Improving instruction on campus: concrete ideas.

by Harry on September 4, 2018

A while ago I promoted this event, slightly anxious that no-one would turn up. Contrary to my fears, it was packed, and a huge success. I asked 5 students to describe and motivate a pedagogical practice that they had experienced, and that they think should be more widely shared among faculty. Inside Higher Education has run an article today containing the text of all the student contributions—which are great! Please feel free to add your own tips, ideally there, but here if you like; and do me, and the students, a favor, by sending the story to people you know! Also, think about replicating the event on your own campus (if you have one).

{ 42 comments }

1

SamChevre 09.04.18 at 1:49 pm

Two of the student suggestions were related to the teachers knowing the students, and the students knowing each other. That made me remember one of the things Dr Whitton (my freshman calculus professor) did, which worked well.

On the first day of class, he handed out syllabi, talked about them a bit, and then handed out notecards and asked us to write on them our name, our hometown, and one thing about ourselves (it’s been too long for me to remember what, but I think it was something we had done that was unusual.) Then he had each student come up to the whiteboard, write their name, and stand under it and tell the class what was on their notecard, and he took a picture.

Than he bundled the notecards and pictures together and (I’m guessing) flipped through them .

He could reliably call on all his students by name, and he remembered their names years later. And also, having seen and heard each person’s name and a tiny bit about them made it much easier to get to know fellow students.

2

Harry 09.04.18 at 2:35 pm

OK, I’m doing that tomorrow. And Thursday. (We still have boards…)

3

Matt 09.05.18 at 1:32 am

Some of the remarks there are pretty good. Like SamChevre, I think the idea of getting to know students better, and have tried to do that in my teaching, even when I’ve taught modestly large (about 30-45 student) classes recently. Unfortunately, my current place of employment makes many of the suggestions actually impossible, as we have very large classes, all classes are recorded and the recordings are put on line, and we are not allowed to require attendance or participation. Unsurprisingly, even very good attendance levels are around 20%. I still try to encourage attendance and participation! But, scheduling is done in such a way as to make it less attractive to students, and the marketing of the whole school is that it’s not necessary to go to class, as you can just listen to the recordings. (“Learn where and when you want!” is the marketing slogan.) I hope that not too many people will be surprised to hear that it’s people from the education school and the the people in charge of “teaching and learning” that push this, system, supposedly because it’s how “millennials” want to “learn”. There is more to say about the developments of Australian higher education (especially outside the super elite, but more and more there, too) but I’d rather not get depressed or into a rage right now.

4

Neville Morley 09.05.18 at 4:45 am

There’s a whole new area to be explored of how to sustain quality pedagogy in the face of counter-productive university initiatives that effectively impose one approach (lectures as content delivery) on everything else. We’ve seen a substantial drop in attendance since recording was introduced, though thankfully not (yet) to 20% levels. As yet the university isn’t actively encouraging students not to turn up, but it’s still been important to develop ways of ensuring that attending is better than not attending without making the recording completely useless for those who genuinely can’t make it to class or who really need to access the material in this form at a later date.

For example, it’s been an additional prompt to build regular non-lecture segments into lectures; the equipment is terrible at picking up comments from the rest of the room, unless you hand students a microphone, so instead I just edit out those sections of the recording (we are able to edit, which I suspect may not be true everywhere). Different sorts of small group work can make the lecture more of an event that many students don’t actually want to miss.

But it is tricky, especially as big recorded lectures are most prevalent in the early years of the programme when we’re still working on getting it into students’ heads that university is *not* about absorbing and regurgitating a mass of content.

5

oldster 09.05.18 at 11:53 am

Matt @3–

Now I am depressed myself. Your description of your teaching job, and what it tells me about higher ed in Australia, is depressing beyond words.

6

Alex Ameter 09.05.18 at 3:56 pm

I’m with Paulo Freire! Breaking down barriers of inequality in the power dynamics between “Master” and “Student” would serve to not only enhance info reception and synthesis, but also help dispel the myth of the unequal human we baked into our cultures by forcing children into rigid hierarchies from an early age. Additionally, new/old brainstorming techniques, innovative interactive learning mechanisms, and real-world experience for credit built into secondary and tertiary education programs would help close the distance between the sheltered academic elite and reality. More reality in education, please!

