[Editor’s note: This post by Alan November, written exclusively for eSchool Media, is part of a series of upcoming articles by this notable education thought leader. Check back soon for the next must-read post!]

Harvard professor David Malan has managed to pull off a neat trick: His Computer Science 50 course is the most popular course at both Harvard and Yale. By examining his success, we can learn some important lessons about effective teaching.

CS50 assumes no prior knowledge or skill in computer programming, yet it’s extremely demanding. Despite its rigor, CS50 regularly attracts thousands of students each year. While some aspire to become software engineers, others enroll just to experience the course.

Why is Professor Malan’s course so popular, even with students who don’t plan a career in computer science—and even though it requires a lot of work? Here are three keys to Malan’s effective teaching that I think all schools everywhere should apply, from K-12 schools to colleges and universities.

  • Strengthen the social side of learning.
  • Teach students to self-assess.
  • Provide a public audience to inspire students to invent.

Imagine teaching a course with 800+ students at Harvard and another 400+ students at Yale with an extremely high level of rigor and creativity. The course is available for credit at either university, and anyone around the world can take a noncredit version at no cost through the open courseware platform edX.

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My son, Dan, took the course. When he first signed up for CS50, it is fair to say he was not in the habit of choosing the most demanding courses on campus. But Dr. Malan’s unique learning culture and sense of responsibility placed on the students helped Dan to discover a passion for “learning how to learn” and thinking about design—skills he can apply to manage his learning in any situation, from other courses to his professional growth. Two years later, he is still on fire—and he will graduate in May to pursue a career in computer science.

I was so intrigued by the impact CS50 had on my son that I started to explore Malan’s keys to effective teaching that we can export to any educational setting. After many conversations with Professor Malan and Dan, I have identified at least three processes that we can apply across the curriculum at all grade levels.

1. Learning is social, and students are hardwired to work together to solve problems.

One of the aspects that makes his course unique is its culture. Malan pays as much attention to his students’ social experience in the class as he does to their academic experience, so that his students feel like they are part of a learning community.

For instance, he organizes several events throughout the semester that bring students together, such as “hackathons” and weekly lunches every Friday on the Harvard campus. His teaching assistants also host “office hours” every Monday through Thursday night from 9 p.m. to midnight, where students can gather over pizza to discuss problem sets or ask questions—and these nightly events routinely draw upwards of 300 students.

“I went to office hours four nights a week,” Dan recalls. “That was the only way I could make it through the course.”

When Dan would arrive, the TAs would ask how far he had gotten in that week’s problem set and how confident he was in his work. Then, they would put him in a group with other students at his same comfort level. “There was never an issue finding a group that was at your pace,” he says.

By making the learning fun and social, while not sacrificing rigor, Malan has found that his students give their best effort.

“We hope that by creating these somewhat special and unusual experiences for students, we can expect more from them,” he explains. “If we are perceived as meeting them halfway, we hope they will meet us halfway as well and will get as much out of the course as they can.”

Making the learning a shared, social experience not only motivates students to do their best work; it also helps them learn from each other. And when students learn from their peers, they’re apt to learn more effectively.

There is a phenomenon known as the “curse of knowledge,” in which teachers who have thorough knowledge of a subject sometimes have trouble reaching students who are new to the material, because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in that position. Students, on the other hand, are more likely to empathize or relate to their peers who are struggling.

Dan can attest to the enormous value of the student community that Malan has crafted.  Dan found the highly social office hours especially helpful, because they gave him a chance to discuss the problem sets with his peers in the same situation—and inevitably he would see the topic in a fresh new light.

How many opportunities are there in schools to craft various social settings for students to come together outside of class to work with peers? Many schools are now converting libraries—where students traditionally cannot raise their voice—into learning commons where there are spirited debates among students as they study together.

(Next page: 2 other processes to apply across curriculum)

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