• This year's MacVicar Faculty Fellows were feted at the annual MacVicar Day on March 2. From left to right, MacVicar Fellow Charles E. Leiserson of electrical engineering and computer science, MacVicar Fellow Yoel Fink of materials science and engineering, MacVicar Fellow Jonathan Gruber of the Sloan School of Management, Chancellor Phillip Clay, President Susan Hockfield, MacVicar Fellow James R. Orlin of the Sloan School of Management, Provost L. Rafael Reif, Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings, and MacVicar Fellow David Wallace of mechanical engineering.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Ruth Perry, literature professor, left, and Bryan Owens, senior in mechanical engineering, discuss learning strategies.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • David Wallace

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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MacVicar Day celebrates diversity in learning, teaching strategies


Some people learn better when they are being graded; some do worse. Some like to go over classroom material by saying it out loud to themselves; some like to teach it to others. Some said they learn best when they look, some when they listen and some when they draw pictures.

If there's one thing clear from the 2007 MacVicar Day event "I learn best when…," it's that learning is never a one-size-fits-all matter.

On March 2, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows sponsored MIT's annual recognition of undergraduate education with a roundtable discussion moderated by Duane S. Boning, professor and associate department head of electrical engineering and computer science, during which students, faculty and alumni shared learning strategies and tools.

The 2007 MacVicar Faculty Fellows are Yoel Fink, associate professor of materials science and engineering; Jonathan Gruber, professor of economics and associate department head; Charles E. Leiserson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science; James B. Orlin, professor of management science; and David Wallace, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Daniel E. Hastings, dean for undergraduate education, read student comments about the five fellows: "One of the best lecturers I've experienced at MIT," a student wrote about Fink; Gruber has the "rare ability to turn dry lectures into lively discussions"; a student feels that Leiserson is "walking right beside us in our exploration of the world of algorithms"; Orlin's classes are "full of fun with purpose and include game shows to review the material"; and being Wallace's student is "like an apprenticeship to a master of the trade."

Wallace also participated in the roundtable discussion. Ever the educator, he turned his remarks into a teachable moment. He shoved a life-size cardboard cutout of himself wearing a T-shirt and shorts across the floor. "I learn best when I…," he prompted. "Move around?" someone guessed. "Push myself," he said.

Wallace took a bite out of a hamburger to demonstrate that he likes learning when he "tries new things"; pointed a camera to show he's "focused"; and a "new and improved" sign meant he likes learning when he believes it will lead to a way to benefit society.

Wallace, who said he was once so absorbed in learning that he wrapped a set of chisels in a pair of dress pants and stuck them in his toolbox, said he really learns best "when it's fun. When it's fun, it makes all the things I talked about something I really want to do."

The roundtable also included Ruth Perry, professor of literature; Julie Norman, associate dean in the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education; alumnus Dedric A. Carter, executive director of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs and lecturer in electrical engineering and computer science; junior Dayán Páez; senior Bryan Owens; sophomore Irina Shyklar; and Cambridge-MIT undergraduate exchange student Deviyani Misra-Godwin.

Carter said he learns best when he "taps into the power of analogies" by exploring how a specific analogy captures the essence of what he's trying to learn and where it falls apart. "This creates a mental picture definitely worth more than 1,000 words," he said.

Páez, a mechanical engineering major, prefers to learn "conceptually or intuitively and not numerically. In engineering, too much attention can be drawn to the math. I need an overall sense of what is happening physically." Owens said he learns by explaining course material to his immigrant grandparents. Shyklar, who is majoring in brain and cognitive sciences, said she learns best by asking questions. She said professors should provide students with more opportunities to ask anonymous questions so they don't risk feeling stupid in the classroom.

Perry recalled that as a college student, she tried to take "perfect" notes and almost failed out. She realized, she said, students have to interact with the material and not just receive it. In her classes, she likes to pose questions she can't answer. She proposes a question based on her observation of a text and she and the students discuss possible answers together.

Perry has undertaken a new path of learning for herself: She is studying the history and transmission of folk music. To learn the field, she apprentices herself to "someone who knows what I want to know."

Misra-Godwin said students in Cambridge, England, are less eager than MIT students to talk about class material outside the lecture hall. "Students don't ever talk about work outside lectures. That's considered so uncool." Instead, they take part in weekly one-on-one tutorials with senior faculty.

The event also included demonstrations and exhibits on how technology can help learning.

The MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was named to honor the life and contributions of Margaret MacVicar, professor of physical science and dean for undergraduate education at the time of her death in 1991.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 7, 2007 (download PDF).


Topics: Awards, honors and fellowships, Education, teaching, academics, Faculty

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