7

Eszter 09.05.18 at 10:10 pm

I mostly teach seminars these days and put out table tents on which students write their names. Last time, I also asked them to draw their favorite animal as well. This led to some humorous bonding given very different drawing techniques. I take the table tents at the end of class and then at the beginning of the next class, I try to place them in front of the correct matches. This doesn’t always work, but it helps me learn their names. A few weeks into the semester, I ask the class whether anyone can name everyone’s names. The idea is to highlight that the names are not just for me, but for them as well.

I really liked the suggestion of emailing the prof something during the week that relates to the class material. I’m again teaching a seminar on the social aspects of algorithms this Fall, I think it will work well for that.

8

Alan White 09.06.18 at 12:23 am

The linked piece is great, and contains very useful observations from students. Mr. Cuevas’ observation on explaining “all the details” stands behind much of my career (in philosophy) sacrificing breadth of content for depth of understanding. Knowing *about* interesting ideas is a far cry from having some appreciable *understanding* of classic controversies–and one cannot expect students to gain the latter by emphasizing exposure to a typical wide array of the former. Such plodding emphasis on detail can alienate brighter students who quickly “get it” and want to move on, but many of them can come to see that they benefit as well from just slowing down to get as many as possible to think things through (which often requires repetitive exercises of brief in-class writing; for example: in ethics I frequently asked students time and again to explain in writing emotivism as a metaethical view, because having an understanding of that is a strong indicator of their basic grasp of moral objectivism versus subjectivism).

I strongly agree that getting to know students–and getting to know their contemporary culture with small references to it here and there–is extremely important. And Childish Gambino’s moves *are* pretty amazing. But youth culture moves fast–it is hard to keep up!

Speaking of which, a small remark about the use of email to engage students. I started about ten years ago to try and engage students through email by *requiring* them to email me relevant questions about material (for 5% credit). The first few years it worked pretty well, but as social media evolved through FB into texts and Twitter and Instagram, most students didn’t even bother anymore, because they mostly abandoned that platform. (Often mass emails to my students in recent years resulted in incredulous stares when I asked whether they got them.) So that requirement went away. The email strategy might still work with seminar students like Ezster’s , but I suspect most undergrads now would balk at it.

9

ph 09.06.18 at 3:01 am

Great OP, comments and linked article. I’m struck (and not too surprised) by the low attendance rate for recorded lectures. Given the lack of microphones in classes, that pretty much precludes ‘discussion’ and interaction. But that’s not bad, if…

We understand that universities are about a variety of experiences. I’ve enjoyed learning through video lectures very much because I can (usually) watch the lectures as often as I like, which is excellent when reviewing and linking materials from different lectures over the term. Assimilation and the ability to regurgitate and understand key concepts is essential for many courses. That doesn’t mean, however, that this practice is what universities are all about.

Some teachers I know form private google groups for students and ask them to upload videos/comments/ reaction remarks about lecture topics, and then respond to these contributions.

I allow students to choose their own grades several classes – students are given the choice of two, or three types of assessment. The first allows students to receive the grade of B for demonstrating familiarity with core concepts. Students willing to demonstrate familiarity with core concepts and write an exam essay may earn an A. Higher grades can be earned by writing a much better essay linking topics to contemporary contexts and personal experiences. In smaller classes the majority choose the latter approach, and in the largest class about 50 percent simply chose to try to earn the B.

Works very well. Video introductions are also excellent to prepare students for presentations. They live online and are far more amenable to the practice than we might expect.

10

Matt 09.06.18 at 8:01 am

I’ve enjoyed learning through video lectures very much because I can (usually) watch the lectures as often as I like, which is excellent when reviewing and linking materials from different lectures over the term.

