completely diminished the importance of the personal contact and the excitement of the whole thing. And so I remember Florman’s book, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.

We don’t talk about that stuff. We don’t give them that experience. And if you give them that– I think our experience here was that if you give them the experience of being excited they’ll learn the technical stuff. You don’t have to make the technical stuff the center.

DAWN WENDELL: In some ways Denny and I haven’t changed that much, but by refocusing on projects we gave them that thrill of you can do something with this stuff, and not in a year or five years or not when you graduate, right now.

DENNIS FREEMAN: So I think we learned that the students really enjoyed working with each other. They really enjoyed developing relationships with their TAs, so the personal connections were a lot more important than we realized going into it. I thought of this as a technical subject, and that’s not the right way to think about it.

DAWN WENDELL: Really, going forward you know I’m excited to bring those things back to campus. How do we bring back these elements of staying focused on projects? I think that’s huge, but also focusing on those connections and that people element, making sure that we’re not sacrificing those interpersonal connections for the sake of efficiency. The efficiency can come later, maybe through Zoom, maybe through being able to meet digitally even if you’re in different dorms but you just want to check in quickly about a P-set question.

But really remembering that this is “mens et manus,” and also we’re all people. Keeping that together and centered is really, to me, the MIT mission.