Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Classroom - How a Professor Should Lecture

I have a big statement on the college classroom, how it tends to be conducted and how it should be improved. Read on: NYTimes Critical Of Online College Courses. In an editorial, the New York Times (2/19, Page A22, Editorial, Subscription Publication) takes issue with the expansion of online college teaching. The NYTimes says that "student attrition rates - around 90 percent for some huge online courses - appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes." In addition, "courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed." The NY Times concludes, "so far, the evidence shows that poorly designed courses can seriously shortchange the most vulnerable students." And here are my 2 bits: Many engineering and science college professors in my experience have plenty of technical training in their field but have no clue about spending classroom time effectively. At the bad extreme, but within the bound of my actual first-hand experience, more than a few professors start throwing chalk on the board when the start bell rings and finish almost in time for the closing bell, and expect the students in their class to madly copy the words from the board into their notebooks, and do nothing else in class. Great - they 'covered it.' They had a lot to cover and they had to cover it. Why, in this day and age of high-tech copiers, didn't they just make copies of the notes for the students and mail it to them?? They could then insert the notes into their notebooks and just look at the equivalent gain at the drastically reduced man-hours spent. Here is how it should be done, how it is supposed to work: You buy an expensive text book, not to contribute to the professor fund, but to read and struggle with before going to class. You then go to class and talk back and forth with the professor and the other students to perfectly understand the concepts you struggled with while reading the book. No time is wasted writing notes. No intense stress is inflicted. No panic induced by 'moving on to cover things' on a basis of understanding that is necessary to proceed and that you do not have. The student is to write his own notes borne out of his own understanding. Then he joyfully goes off to do the homework. Oh yes, I almost forgot, class time is also good for doing example problems and helping the students get past minor but practical snags on which they are stuck. However, this should really be done ONLY AFTER they have tried to do the problems themselves, never before, as is so common. Doing it before only breeds and produces monky-see, monkey-do engineers, who aren't so valuable to society. Going over problems in my opinion, is a secondary use of class time. It is better saved for office and tutor time as much as possible. Based on my own experience, having been tutored by top-notch tutors, in my father and brother, one hour of real class discussion is literally worth a week or more of full-time, intense self-study, and no amount of the status-quo "lecturing" can equal either one. C'mon, prof, your research work is stellar, but get some teachin' skills! I got precious little out of class in college. I was an on-line student before there was an on-line anything. Got it all out of the book and my dad and brother. And a few good professors, like Sanford Meek of the University of Utah, and Mark Miller of the University of Pittsburgh, to name two of the 5. Whoa, almost forgot the best one of all - had him for my first undergrad class, he was from India, and I forget his full name, but I knew him as Dr. Vyas. Oh and there were supreme grad student teaching assistants, such as Dave Funk, who taught chemistry - and I mean taught. (I should also mention the professor who taught me post-grad elasticity but I will have to look him up somehow because I forget his name. But he deserves it because he could never keep from confusing me with another student, who had black hair whereas mine is red, and when he passed out the final grades, he gave me the other kid's grade, to my detriment. He had said if we didn't like our final grade, just tell him what grade we wanted and he would change it. But I never took him up on it.) However, for whatever necessity, no one I know ever taught class at the university quite the way I describe it should be done - the way dad would have done it. Dr. Vyas came scorching close. Wait - I take that back. Dr. Vyas really pretty much did it now that I'm thinking about it. And professors too numerous to mention decently fell somewhere respectably shy of the bad extreme. But the standard needs to be replaced. Discuss. Do not cover ground.