In principle, learning through video is a pretty good option. I, too, have learned a lot of things through video, including such varied topics as how to cook a number of items (My favorite is cooking with dog ), how to teach people to roll a kayak, and others. But, most of these are pretty short videos, and so it’s easy to watch and re-watch them. Additionally, I’m usually intrinsically interested in them. Unfortunately, I find that these are not common traits in learning for undergraduates or even older students. Here, the material is often tedious, usually not easily put into short clips (despite what the “teaching and learning” people at my university would like to think…), and, classes are in some ways best thought of as a disciplinary tool – not in the sense of punishment, but in the sense of making you do something you might not otherwise want to do, and so are likely to put off or skimp on. My experience is that when classes are recorded (and perhaps especially when students are told they can “learn anywhere”, as they are told where I teach now) they will think they can, say, listen to lectures while commuting, or while at the beach (something that’s actually suggested to them!) But this isn’t so. For many subjects, to learn them, most people have to concentrate hard for non-trivial amounts of time. Most people don’t have the self-discipline to do that for things they are not intrinsically interested in, and often not even if they are intrinsically interested in them. (I include myself. This is why I paid to take a live bar review class, rather than just read books, when I was studying for the bar exam – not because the material was hard, but because the live class provided a disciplinary device.) If you have a university that is focused primarily on cashing as many tuition checks as possible, however, this won’t matter, and there will be more and more focus on providing material via recordings, including, perhaps especially, when those who have made the original recordings are let go, replaced, at best, by sessionals/adjuncts for marking and some seminars/tutorials.

11

david taber 09.06.18 at 9:57 am

Harry,
I’m not a professor, but my father was. I remember him saying he always overestimated what his students knew, and underestimated the rate that the could learn. I think the student quoted first in the IHE article made the same point. (While not a professor, I have kept that in mind as I prepared presentations.)

12

ph 09.06.18 at 2:13 pm

@10 Hi Matt, great comment. Agreed on all points. The video lecture is a performance and its probably best if the lecturer wants the lectures recorded and has a proven track record of keeping students engaged. I assume you have chat forums of some sort to enable students to share and question. One on one meetings are essential imo simply because we get a chance to interact and connect with the resident expert. I also agree that too few professors are ready to ‘perform’ and the ad hoc/contingent approach some seem to favor is unlikely to satisfy student needs. A combination of residency (direct access to libraries and profs) and video lectures works well. You’re right about motivation, but I’m sure you’ll agree that’s more a problem of student engagement and effort, than media. Finally, many universities feel compelled to cash as many tuition checks as possible. Why?

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/30/hbs-prof-says-half-of-us-colleges-will-be-bankrupt-in-10-to-15-years.html?__source=sharebar|facebook&par=sharebar

13

Susanc 09.06.18 at 3:54 pm

@3. If you’r e recording the event and you’re planning on there being audience participation, then you absolutely do need a suitable av setup: either have a fixed audience mic that the audience queue up to speak at, or have an assistant run round with a radio mic to the next petson who wants to speak, or get the whole room properly miced so you can hear the audience on the recording.

I often make a multitrack recording and remix it afterwards: two room mics for the audience (stereo makes it easier to pic out the person who is speaking from tbe noise) plus a radio mic for the lecturer. This gives me a 3 track recording i can remix in cubase (or whatever).

14

djr 09.06.18 at 5:18 pm

In the comments below the article at IHE there’s a reference to “Many books on the science of teaching & learning.” I’m very curious (in a non-sarcastic way) to know what some of these are. My understanding was that there is very little in the way of the science of teaching and learning. For instance, not long ago there was a lot of talk about the advantages of flipping the classroom, which seemed to be based on the fact that a physics professor at Stanford got better results when he replaced pure lecture to a large class with other techniques. This is evidence-based, but the idea that what works for a class of hundreds at Stanford in physics will also work just as well for a class of 15 in English at a less prestigious school seems far from scientific. And the last I read about this was an article (OK, a headline) saying that flipping doesn’t work after all. This is the kind of thing that makes me (and I would bet others too) skeptical about allegedly scientific findings about what works best. But if there really is genuine science out there I would very much like to know what it says.

15

engels 09.06.18 at 6:08 pm

“People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures:– You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!”—Samuel Johnson

I can count the number of lectures I attended during half a decade at university on the fingers of one hand. Not recommending this and do regret it a bit with hindsight but I don’t think I suffered academically because of it.

