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Making Learning Memorable

Lessons learned during a 90-minute Master Class with HKS Senior Lecturer Dan Levy
Dan Levy

With a title like Making Learning Memorable, what was the probability that Dan Levy would be able to deliver on his promise when he taught a 90-minute class at the Ed School as part of the Master Class series?

Considering Levy has been teaching quantitative methods and program evaluation at the Harvard Kennedy School as a senior lecturer for the past 10 years, and has won several top teaching awards, the chances, statistically speaking, were probably pretty good. Based on the amount of laughter that happened during the Ed School session, which was meant to showcase craft from inspiring educators across Harvard, it looks like Levy did deliver.

So what lessons were learned about teaching from Levy, who, despite being dubbed a “master teacher,” admits that he is introverted by nature? Here are a few:

  • Think about what you want your students to most learn. “I always think, what are the one or two things I absolutely want students to take away from this course?” said Levy. What are the handful of things that seep “so much in your bones that you’ll still remember them five years later when I run into you at the airport”? (And in case audience members wondered, Levy does run into former students at the airport, as evidenced by the photos he showed on a pull-down screen.)
  • Don’t be afraid to joke. Throughout the session, Levy made jokes and used examples that the audience could connect to — birthdays and medical tests — which helped turn a heavy subject like statistics into a less intimidating topic to follow.
  • Use technology, but don’t overdo it. Although Levy says he’s not a techie, he uses clickers in the class so that he can quickly calculate responses. During the Master Class session, he asked some questions that were simple (When is your birthday?) and others that were more complex (Calculate the probability that two or more people in the room shared the same birthday). The clickers made the exercises fun and were quick and efficient. Yet, as professor and moderator Bridget Terry Long noted after the discussion, the technology didn’t get in the way of the teaching. “You have to ask, is the technology really advancing the learning?” Levy said.
  • Disasters happen. The first time he taught one of his courses more than 10 years ago, Levy said, “If I had to summarize it in one word, it would be 'disaster.'” Since then, he has learned a lot, especially one key thing: Know your students. That first time around, he said he misjudged where his students were in their learning. “Understanding who your students are is crucial.”
  • Time is on your side, or at least it can be if you learn how to manage it. Levy said he does this by literally having a course assistant track how much time is spent on each segment of every class. “That way, the next time I teach the course, I have no delusions” about how much time to actually spend on a given section.
  • What happens outside the class is as important as what happens in the class. “I used to think a lot about what I was doing in the classroom,” he said. “Then that changed to what’s really more important is what my students are doing in the classroom. Now I pay more attention to what the students do outside the classroom.” As a result, he says he covers less material but knows his students are better understanding the material. “It’s not about me. It’s about the learners. It’s as simple as that.”

Interested in hearing more from Levy? Watch the full 90-minute Master Class, go to:

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