looking for a happy medium

Apr 26 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Because I'm scheduled to teach Dr. Hand-Waver's class for her next week, we've been having an ongoing discussion about educational philosophy.  Basically we're trying to decide an age-old quandary: do you cover the lower-level material until you're sure the class has mastered it?  Or do you only do so until they have the absolute basics down, then move on to more advanced topics that they might find more interesting?

Dr. Hand-Waver usually falls in the former camp (as do I), but as time goes on she's thinking more and more about the latter course of action.

To illustrate my argument for the first course of action--getting the class to master the basics before moving on to more advanced topics--I trotted out a story of a former tutor client, a 9th grader in pre-algebra.  His mom hired me to help him learn to solve for 'x', but I found I could not do that.  See, when I first got there, he was working on problems like this:

(2/3) x + 1 = 5

He understood that he had to subtract one from both sides to get (2/3)x = 4.  But after that he was stumped.  Of course I told him that he had to divide by 2/3 next, but he really didn't seem to understand that.  We played around with some other problems for a while, and it became clear that he could solve 2x = 4 just fine.

So what was his issue?  Simple: he couldn't do fractions.  Years ago, his teacher had moved him on because she should...and now it was coming back to bite him.

"If they don't understand the basics," I told Dr. Hand-Waver, "They won't be able to do the more advanced stuff.  It will make them feel stupid."

"Yes," she said, "But if they don't do the advanced stuff, they will think that our subject is all menial math.  And they will hate it.  I want them to love it."

She's right, of course.  We decided the only way to cover everything in that class was to have the students put in more time.  But the only way that would happen is if the students did it outside of class--which they won't do voluntarily.

In the mean time we're stuck trying to figure out the best way to find a happy medium between covering the cool, advanced material and the necessary basic material.  If anyone has any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

3 responses so far

  • Rob says:

    I am strongly in the camp of repeating as little as possible, and have two possible suggestions as to how you can do this.

    The first is to ask the professor who teaches the prerequisites for a breakdown of what subjects the students mastered based on the final exam. The problems with this are that some professors won't like to admit that anything went anything but perfect in their course, and that not all of the students in that course will be in your course.

    My preferred approach is to give a short quiz to gauge the retention of the previously covered material. This way you can determine what exactly needs to be covered again, and if the class is ready, jump straight into the good stuff.

    The problem with this approach is largely administrative. You typically need to submit a syllabus before the start date of the course, and while you might be comfortable building a class based on results from a first day quiz, the administration wants and for good reason, needs to know that you have a plan. The workaround to this is to either pad the first two weeks with remedial matter and then cut out what is not needed and supply the students with a revised syllabus immediately if parts can be skipped or get a class roster with email addresses a couple weeks early and send out a planning quiz (with an explanation as to what you will do with the information) hosted on something free and easy to use like surveymonkey. Offer a few early bonus points to sweeten the pot and you might get lucky enough to get a 30% response rate. You can see why I would pick the first workaround over the second.

    The crazy thing is that if your department is doing a good job with record keeping and giving pre and post tests on material learned in a semester, you can include a quiz that tests retention of material to a later date in an accreditation document.

    PS - If anybody needs a cell biologist/toxicologist who likes teaching general bio courses in their department... I'm available and looking for a job. Drop me a line at my (occasionally used) blog and I'll happily send a resume your way.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    My favorite professor from undergrad used to have dynamic comprehension assessments in his lectures. He would discuss a topic for 15-20 minutes and then ask a multiple choice question to the class. We had been provided large cards with the letters A-D and we would hold up what we thought was the answer to the question. If a majority of the class got it right we'd move on, but if not we'd discuss the question and re-cover the material so it was stuck in our heads correctly before we'd leave the lecture hall. It worked surprisingly well, even in larger lectures (80-100 students) and improved comprehension because it gave you a second in the middle of class to process the information. If you were smart you could also use the context clues to figure out how he want you to approach the material for the test.

  • I never did microbiology in undergrad because I thought bacteria were boring. Now I'm coming back to them in grad school via metagenomics and OMFG they are the coolest things ever. Sometimes you have to see the whole mountain before you understand why you're walking up hill.