16

engels 09.06.18 at 6:55 pm

(I have listened to a lot of recorded lectures since I left university and I’ve enjoyed them a lot but I don’t think I’ve ever got anything from them I couldn’t have got more quickly from books.)

17

engels 09.06.18 at 7:15 pm

Not strictly a teaching suggestion but since I haven’t mentioned it for about a decade: all universities should be obliged to allow anyone to take their exams without attending any classes or paying any tuition and aware them a degree if they pass (would concentrate the minds of some of our most illustrious teaching institutions wonderfully).

18

M Caswell 09.06.18 at 11:05 pm

“allow anyone to take their exams without attending any classes or paying any tuition and award them a degree if they pass (would concentrate the minds of some of our most illustrious teaching institutions wonderfully)”

This seems perfectly sensible, and would be entirely consistent with my business model, since I don’t give exams at all.

19

faustusnotes 09.07.18 at 1:46 am

Engels, I have to disagree with you on this. My undergraduate (kind of) course on Advanced Quantum Mechanics was a deeply insightful class that I don’t think I could have got from books. Also my postgraduate classes on stochastic inference, research design and time series analysis. I think the key that makes lectures different from textbooks is the questions. Typically you’re sitting there thinking that the thing you don’t understand is too trivial to ask about, and then someone braver than you (often a mature-age student!) asks the question, and the lecturer realizing that there is something they missed goes back to explain it in more detail, or from a different angle.

Also in a good lecture the lecturer tailors their class, updates the content and uses their own experience to teach things that are relevant to the topic. You often don’t get that from books, especially in stats or physics where the classics can be quite out of date.

I teach statistics to non-statisticians, and often to people with a medical background whose memory of high school maths is poor. One of the key things I have noticed is that fear of maths is more dangerous than inability at maths. I take 5-10 minutes out of one of my classes – usually 4-6 classes in when the frustration is showing – to give a story from my own educational background, with pictures, and to tell the students a few home truths about working with maths: a) not being able to do it doesn’t mean you’re stupid; b) it’s always a struggle no matter how experienced you get; c) everyone is pretending to get it but that doesn’t mean they are; and d) whatever question you have in your head, that you think is too dumb to ask, someone else also has that question, and you aren’t too dumb. I find that it really helps them to begin asking the questions they need to ask, and challenging the work rather than just sitting there feeling that they are receiving knowledge they don’t really get from up on high. I really wish someone had given me that talk in first year, when I was still too scared to ask questions, and missed some basic things as a result.

(I teach graduates, I don’t know how applicable this strategy is to a huge undergraduate course, because asking questions is much less acceptable, I guess).

20

floopmeister 09.07.18 at 3:08 am

There is more to say about the developments of Australian higher education (especially outside the super elite, but more and more there, too) but I’d rather not get depressed or into a rage right now.

I hear you (both).

I won’t tell you any stories about teaching at my Australian university* as banging my forehead on the keyboard whilst in the workplace does not look professional.

*It’s called a university but is rapidly becoming a glorified TAFE** with architecturally striking buildings and sessional teaching staff who perpetually fantasise about striking…

** TAFE is a peculiarly Australian term – Technical and Further Education
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_and_further_education#TAFE_union_sites

21

engels 09.07.18 at 12:35 pm

Ok, I’ll concede they might have had some benefits but still don’t think they would have justified spending that much of my life cooped up in a windowless hall with hyper-competitive, socially-challenged public schoolboys at 9am every morning.

22

oldster 09.07.18 at 12:53 pm

Samuel Johnson was a prodigy. He was a prodigious reader. He read through whole libraries if they were opened to him. And he had a prodigious memory: he retained whatever he read, entertaining his friends by reciting from memory odd extracts of obscure books.

Anyone with that cognitive architecture may well say, “I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken.”

But other people have different abilities. I, for one, have always found it nearly impossible to extract knowledge from books or articles, and I learn more from a lecture than I could from spending the same amount of time with print.

I took several years of calculus as a youth, during which I did all of my learning in the classroom, while the teacher worked through proofs on the board. Outside the class, I was incapable of driving myself through a problem set. I had classmates who disdained class attendance, and privately worked the problems in the book. Our test scores were roughly equal in the end.

