Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Almost done

Posted by Arjendu on April 30, 2008

My intro class (the half I teach) has its last class meeting today, and I’ve stuck to my guns on the non-lecturing thing. There has been strong resistance from some students, though some have loved it, and on average I would say there’s about the same level of happiness/lack thereof as I would expect from this class as if I’d lectured.

Will I do this again? Absolutely. I still think we all spent our time more efficiently, that is, learned more, and taught more. What would I do different? At the moment, the following spring to mind, in some random order:

(i) As I did during the last couple of weeks, I would absolutely ensure that some subset of the class is required to send questions. It changed their sense of engagement palpably when I did that.

(ii) Students need narrative to make sense of ideas. It’s something I enjoy providing, but for some reason I lost track of this issue during the second week. By ‘narrative’ I mean a background story, a sense of the larger context for technical ideas, all that.

(iii) Remind them periodically why I am doing things this way. More steadily and pre-complaints :-).

(iv) More examples from biology/bio-physics early in the course, for motivation, if nothing else.

(v) Introduce the spring force immediately after gravity. It’s not ‘constant’. It allows one to talk about internal degrees of freedom, as well as about the Normal force (model surfaces as very stiff springs) which would enable one to stop hemming and hawing when hit with the questions ‘does the normal force do work? If not, how do things come to a halt when they hit the ground? Or how can you jump off the ground?’.

(vi) Other issues? Something I didn’t mention earlier is that, unrelated to my decision to try something new in this class, I had been shanghaied into asked to volunteer for a pilot project on the Carleton campus to film some of our classes, and two of my classes are on film at the moment. At some point later this term I will sit down and record an interview/rumination about my teaching technique as a voice-over for these films, which would force/allow me to watch the classes and re-consider my ideas. And I’m spending a week this summer writing all this up for my colleagues during which time I will probably flesh out some of the points above and discover new ones.

(vii) One last point, in response to Chad’s comments. I agree with the issue of temperament, and all that. But there is no way that lecturing allows you to cover more material — not lecturing is significantly faster in this regard. The only way I cover more material when lecturing is to speak faster (and believe me, as a New Delhi-bred English speaker, I can speak very very fast — Texas didn’t slow me down that much). But when not lecturing, I am able to pick and choose what I do in class versus what I expect students to read and understand on their own. Moving to the trimester/term system in Carleton has reinforced this particular perspective even more strongly for me. In these last five weeks, we have ‘covered’ some or most of 11 chapters in our textbook. Mastery? That’s a whole different question :-).

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5 Responses to “Almost done”

  1. agm said

    I’m curious. What incentive did you set up for your students to actually crack open their textbook? Mine are community college students, and it seems that my students generally are not of same caliber as Rice’s or Carleton’s or are surmounting challenges that could easily crush (or merely reduce to the same level of performance) students at the elite schools. Feeding your family, water heater blowing up, being rear-ended on the way to school after a 12-hour shift (a small selection of the more drastic things that happened this semester). They just wouldn’t read the book much.

  2. arjendu said

    Ah. 10 points of their total score is reserved for ‘interactivity and engagement’, which includes my grade on the quality of their questions. Makes them sit up and take notice after a while. But I am lucky with the students I have — studying is the only thing they are supposed to do.

  3. arjendu said

    Further note to self. Here’s what Robert Reich had to say recently about ‘learning’ vs ‘learning to learn’:

    “Q: As an educator, what skills/courses do you recommend to your students to ensure their job security? What if you’re too old to be an auto mechanic, but loathe the thought of getting an M.B.A.?

    A: I tell my students there’s no job security in the economy they’re entering, but if they want employability security — a good chance of maintaining a fairly good paycheck — they need to master a domain of knowledge during their undergraduate years adequately enough to enable them to continue to learn on and off the job from then onward. The old domain will become obsolete, but their learning skills won’t. ”

    And that’s part of what I am reinforcing with my particular take on the way I run classes.

  4. […] today … an article that caught my eye, and which I almost put in the comments section to my previous post on lessons learned/things to remember for my write-up on my attempt to re-vamp intro […]

  5. […] I also blogged about it then, and that’s proving useful notes for me this time: Spring Break and new experiences So far so good Stable and unstable lectures Refusing to throw stones and Almost done. […]

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