Thursday, May 28, 2009

RBoC on Teaching

I spent several hours today over at Wannabe Flagship's engineering school today. My goal, which was fully realized before I even got in the door, was to run into some of my former students and glean what I could from them about what parts of my physics classes are most useful. The relevance to "teaching" was that one of them invited me to sit in the back of his mechanics class. Was that ever an eye opener! I'd forgotten just how bad some R1 faculty, particularly fairly new ones, can be when it comes to teaching. More on that at the bottom of this entry.


The first part of the discussion of the first chapter of "The Gender Knot" is underway. I described the origin of that discussion about a week ago. So far, I find the book quite interesting. Might even be blogworthy at some point.

  • A DL Heads Up from NISOD

An IHE story from the NISOD conference in Austin describes some current thinking about Distance Education as its role expands on campus. I say "heads up" because I know our college wants to expand in that area, and I doubt that they fully realize that there might be major additional costs (one department had to add an administrative position just to manage faculty in distance ed classes) or issues with cheating. (There I am reminded of the scandal, well known among sports fans, where a large fraction of the Florida State football team was cheating on tests for an on-line class, with the assistance of academic support staff.) By the way, if you don't know what NISOD is, clearly no one at your college is drinking the Kool-Aid. I noticed several points in this article where they referenced "quality classes". No one ever seems to worry how that adjective was assessed, or what to do about putting "non-quality classes" on line.

  • Summer Teaching

I found this article in IHE very entertaining and full of good advice for new faculty. I know lots of our young faculty teach a heavy summer load just to increase their income, but I'd hate to see them burn out. (The fraction of summer classes taught by adjuncts has plummeted as high-salaried retirees have been replaced by low-salaried new Assistant Professors. Must be the student loans.) Personally, I teach a very light load in the summer, a course that I don't normally teach. Thus, I fall in the "different teaching experience" with "more diverse and focused" students category. But there is no way that a 6 week semester is laid back! And some of my students this summer must be from Wannabe Flagship, seeing the way several missed class (and a key review topic) the day before an exam.

Some of my students need the lesson described in this article about what the author learned about learning from Lenin and Father Roderick. But I don't have to go back thirty years to find students who knew how to study. I had students like that last summer, and the summer before. This group seems slow to realize that they need to take my class seriously.

  • Right Hand - Left Hand

Consider this article about un-tenured professors in higher education (about a book that looks exclusively at elite R1 universities, and excludes grad students from its examination of adjunct faculty at those universities) and another about the emphasis on research at universities, particularly those where the research is NOT externally funded (hence does not contribute to the bottom line like it does at major R1 universities). This last category might include "regional comprehensives" that are upwardly mobile, probably not unlike the one that Dr. Crazy blogs about when it isn't summer.

One comment on that article correctly pointed out that quality research is the only way you can get tenure at an R1, which merely indicates the writer is clueless about just how much that research is subsidized by student fees because the salary that pays for research is generated by a 1/1 load. But in that case the university hopes to profit from the substantial "overhead" on the grant, and gladly pays adjuncts to pick up the teaching slack. [See the connection to the other article?] The question at hand is about schools where the research generates no money, and yet uses up valuabe faculty time that MUST subtract from teaching. You can't teach class every day AND do effective research AND invest thought in your teaching at the same level as when not doing research.

Today's Teaching Observation

First, I wasn't exaggerating about running into a student before I even got in the building. A guy who is now a senior was outside on a smoking break, and then a student from last year saw me from the lobby and came out and joined us. He was the one who told me about the mechanics class and showed me where to slip into the room.

I learned a great deal watching the train wreck that was the lesson in progress when I slipped into the back of that lecture hass. (By the way, the beauty of a large class of 50 or so in a larger room being led in traditional lecture style is that someone like me can slip into the back row and hardly be noticed despite my obviously thinning hair. The sad thing is that it would have been great fun if the lecturer had noticed and called on me! The sadder thing is that he didn't call on anyone or walk around the room to see what was going on during his "group problem solving" exercise.) You can learn a lot by seeing someone make mistakes that you made yourself the first time teaching physics as a grad student.

What was that mistake? When he decided to work the problem rather than have them work it, he jumped from place to place in the solution (a bit of free body here, a bit of a constraint there) without ever articulating the most important step: identifying what the problem is, what we need to find to answer it, and how we were going to go about finding the one key unknown BEFORE working it out. And, when working it out, work through the standard steps in standard order. I'd hate to see what their notes looked like (if they had any), since the approach was so scattershot. It literally did remind me of a grad student approach, where the answer is already obvious to the instructor and the "solution" process stays below consciousness in the instructor's head, with only random bits getting free associated into consciousness and onto the board to justify specific things that needed to be calculated.

Like I said - entertaining as all get out, but I felt bad for the students.

I also had some great interactions with former students who are now last-year seniors, and former students who are in their first junior year of engineering classes - including two that were in that class I observed. Several of them really reinforced the importance of free-body diagrams in my intro class. And I also got a chance to talk to a department chair to clarify one of those annoying "articulation" issues and, along the way, learn his views about the importance of relevant examples in the math curriculum.

All in all, I had quite a lot of fun and learned a lot this afternoon.


Jay said...

50 students would be a very small class where I'm at. I'm not surprised at the Prof giving up on a group problem, that's what homework is for. Maybe I'm used to more of a lecture "teach yourself" physics kind of atmosphere.

As for students missing class, I do wonder if there is any correlation on those that miss versus their grades on the exam. I recently had a professor criticizing my whole class (maybe 150 students) for low grades on the last quiz, and blame it on the small attendance he had had at one of the lectures that went over the subject. Yet, the whole class did horribly. It's not like those that made the class did much better. Sometimes the students who skip are those who don't actually need to attend the lecture. That's not me, but I see it a lot when students who rarely attend lecture are sitting right next to me and getting better grades than me who attends every one. Depends on each student's style I suspect.

Doctor Pion said...

My summer class is very small, so I can even note "mental absence" (texting during class) as well as physical ones. Since I take attendance (as part of the freebie contribution to help them pass this gen-ed class), I know who is there. Maybe I'll break out the score on the material I reviewed the day before the exam and see what develops.

I don't know the enrollment in that engineering class. The room seats about 100 or so and I only did a rough head count. I know they try to keep class size down in the "first year junior" class I witnessed (second semester dynamics), but it could also be smaller than normal because it was being taught in a condensed summer term.

The problem I saw was introduced as an "active learning" exercise, following a bunch of lecture I did not witness and just before a quiz that was at a break point in the multi-hour class session.

My problem with it was that it had all the hallmarks of someone doing something because he had been told that "active learning" was a good thing, but he had no idea how to actually do it. Then, when he fell back to the more familiar approach of "doing the problem", his approach was disorganized and hardly a good model for students who will be practicing engineers in about two years.