People for whom lectures are not the best means of instruction will always proclaim the death of lectures, as though they had revealed the truth. But they are revealing no more than their own proclivities and abilities.

Admirable proclivities, and enviable abilities! I wish that I could have been another Johnson. But most of us are not great readers. And many of us learn better by listening.

23

anon/portly 09.07.18 at 6:17 pm

From the first one:

When professors skip over steps of a problem and only focus on those they feel are the most crucial or important, it puts the burden on students to connect the dots in their heads, while still trying to pay attention to the stream of information in the lecture.

Few steps in a solution are obvious to students who have never encountered a similar problem before. Even if some steps are easy to figure out upon reflection, students lack the bandwidth to reflect while also taking notes and ingesting the lecture. Skipping steps risks students leaving the classroom with little understanding and having to put the scattered pieces together on their own.

By covering solutions in their entirety, professors allow their students to focus on absorbing the complex new information in front of them. That frees students to ask questions and leaves them with complete examples in their notes, which can be crucial when they are trying to solve similar problems in their homework or when studying for exams.

I agree with this, but think there are two further points that can be made. One is that one of the most important things is not only choosing good material, but choosing the right amount of material to cover. Instructors who are trying to cover too much material tend to skip steps, or skip providing enough background and context and examples and so on.

Another is that electronic copiers exist and I think most if not all colleges have them – why not provide the students with notes? Students appreciate this very much, in my experience. When teaching something that has math in it, it can work well to go through an example where the students have all the steps and explanatory material at hand, then do another one where they don’t.

24

anon/portly 09.07.18 at 6:41 pm

From the fourth one:

Students introducing and saying a little bit about themselves (like majors and hometowns) really changes the dynamic. Knowing a classmate’s name instantly creates a more inviting environment and is the first step in developing a relationship. In those classes, I notice that instead of sitting silently staring at screens, students actually talk to one another before class starts. They talk during class: students are more willing to offer comments, ask questions and disagree with one another. And they talk to each other outside of class, often about the material — which means there is more outside learning.

The right furniture can help also. Instead of having the students sitting in rows of chairs, if they are sitting around tables, and then have to work on problems together, some or all of the phenomena described above tends to happen naturally, without the instructor having to facilitate things.

Of course not every classroom has the optimal furniture….

Another possibly related point is that you might not always have 18-21 year old students with lots of free time, you might have 25-50 year old students with full time jobs and kids, who may or may not appreciate an instructor using a lot of classroom time for socialization purposes or at least for non-pedagogical ones.

25

Rob Chametzky 09.07.18 at 9:22 pm

djr@ 14: ” . . . ‘Many books on the science of teaching & learning.’ I’m very curious (in a non-sarcastic way) to know what some of these are. . . .”

Here’s a relatively recent one:

http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674729018

Older, but available as a free PDF download is:

https://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853/how-people-learn-brain-mind-experience-and-school-expanded-edition

Somewhat more recent, also free PDF, is one on “how students learn” three subjects:

https://www.nap.edu/catalog/10126/how-students-learn-history-mathematics-and-science-in-the-classroom

I should note that these are focused on pre higher ed learning/teaching.

–RC

26

Mark Engleson 09.07.18 at 9:32 pm

Before I transferred to Oberlin, I spent a year at Michigan, and I hated that even 400-level classes, at least in PoliSci, were still conducted as lectures. I actually preferred the one that a corresponding discussion section. I was a pretty nose to the grindstone, but the lecture for my Intro to Pol Theory – I won’t name names – was unbearable, and I couldn’t force myself to go. This had no impact on my ability to produce test answers that were used as model responses.

27

Harry 09.08.18 at 11:27 am

AN admirable student, who has completed her PS major took my large lecture course last semester. She subsequently asked if she could take a course from me this semester. Unusually, the options are small (20 person) classes, so I compared them, and said that 304 would have more discussion than 555. “You mean, 555 will by like this [large lecture] class?”. “No, of course, there’ll be far more discussion than in this class, this one is a large lecture class”. “Oh, it has much more discussion than in any class I’ve taken”. “Oh, so they don’t have small 20 person classes in PS?”. “Yes, they do. I’m in 2 now, But the professor talks all 75 minutes in both of them, and we’re supposed to read 2 books a week, but he tells us everything we need to know for the tests, and none of us can read 2 books a week, so we don’t read anything, because we’re not held accountable for it”.

