Saturday, January 22, 2011

Forcing the horse to drink

You can lead a horse to water ... but you can't make hir drink.

Did you know I was talking about "Academically Adrift"? (IHE articles here and here point to the main story lines.) That's right, I'm talking about the folks who don't realize that you can send a kid to school ... but you can't make hir learn.

I've commented about this book twice, and was ready to comment again when I decided it was time to put those comments here in my blog.

Just for background, it first came to my attention in a January 18 comment on Dean Dad's blog that pointed to a column by someone from “The Hechinger Report” in the Sacramento Bee. That led to the following observation:

That article about Critical Thinking was interesting until we got to the inevitable “decline of civilization” comments from various experts. How can you compare the results of an Unprecedented One-of-the-First Study with guesses about college life 30 or 50 years ago? You can’t. I’m pretty sure we spent 50% of our time socializing in the dorms back in the good old days.

I’m impressed that almost two thirds !! of the study group made significant gains in critical thinking, even if the journalist chose to emphasize the negative side of the same results.

And I was stunned to learn that students in “business, education, social work and communications” showed the least gains, not to mention that “students learned more when asked to do more”. Who would ever have imagined such a result.

When Sherman Dorn questioned the reliability of the assessment tool used to generate data for the book (and later decried the over generalized conclusions drawn from it, I ventured the opinion (on the former article, slightly rewritten here) that:

Commentary based on perceiving a single data point as if it were a century long time series does not show any critical thinking on the part of the commentator.

I would also add that I think I would not have shown any significant improvement in my critical thinking skills after 4 years of college because I entered college with spectacularly good ones due to my high school experiences. I’m sure I improved, but not within the uncertainties of an instrument like they used.

The best article, however, is the one Chad wrote in Friday's Uncertain Principles. What makes it the best is, of course, is that he agrees with me that it is no surprise that 1/3 of all students in college are coasting. Well, that and he links to reports on the actual study the book is based on.

I'll add to his comments that the headline findings are based on an evaluation instrument that Sherman Dorn, a professor of the history of education and an expert on assessment in K-12, thinks is not suitable as an accountability measure.

Further, I'd guess that his students at Union and his fellow students at Williams are and were, like me, likely to have scored pretty high on the "critical thinking" essay they were given and thus less likely to improve. You have to push such students REALLY hard if you want them to improve their already high-level skills.

And I'll also add that I use a very good textbook (Wolfson's "Essentials" for calc-based physics) that runs about 22 pages of reading per week for the first semester (Mechanics and Thermodynamics) and 18 pages for the second semester (Electricity and Magnetism and Optics) -- a total that includes the textbook problems. Yet few students in any random sample at any university would trade that (not to mention homework assignments that are thick with critical thinking challenges) for 40 pages of a history book.

The worst article, however, is the NYTimes interview with one of the authors. There we discover that he actually thinks surveys and a single essay test -- likely taken without any academic (grade) or monetary (continued employment) motivation -- actually measures learning, for example, marketable engineering skills. What a load of narrow minded crap. As if the only job in the world is writing a sociology book.

And I take any claim that grades have been inflated to a Gentleman's B in my classes as a personal insult. My students know better.

But I will agree with the conclusion that challenging students makes them better. What bothers me is that someone who is a professor Emeritus at NYU thinks this is news. This has been known for centuries and obvious to me since elementary school.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teaching Majors

Dr. Crazy is back from sabbatical with shorter hair and fully energized to teach the class that introduces students to the real subject matter of the discipline they are going to major in. Now English is not exactly Physics or Engineering, but I've found plenty of common ground with her in the past and this topic is no exception.

I'll start with the comment I posted on her blog:

I never really thought of my Physics for Engineers class as an intro to the major until reading how you described your course, but maybe I should. It has many of the characteristics of yours (mini-PhD curriculum, viewed as a service course, foundation for everything that follows).

Technically, there is another course that physics majors take that is actually the start of the major program, but students won't take it if they don't like the view of physics they get in the class I teach! Once physics departments figured out that they were losing future majors to engineering (where you can also make a living), they put more emphasis on having their best teachers in the intro class and trying to make it more engaging and hands-on ... within the limits of a 200 student lecture hall.

Continuing here, so as to avoid thread hogging "man splaining" behavior ...

And within the limits that the room is not big because there are 200 physics majors in the university. No, most of those students are wannabe engineers and that fact is why calc-based physics devolved into a service course that often discouraged potential physics majors along with potential engineering majors.

Now my classes are not that big. Not even close. Furthermore, I rarely saw a self-identified physics major until recently so I view most of my students as engineering majors and teach the class with that in mind. The result is that I might actually be teaching an into to engineering course! I need to think about that this weekend to get ready for next week.

[Side remark: Some, but not all, engineering majors at nearby Wannabe Flagship have an actual "intro to the major" course with that name, but many have a course that inculcates a particular way of doing things into their majors and require that they take it during their first semester by making it a pre-req for just about everything else. Others appear to trust that someone will teach that new way of looking at the world in a core course for the major.]

And maybe that is why my better students often turn into stars after transfer. Even people who get the concept of prerequisites don't always pick up key basic skills the first time. Learning is hard. But if you fight the battle in my class at least once, your chances of picking it up for good in the actual "Intro to Whatever" class probably gets close enough to 100% to make me happy. Or at least Not Unhappy.

So what do I do? In addition to using the "This week in lab" method of making connections between lecture and lab, I use the "Next year in ..." method of making connections to the next level of application of skills that might blend both physics and, say, third semester (vector) calculus. I use the latter to put an explicit emphasis on skills I know their profs will want them to employ in their major, whether it is physics or engineering. (The computer science majors get hung out to dry here, although the term "algorithm" has been known to cross my lips.) Dare I say the "O" word - Outcomes - in this context?

I shall. (I'll worry about the "A" word - Assessment - to a lesser extent for the time being.) For a course like this it is really all about aligning Outcomes with the most basic needs of the classes that will come along later. And that isn't easy.

So that is my advice to Dr. Crazy. It is GREAT that her department has settled on a common book for the course while developing it collaboratively. As a result, it will be more likely that students will come out with the experiences they expect. Along the way, keep talking about what those expectations actually are.

I've changed my physics class a lot after discovering what engineering faculty were expecting based on their vague recollection of when they first picked up a certain basic skill. We "covered" it, but only in a way that a future PhD in Engineering would be likely to pick it up right away. The Engineering Way is to expose, as much as possible, the inner workings of your analysis of a problem by making certain procedures mandatory. Physicists tend to not do that, using those processes on an as-needed basis, so I have to be even more conscious of each problem solving step when we do problems in class. However, that way and The Physics Way share an emphasis on analysis. Is there also an English Way? Probably, although I'd guess it is more like the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom physics approach given my past experiences.

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