Monday, December 8, 2014

teaching (rantish)

Am I allowed to defend the classic talking-and-writing-at-the-blackboard-style university lecture?

I keep hearing about all these various teaching techniques to "engage students" and make learning "fun" and I can't help thinking, why should I waste time on dumbed-down content (and these techniques universally involve doing so) when, at the university level, students are there optionally taking time and money out of their lives in order to get an education? The ones who aren't, who are there because of parental pressure or because they haven't thought about what they'd rather do, shouldn't be running the show.

To be sure, I do only think this philosophy applies at the University level. As much as I hated the ridiculously slow pace of grade school education, I recognize that a major purpose of public gradeschool education is to create a generally educated population (and to educate kids who are too young to consciously choose to become educated). If that requires, in effect, bribing kids to learn and holding their hands as you spoonfeed each logical step to them, then so be it. The best teachers and best schools provide learning opportunities for more skill/motivation levels than the core of the distribution (which I was very lucky to be a part of). That's an enormous challenge and all the research on teaching methods can be valuably applied to it.

But in a university, it is a betrayal of the serious, paying adults to cater to the kids treating college like a four year vacation.

Sure, part of what they're paying for is a real dedication to making information as easily digestible as possible, with the best explanations and resources possible. And yes, that means for the struggling students along with the ones who barely need more than the textbook to grok the lessons. But there's a big difference, I think, between clearly articulating a difficult concept in various ways compatible with multiple learning styles and levels, and playing silly games that waste time and only serve to coerce lazy minds to understand a concept without having to put any effort into thinking themselves.

And that has to be one of the most important skills you learn in college! How to stare down a difficult problem or concept, ponder it deeply from every angle, without any linear idea of how to get at the answer, without any idea what angles it even has to be stared at, until you finally, sometimes almost magically, break through. It constantly astounds me how university students not only aren't capable of this, but don't even realize it's a thing you're supposed to try to do. Next time I teach game theory I might just start the class with some classic math/logic puzzles so that solving a 2-player normal form game doesn't seem too overwhelmingly nonformulaic in comparison...

So why is there so much hype about "engaging students"? A majority of lecturers share my views, I'm certain. But the teaching pedagogy types honestly don't. And they perpetuate ridiculous teaching metrics like student evaluations that everyone knows reflect the views of the mediocre students who care only about getting the easiest A possible and being told that they're great regardless of the pain this will cause when their bubbles are burst in the real world.

To be fair, higher education is a business and businesses have to cater to their customers even if a majority of their customers are being forced to consume the product and their views have nothing to do with the quality of the product offered.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't think many kids should be going to college so soon after high school before they have an idea of its value or their goals. Who knows. In the meantime, I'm going to continue focusing on providing clear lectures, useful homework and resources, fair exams, and telling kids what they want to hear when I have to to have any chance of getting good evaluations.


(Any views stated on this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer :)


Anonymous said...

hmm one major reason why I decided to go to grad school, was to have the learning spoon fed to me a little bit. A big part of that is just having the lessons presented in an organized way and having access to an expert to ask questions. But I say the more engagement crap, the better. If I was more self-motivated, I would have learned it on my own without school.

Also, for engineering at least, chalkboards and exams will make you good at notes and tests, but won't necessarily translate to any real-world career skills. In this case, classic lectures, examples, and hands-on experiences enrich each other.

I do agree that a lot of profs seemed to lose sight of the goals of learning, and then I was up all night perfecting some powerpoint video thing (woo the digital future) while still being hazy on the stuff I was actually supposed to be learning. Like a lot of good ideas, maybe "student engagement" has drifted from it's initial motivation (make lessons more meaningful) and become just another random thing on a checklist.

JohnRaymond said...

For me the problem begins with the situation you mention here:
"To be fair, higher education is a business and businesses have to cater to their customers even if a majority of their customers are being forced to consume the product and their views have nothing to do with the quality of the product offered."
As soon as students are treated as customers, the whole dynamic of "the customer is king" sets in and there's no where to go but down hill with the quality of instruction - at least when it's measured by the instructor determining according to her/his best judgment, and not the students' threat of causing a fuss, what should be taught and how.

Wanda said...

No one understands anything, for any deep meaning of understand, without thinking. The difference is whether the instructor provides more or fewer opportunities to exercise that thinking. At the core of many of the active learning techniques I've seen involve pushing stuff students can easily understand by reading pre-lecture and reserving in-class time for problem-solving. That way, the students get more practice solving problems, which means they can get to deeper and more challenging problems. That's especially true when they work in groups. "Engaging" students means more than keeping them awake; it means "engaging their thinking." Both struggling and strong students benefit from more practice and more opportunities to think, because both are human with human brains. (The strongest students, of course, create their own opportunities, but quite frankly that's extremely rare. It's just that you're surrounded by those people because they become professors.)

(Also, honestly, "start[ing] the class with some classic math/logic puzzles" would fall under active learning- you are provoking them with material that you can connect with the stuff you're teaching. It's getting their minds going- getting them thinking- so that they can better accept the information you tell them later.)

Studies have consistently shown that lecture-only classes produce the least amount of (non-memorization) learning both weak and strong students. What happens in a lecture? A lot of people cover things that are already in the book or spend a lot of time writing math down- that's really wasting time. More than that, lectures promote memorization. They give the feeling that something is understood because it's familiar. I've seen people give wonderful lectures on, say, a particular scientific paper and interpreting the graphs in it. The students spent the whole time typing like mad. Some of the students will be able to transfer that information to new papers to analyze those. Most probably won't, because typing something down is different from thinking about it.