28

djr 09.08.18 at 1:18 pm

RC @25: Thanks very much!

29

engels 09.09.18 at 1:21 am

People for whom lectures are not the best means of instruction will always proclaim the death of lectures, as though they had revealed the truth.

I’m not proclaiming a revealed truth—different folks, different strokes—but on the face of it it’s always seemed to me an odd way of imparting large volumes of information in the age of the printing press, let alone the kindle.

30

Gareth Wilson 09.09.18 at 9:36 am

The latest season of The Flash TV show is essentially about a humanities professor trying to improve student engagement. I can’t say I recommend his approach.

31

bianca steele 09.09.18 at 5:23 pm

@29

And yet enormous numbers of people prefer YouTube videos where someone talks at them to reading.

32

engels 09.09.18 at 10:30 pm

@31

According to the YouTube app I’m looking at now 4 million people watched a video about what happens if you eat nothing but avocados for a month.

33

floopmeister 09.10.18 at 1:27 am

,,,a video about what happens if you eat nothing but avocados for a month…

Well, in Australia you end up locked out of the housing market:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/15/australian-millionaire-millennials-avocado-toast-house

34

faustusnotes 09.10.18 at 1:36 am

So what happens, engels?

Regarding showing the details, I think this is super important in maths, because there are lots of tricks and ways of thinking about proofs and mathematical solutions that you don’t get from textbooks unless you’re really good at reading between the lines or the textbooks are really good. An engaging professor who knows what students miss, and takes the time to explain the thought processes of mathematics, really helps in this. As a simple example, the idea of adding and subtracting 1 from an equation, but then converting one of those 1s into sin2x+cos2x so you have a means of introducing these identities into your solution, is the kind of thing that most people don’t think of doing until they have been shown it. Experienced professors who remember what they didn’t know are able to make these points. They can also help untangle examples from the textbook when those examples aren’t clear, or conflate different problems, which I find often happens.

35

Collin Street 09.10.18 at 8:55 am

I’m not proclaiming a revealed truth—different folks, different strokes—but on the face of it it’s always seemed to me an odd way of imparting large volumes of information in the age of the printing press, let alone the kindle.

Most people simply can’t read all that fast. I did some digging; I got numbers around “twice as fast as people can speak” for average, and I did a reading speed test and got three times that. You’re probably about the same.

The value proposition of “takes twice as long, but you get verbal inflections” is radically different to “takes six times as long and you get verbal inflections”. And “twice as fast” is average; for a significant fraction of perfectly-literate people you’re looking at even slower, maybe one-and-a-half times or parity.

[probably most of the growth of recorded-audio instruction and entertainment reflects previously-underserved markets rather than replacing text consumption, which leaves me with grim self-reflection on exactly how much we all built a world around assuming our written-language skills were typical…]

36

engels 09.10.18 at 9:33 am

So what happens, engels?

I don’t know, it’s changed to ‘Funny Drunk People’ and ‘World’s Tallest Dog vs World’s Smallest Dog’ (3 million views each).

37

Harry 09.10.18 at 12:01 pm

I didn’t take engels to be saying that professors should never talk to or explain things to students. The model here, widely observed, is that a professor who is expert in his/her field talks for either 50 or 75 minutes to 100, 200, whatever students. So often I hear from students “I seem not to learn well in 300 person classes”, usually taking that to be a fault of their own. But…. we’re not talking about popular youtube videos/Ted talks here (the training for giving a 20 minute Ted talk is intensive). We’re talking about people who, although they have done it a lot, are not actually expert speakers. Many are boring. And even if they weren’t, students find it hard to concentrate for 50 to 75 minutes without a break. So do I. So do you. Not because we’re stupid but because we’re normal.

So, of course, I lecture when I have 100 students in a class. But I don’t talk for more than 20 minutes at a time, and break the lecture up with frequent activities in which *they* are expected to do the intellectual work, of absorbing, or thinking critically together, about what has been said (and challenging it). Even if I have 20 students I will sometimes give a 10-15 minute exposition of an idea. In fact, the next three weeks, in one class, I’ll talk considerably more than that, and that’s fine. But, if you’re taking up nearly all the classroom talk time, and doing it session after session for 15 weeks, something is going wrong.

