Day: May 23, 2015

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 2

I have issues with some of the advanced teaching strategies as I see them implemented in my department. (Flipped classroom, I am looking at you, and all other eggcellent paradigms.)

My main complaint is that the responsibility to sit down and understand the material and work until proficiency is achieved is being taken away from students and moved entirely to instructors. Instead of the students taking ownership for their own learning, we the instructors are supposed to devise lectures to be tutoring sessions (the flipped classroom model), so the students don’t have to think about the material alone at home… But working alone is the only way you really learn! Instead, we hold their hands while they work through problem sets, smoothing out the kinks as they go along, misleading the students into believing that the road to problem solving is easier than it really is. I have seen some pathetic products of flipped classroom instruction, as the students come to my class with an A in a prerequisite that was taught in a flipped format, and they can’t tell their a$$ from their face (because the class is all about a$$ vs face recognition, of course); they don’t understand anything, and they certainly can’t do any relevant problems that they hadn’t specifically seen before. We try to remove the natural and necessary discomfort that comes from learning, being challenged, being required to stretch beyond where we are. And this incessant insistence on everything being with other people, like flipped classrooms and group projects, is an introvert’s nightmare. Can’t we let people think in peace?

This is completely opposite to my own teaching philosophy. I, as the instructor, need to be there to help when help is needed, but the student has to think and grapple with the material alone FIRST; this is absolutely key. Ideally, this is the sequence: come to class, read the book (or the other way around); start on the homework early and on your own, do as much as you can on your own; then ask friend/come to discussion/come to office hours AFTER you have thought about the problems on your own really hard, because by then you will be sensitized to what you are missing and what you don’t know, and therefore much better at remembering explanations and clarifications. Instead, I see many students work in packs, with a pack leader who’s a strong student and the rest contributing little, but still feeling very good about their command of the material; studying in packs works well for their grades, as long as homework and projects carry a lot of weight. But in the setting such as the one I have for a core undergraduate course, it is all exam heavy and it shows how much each individual student knows, and the students can get surprised by how little that is. Yet, this class is important and I need them ALL to not only sort-of understand the material, but to actually know the material really well and to be able to calculate things.

{A related aspect that peeves me is students complaining that we somehow need to test their understanding only. I say that we test both understanding and proficiency. No, you don’t get to be just a concept thinker until you have demonstrated that you can actually do some basic problems, start to finish. [You should see the grumbling because I expect everyone to be able to, at all times, calculate the horribly complicated integrals of x^a (a\neq -1), sin x, cos x, 1/x, exp(a*x)].}

Another aspect that I am very tired of is students constantly asking that we only teach them the practical stuff that will get them a job and none of the useless abstract crap, presumably because at the tender age of 19 or 20 they know exactly what it is that they will or won’t ever use. Employers want what they want, and most don’t want to pay for it; they want a new graduate to come trained in all the minutiae that the employer (any employer!) could possibly want. The employers have no qualms about wanting the universities to act as trade schools, but they are not and they shouldn’t be.

Sure, we should provide training in the latest and greatest tools and techniques, because I agree that our students should be employable upon graduation. However, what peeves me is how joyously these kids rush towards becoming corporate cogs today, without stopping to think what will keep them employed 20-30 years from now. Why? Because the jobs that exist today didn’t exist 30 years ago. The only way you remain competitive for jobs over the long term is if you have a good, solid base in many basic sciences (for the physical sciences, that’s first and foremost math, then physics, chemistry, computer science, statistics…) as well as in writing and speaking. The stronger and wider your base, the better able you will be to change careers if needed.

I do my part, but I wish we collectively a did better job of communicating to our students that our job as educators is not to just ensure they get their first job out of college, but to give them the knowledge base and the self-study skills that will keep them nimble, growing, learning, and ultimately employable throughout their lives.

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 1

The spring semester is over! After months of heavy teaching and service, with a large helping of grant writing, I am now happily heading into 3.5 months of summer, which means a) frantically writing up and sending off several papers for publication, which had been sitting on my desk for longer than I care to admit; b) spending as much time as needed with some stuck graduate students, so they’d get unstuck and be able to move on with their projects; c) several complicated trips to conferences (no, it’s actually not glamorous or exciting), each with a jam-packed schedule of giving 2-3 talks at different meetings over the course of a week in order to maximize exposure per travel dollar.

This past spring, taught a large undergraduate class (of order 1 hecto-student) that is required for two majors; the people in one major appreciate it more than those in the other (who often consider it to be a cruel and unusual punishment). I hadn’t taught the course before, as the faculty who do research in a different area usually teach it, but I am perfectly competent to teach it and I found it fun and enjoyable for the most part. However, I had essentially no TA support, so I taught both the lecture and the discussion, and I graded all the exams myself, not to mention created all the course materials (including extensive solutions to weekly homework assignments).

