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the trend in teaching

Posted: Tue Dec 04, 2007 10:52 am
by aruffo
Now that I'm back in an actual academic environment-- as opposed to a theater school-- I am encountering traditional "education" as a matter of course.

It's bizarre that the instructors can't see the ineffectiveness of the approach. I don't say their approach because I'm sure they're just following the norm, and it is the norm to which I object.

I saw this first in the course for which I'm assisting. Because the "knowledge" is presented as information, without any relevant schema, as the course wears on the students become more and more lost. The new pieces of information seem to rely on comprehension-- not just memorization-- of the previous material, but with a bottom-up, results-oriented presentation comprehension is improbable. So as more bits of information are added, memory is totally overloaded, and students give up. The number of blank short-answer responses on the last test tells that tale.

The same thing is now happening in the statistics course I'm taking. I hear scattered grumblings and panicked murmurs all for what appears to be the same reason: everyone has dutifully followed along with the information, but it has been beyond difficult to figure out how to conceive the material.

The problem is the same in both cases, and in every case, and it's exactly what I've said before in theory. Students are given the results of the thought process, not induced to experience the process; they are shown what they would have understood if they had had a need to learn, rather than given the need to learn so that they could discover what they want to understand.

Posted: Wed Dec 05, 2007 9:54 am
by paul-donnelly
Hah, stats. I'm taking it myself. My class seems to be filled with very bright students, because everyone seems to be grasping it well.

But yes, I know what you mean about following the information but not understanding the big picture. I'm not sure that professors could cover all the material they want or need to cover if they spent too much time making sure that their students obtained mastery of the concepts though. They could take the time to work through the derivations of formulas on the board (and indeed, the best math lecturer I've had did just that), but it's a lot easier to follow on the board than to do it on your own. In the end it all comes down to practice, of course. But how much practice does a person have time for when they're trying to cover 40 subjects in 4 years (based on a 120-hour degree requirement and 3-hour courses)? Having taught courses yourself, I'm sure you have a better understanding of the teacher's position than I.

As far as I can tell, a person will learn more about a topic, in many cases, from a semester's-worth of self-study than from a one-semester class, given appropriate study materials (some things such as acting and music being the exception, unless that person knows what to shoot for and is incredibly gifted at self-evaluation).

When I look at my fellow students, the only ones who have any skill at all are those who have spent hours and hours on the subject outside of class. In my Audio courses, there are students who blow me out of the water when it comes to studio work. I'm pretty darn good with equalizers and microphones myself. But none of this was learned in class. Computer Science students who don't spend much of their day studying computing history and theory are the most clueless bunch you could imagine. I haven't even taken computer courses in college, and I know more about the field than all the CS major's I've spoken with. Private practice all the way.

Whta it boils down to, to me, is that time is too short to give students a good grasp on the material when classes are only meeting a few hours a week. Homework can be a good way to give students extra practice, but it can just as easily (most often, in my experience) be an impediment to progress in the field the student is actually trying to enter. Heck, I'm switching from Audio to CS in a bid to minimize the degree to which classwork impedes my learning.

With four years to work with, given that the goal is to produce young people who have both competence in some area and some exposure to disciplines, maybe it's only reasonable to expect that college just throws stuff at you, trusting that some of it will stick, so that when you meet it later in life you can recognize it as something you've seen before.

EDIT: tl;dr — My experience leads me to the conclusion that you can have two of quick, good, or broad. We're sacrificing quality in favor of a four-year program and lots of introductory courses. That's maybe the wrong decision. I probably would have sacrificed breadth in favor of a very hands-on program for each major, coupled with maybe only one exploratory course per semester from math, philosophy, the arts, and so on.

Posted: Thu Dec 06, 2007 1:04 pm
by aruffo
This particular exam has come and gone. If I did poorly it's because there were subtle tricks introduced deliberately for the purpose of being tricks; if I did well it's because I understand how to take tests, not because I understand how to use the material.

By that latter, I mean that my colleagues seemed to have made a sincere effort to really understand everything they possibly could-- poring over the textbooks and the notes with highlighter at the ready-- despite knowing, as one other student put it, that "it all comes down to what's on the test, anyway."

In the former, I don't have the impression that the instructor thinks so much of himself that he's trying to fool us, but I can easily imagine that some instructor would try to invent questions and problems which could only be answered correctly "if you knew the material." This, of course, is nonsense, because all you really learn in that case is how to become even more confused by being forced to second-guess what the instructor has already told you.