Prof Avery and this class will always hold a special place in my heart as I go forward into the world and engage deeply with difficult and meaningful topics that expand far beyond economics.” - HKS MPP student
In his Fall 2023 section of the MPP Core Quantitative Analysis and Empirical Methods course (API-101Z), Professor Chris Avery brought several innovations that revolutionized students’ Core Curriculum experience. First, Chris created a smaller, more personable classroom environment conducive to equitable discussions. Additionally, he explicitly connected other MPP Core Curriculum topics by expanding on examples provided by the students themselves. This holistic approach allowed Chris to seamlessly integrate research-based teaching and learning principles of collaborative learning, metacognition, and genuine evaluation, ultimately guiding students to bridge their personal insights with course material and larger public policy topics – to rave reviews from students.
Strategy: Creating a smaller, more personable classroom environment
Recognizing the educational value of creating space for students to engage deeply with course content and to build connections with both instructor and peers, Chris made substantial use of small group learning and discussion-based pedagogy. This approach, which Chris first experimented with in 2020 and iterated over time, allowed him to provide more personalized feedback to students and facilitated greater student motivation, a stronger sense of intellectual and professional purpose among students, and clearer connections between the work students did in class and Chris’s intended learning outcomes.
In his Fall 2022 version of the course, Chris replaced one of the two weekly classes with small group sessions for nine weeks of the semester. Through small-group discussions, he aimed to provide a platform for students to connect their personal perspectives – sometimes from the pandemic – with the course content, recontextualize their experiences in relation to economic models, and explore interdisciplinary public policy topics across the MPP curriculum. As one MPP student noted, “In his class, I truly felt like I could participate at a level of both breadth and depth that I was [fully] contributing to the class and its conversations.”
Strategy: Achieving equitable student engagement
Chris took a unique approach to moderating class discussions, as compared to the usual HKS style. Using a random number generator, he assigned students to speak in a particular order. This method promoted fairer student participation, as attendees were primed to express their thoughts succinctly and had more opportunities to share their relevant experience (in and outside HKS). This teaching technique also catalyzed an intriguing shift in classroom dynamics: rather than the typical hub-and-spoke model, where interaction centered around the instructor, conversations naturally flowed from student to student. As one student in the class noted, “The brought in a personal touch, allowing students to engage with the material more deeply and learn from peers.”
Chris enriched and amplified these peer-to-peer interactions with pointed remarks and direction. After class, he wrote personalized emails to each student, providing feedback and resources tied to that day’s discussion. As an MPP student explained, “Feedback would relate to the discussion as a whole and to our individual contributions. He would raise questions, (constructively) challenge our ideas, and point us in the direction of ideas, authors, and sources that we could use to expand our horizons on the topics that we were interested.” Chris's innovative teaching approach not only elevated classroom discussions but also fostered an environment of deeper understanding and trust.
Strategy: Intentionally making connections across MPP Core Curriculum
Finally, in class discussions Chris encouraged students to identify patterns and insights from the course material. Leveraging their comments, he would then explicitly link the content to other HKS courses in the MPP Core Curriculum, drawing from his own long-term experience teaching in the Core. At times Chris supplemented his own synthesis with other instructional methods. As one HKS colleague exclaimed, “Apart from bringing in guest lecturers from other Core courses, he even made room for a full session to discuss [of an assignment students were completing in a separate Core course]!” This interconnected approach to the Core Curriculum enhanced students' grasp of concepts and their ability to apply knowledge across domains – an authentic approach to the real work of public policy.
SAMPLES OF INNOVATION
- Moving from a hub-and-spoke model to student-to-student comments and questions during class discussion
- Asking students to provide examples from other MPP Core Curriculums classes; then, making explicit connections between API-101Z content and those external examples (or vice versa)
- Experimenting with creating smaller student cohorts within a larger class setting
- Providing individualized feedback and resources to students based on their in-class comments
- Using a random-number generator to order student comments during class discussion
A FEW WORDS FROM COLLEAGUES AND STUDENTS…
"His use of the small group as an occasion for granular engagement of individual students and their interests seemed to bridge ideological divides that often fracture classes, while engaging those for whom the course might not seem a ‘natural fit.’"
“Discussions were always respectful, productive, and fun. Prof Avery would often provide a couple short readings to frame the small group discussions and it was clear that students would read them at a greater rate than readings from other classes.”
“Professor Avery’s commitment to making the HKS classroom feel smaller and more personable is astonishing […] I have yet to see any other instructor or class be able to replicate the immense value that I felt after walking out of Prof. Avery’s class each and every day.”
“Prof Avery knows exactly how each student is progressing and their interests and communicates them weekly to the students. I remember most of the material he taught because there is no way to forget content when the teacher brings your understanding to the table and discusses that with you.”