This semester I also did an experiment. Since this is a core course, it is important to make sure everyone who passes it actually has not just sort-of an understanding of the material, but actual working knowledge that they would take into follow-on courses. I decided to teach and grade how I felt this course should be taught and graded, in order to actually teach them the material so that the vast majority of them are actually competent at the end.

This (bean-devouring leprechaun) means that many of the students, perhaps for the first time since starting college, got exposed the fact that they may not be quite as awesome as they always thought they were. People do not like being faced with this realization (which is, in fact, an inherent part of growing up).

If anyone thinks there is no grade inflation in K-12, I invite them to teach any large enrollment required course at a reasonably-to-highly selective institution. The GPAs required for enrollment are getting higher and higher (as are the GPAs required for the majors related to this particular course). Therefore, based on the GPA alone these are all spectacular students, smart and with great study habits. In reality, while I do believe that most of them are smart enough, many have exaggerated views of their abilities, and the vast majority are inadequately prepared in math (like algebra or pre-calculus) and actually have atrocious study habits, because high school was too easy. They were coddled and never properly challenged pre-college. Now, when faced with a really challenging class, they are bewildered, and in some cases (especially when a woman with a funny accent they can’t quite place shells out the challenge) they can become downright hostile. There was a kid this semester who spent the whole semester in seething rage, looking at me with flaming-hot hatred from somewhere in the back of the classroom; one really starts to worry about the ease with which people get access to guns.

No, people don’t like it when you show them that they are perhaps not as awesome as they always thought they were.

While all the exams had averages 70-80% and I had a nice distribution of grades, many felt the exams were too hard. Why? Because they all expect to get 90+% (being that they all had high grades in high school) and it’s my fault that the tests are not tailored to their individual level of preparation, rather than assuming responsibility for their own performance and pushing themselves to meet the requirements. The tests are designed precisely as they should be, and the fact that the students are not getting the grades they envision (because they all envision A’s without much sweat) means they do not actually have the understanding and proficiency that is required for that score, and they need to work more and come to office hours and discussion.

After the first test, many did get a wake-up call and started studying much more methodically, starting early on their assignments on their own, and attending office hours and discussions. They quickly realized that it’s certainly not impossible to get a good grade in my class, but you have to study and be smart about it. I am very proud of them and have told them as much; the material was hard, but they rose to the challenge.

The evaluations are back (a few years ago we went electronic) and while they are still plenty high (well above the department average and well above 4/5), there are a handful of kids who hate my guts. People say it can’t be avoided, bu it always bothers me a lot.

You know, when most kids say you are in the top 20% or next 20% of all teachers they’ve ever had, and one kid says you are in the bottom 20%.
Or when most kids “agree” or “strongly agree” that you are well prepared for class or that you are knowledgeable about the material, and then one kid “strongly disagrees”.
I wonder what the heck is wrong with these young haters. Do they grow up to expect the world to accommodate them and their preferences, and therefore spend the whole life disgruntled when that doesn’t happen?

I know I am supposed to focus on all the students whom I helped (there were many very good evaluations, and people saying they were inspired, and some wanting to specialize in this field, and students recognizing I cared about their success). However, as bad is apparently always stronger than good, what stays in my mind, at least short term, are the bad and especially nasty comments. If the student’s goal is to spoil my day, they are successful.

Why do I read the evaluations anyway? It’s not like I don’t have tenure, and plenty of faculty stop reading them sooner or later. I read them because I like reading the positive comments, I like to read the thoughtful and useful specific remarks about something that may be done differently; however, I so dislike reading the negative comments or seeing even an outlier negative vote, that perhaps I really should not read them at all.

More than anything, reading negative evaluations makes me wish I hadn’t spent quite as much time and effort on this course, trying to be available to as many and as often as I could. Many of my colleagues avoid teaching large-enrollment courses, have the bare minimum of exams (1 midterm, which I really think is not enough for undergrads), hold very few office hours, and generally attempt to get by with minimal effort. Instead, they focus their time and energy on research. And I feel stupid for basically sacrificing much of my semester to this very demanding class and then have some nastiness come out in the evaluations. Why the hell do I bother, I think?

I wish there were a way to extract how much of the negative is something I cannot fix — they dislike the fact that I am a woman and/or a foreigner, or whatever it is that I have that irritates some people as soon as I start speaking (being uppity for a woman/foreigner, perhaps). Although I am not sure that would make me feel better anyway.

But if this comment at nicoleandmaggie’s is any indication, my guess is that they mostly they don’t like being faced with their own inability to follow the class, their own poor preparation, and tough requirements, and they take it out on me.

Still. Knowing where the negativity comes from makes the evaluations no less infuriating in the short term, no matter how glowing the positive ones are.
(It probably doesn’t help that academic research, the other major part of my job, comes with a constant stream of criticism and rejection.)

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about teaching evaluations?