I do agree with you about how student evals are terrible measures of teaching. They don't measure learning at all. People have studied them, and it turns out that some of the biggest influences are the gender, ethnicity, and charisma of the instructor. However, beyond that, my informal sense is that students who are interested in the material don't actually like being pandered to. They don't like instructors who seem unfairly opaque, but they don't respect instructors who are too easy. It's students who are not interested in the material, for example non-majors taking service courses, who are out for the easy A. Curiously, it's in those courses (non-majors and intro service courses) where instructors have seen the most student resistance to active learning. They don't want to think about the material during class- they don't want to think about the material at all. Informally, people have reported that the weakest students in a class tend to also favor lecture the most, probably for similar reasons. When studies have compared active vs. non-active classes and student evals, the evals stay the same or go down a little even as the students make large gains in learning.

Emargarita Quezada said...

I have never met you and we became friends through our Berkeley connection. I was a PhD student at UC Berkeley in the biochemistry department. I have learned so much from this blog. I love the ideas you post and it does not matter whether they are correct or incorrect although probably they are correct. What matters is that you write them. Thanks very much for writing. It is encouraging and great to have friends like you. Of course, teaching is about encouraging students to give the best of them. I agree too in how standardize tests are so harmful to society but I wonder if they are useful just as one measurement of understanding and knowledge. Perhaps that is how it should be looked at.

Steve said...

I agree with everything Wanda said. Here in my field of physics, "peer instruction" is getting very popular. But it is not "making learning fun" by any means! Lots of students hate it, and they complain on evaluations that they didn't learn very much ... even though every objective metric shows that they learned and retained much much more than they would have in a lecture class.

It is maybe even in the category of "desirable difficulties" (in pedagogy jargon).

Well, I think it is possible to run a peer instruction class that is actually fun for students ... but it's not easy, and it's definitely not the reason most people are doing it in physics.

Vera L. te Velde said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I do agree with your point about active learning (also addressing Anonymous above) and I could have been more clear about that - I do think "writing at the blackboard" lectures can and usually should make use of "active learning" if that includes things like asking questions of the class, pausing for a minute to have them think about/work through an example before moving on, etc. That's a way of presenting material for a particular learning style, which I only obliquely mentioned, and just making sure that students aren't just scribbling things down without thinking (I'm also, for that reason, very much in favor of putting all slides and lecture videos online, even if that decimates attendance rates). And if a lecture is doing nothing but repeating word for word what the book says, that's a bad lecture. I like the idea of requiring the relevant reading to be done *before* the lecture so that that time can be used to explain hard points more carefully and deeply, apply concepts to particular contexts, etc. I don't know how to do that in practice, so inevitably there is a lot of overlap with the book (if there is a good book that the lectures follow; often not the case after the introductory classes) but it'd be nice.

But, I definitely think there are many things that shouldn't be done just because they increase objective learning on average. Requiring lecture attendance is one. Clearly many students skip when they shouldn't, and I've seen several studies showing that attendance on its own improves outcomes, but they're adults and that's their prerogative. It's a grey area, sure - I don't go so far as to make homework optional although I understand the philosophy that has made some of my professors do so. Likewise, forcing them to work through homework problems during class would surely "engage their thinking" but I'm not going to waste time doing that. In university they *should* be motivated enough to put in that effort outside of class, and clearly many or most aren't, but those are the ones I don't want to cater to. It comes at the expense of teaching more material to the ones who are motivated.

In short I think that even "objective measures of learning" are (at a university level!) bad measures of teaching. What matters is providing the best *opportunity* to learn. I don't know how to measure that but surely we can agree it exists.

Vera L. te Velde said...

You're very sweet; I'm glad you enjoy it! I wish we'd actually met while I was at Berkeley. I agree about standardized tests by the way - useful measure but inevitably distorts incentives.

Vera L. te Velde said...

I'm glad you brought up peer instruction! That's all the rage here too (but luckily I don't have to deal with it in lecture because there's a separate session for "peer assisted" studying). I most definitely would have been one of the students that hated it with a firey passion and got nothing out of it :)

Overall I feel like that falls in the category I mentioned to Wanda above - things that certainly improve outcomes on average but that I don't want to waste time on because it takes away from providing more material at a deeper level for students who are motivated, as they should be at university, to study outside of class times. I'm probably biased to an extent by my personal loathing of that kind of activity, but at least I do think short pauses for students to chat in small groups about an example problem before moving on with the lecture is useful for the "active learning" types (even though I also hated that myself), but that's about as far as I want to go with it.

Ken Manne said...

The content of your article was in a word (Or Two) PERFECT, COMMON SENSE! Herein lies the problem you are faced with...COMMON SENSE in education implies a system of equal opportunity. The “free” world we live in today functions almost entirely under the misguided philosophy of equal “outcomes”

You’re a backwards thinker, in that you actually think independently of what you are told on TV, internet ect. Be careful the “thinker” is a lonely looked down upon way of life…follow the leader…listen to your TV...the internet…fuckbook…and all the other precious methods where we can learn to how think properly from Athletes, Actors, Politicians, and other more important people in the know… or you might find yourself an outcast.