Unless… you are brilliant at it, and have trained your TAs to make discussion sessions intellectually fruitful. Two students have recently told me that I am one of their best two teachers. In the classes they’ve taken with me I probably speak 20% of the time (but carefully prepare for and structure all the talk the students do — and ensure that each of them speaks every session). And they know nothing of my views about the topics we discuss. Their other best teacher is a very theatrical, energetic, forceful, engaging economist, who speaks all the time in large lectures, and discloses his views on everything. I know him and I believe them that he’s a great lecturer. But… I’m not, and most professors aren’t.

38

Marc 09.10.18 at 12:37 pm

I do devote a good fraction of my lectures (in the physical sciences) to small group in class discussion. Since the classes are large and aimed at non-science majors, however, a mostly discussion based approach is very difficult to do well. In majors classes I am more lecture heavy, focusing on physical insight – but still with some discussion. I think a lot about teaching and try to choose methods that are effective. Giving students readings to prepare doesn’t help when they’ve never run across the concept of something like blackbody radiation or the greenhouse effect.

The academy is broad, and not all subjects are the same. For many topics you need to give students a lot of background to enable an intelligent discussion. Just because “all discussion, all of the time” works for some humanities class does not automatically transfer everywhere. And just because professors are the sort of people who did the readings and problem sets in their university classes doesn’t mean that all students do.

39

Faustusnotes 09.10.18 at 2:20 pm

I probably shouldn’t take issue with Engels position too strongly since I never use YouTube for political information if I could read it instead, which I somehow find vastly more informative in general.

Harry do you think the same consideration applies to maths and physics? The sheer volume of information being imparted precluded stopping for activities and I never experienced such a thing in four years of physics. In stats typically “activities “are handled in a separate class (which is also jam packed). So does your model work for maths and physics (and is having students stop to do a proof productive?)

40

Rob Chametzky 09.10.18 at 5:26 pm

Faustusnotes@39 “Harry do you think the same consideration applies to maths and physics?”

Dunno what Harry thinks, but some other people have been thinking about how to better teach math and physics specifically.

http://pi.math.cornell.edu/~GoodQuestions/materials.html

(Fullish disclosure: Maria Terrell was/is a colleague/friend–nonetheless, she knows
whereof she teach.)

https://www.colorado.edu/per/

–RC

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Harry 09.10.18 at 7:54 pm

I agree with Marc that many students don’t do the readings. But… part of our job is to induce students to read (I think), and how we teach has an effect on that. I try to hold them accountable through making them write frequently about the readings, and know that they’ll discuss them in class. And assign the right kinds of reading. And, of course, fill in all sorts of stuff with, yes, lecture (just telling them stuff — but telling them in amounts that are digestible and on which they can concentrate). Of course, different disciplines, and different fields within disciplines, and different students within fields withing disciplines require different approaches.

Faustusotes — a friend was just asking me, yesterday, why I don’t often make comments about other disciplines and…. well, its best to talk about what you know about. But — how were professors monitoring how much of the information was actually being internalized? Packing in lots of information is pointless if its not going in, or producing understanding. And… in the US, the vast majority of teaching in nearly every department is to non-majors, and a great deal is for general education purposes. Does the pedagogy reflect what you have reason to want the students to learn and be able to do? I think it often doesn’t, and that 50 minute/75 minute lectures with the professor talking straight through are rarely the best way to do it. I am completely confident about that in the humanities and social sciences and math, less so in the natural sciences (but, remember I’m talking about non-majors here — and many departments would be half the size they are without non-major teaching).

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Matt 09.10.18 at 10:12 pm

I try to hold them accountable through making them write frequently about the readings, and know that they’ll discuss them in class.

Unfortunately, at some universities this is both difficult (because of very large nominal class size joined with actual very poor attendance both encouraged and abetted by class recordings) and ruled out by administrative fiat. (Of course, the “teaching and learning” people are behind this as much as the tuition counters.)

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