Saturday, January 27, 2007

Guinea Pigs Learn Better

I've been quiet on this blog lately, mostly because I'm auditing Signals and Systems, starting my very cool AHS capstone which is on the ECS curriculum and soon-to-be textbook, and going mildly overboard for the MetaOlin Independent Study. Yes, all those things are separate blogs (so far). It's going to be a fun semester and a fantastic demonstration of spiral learning; this is the 4th time I've attempted to learn SigSys and the 3rd time I've gone through ECS, and they just get more beautiful over time.

For the record, I nearly failed SigSys and ECS the first time I went through them, so my "OMG IT IS PRETTY!" may just be a symptom of things finally seeping through my thick, thick skull, and everyone else may have picked up on the prettiness the first time they went through it. I also tend to be really bad at learning things that I'm being required to learn but excellent at learning things that I'm either piddling around with or need to teach, so that may have something to do with it.

And now the actual content of this post which addresses its title. I met with my AHS capstone mentor yesterday. He is awesome for reasons I'm sure I'll explain later. In the midst of our conversation about textbooks, he mentioned that it would be a good idea to have students work as "testers" to review draft chapters, and that it was generally a good idea to read the textbook before the lecture and have students take notes or solve problems in it, instead of after the lecture (which is what hypothetically happens in college classes) or never (which is what actually happens).

"Oh," I said, wincing. "We tried that my freshman year in physics where we had to do this thing called WebAssign before class, and most of us hated it."

"That's why I'm not asking them to read the textbook before class," he said. "I'm asking them to review it." I must have looked confused then, because he explained that the psychological positions of the student are completely different in both cases. As a reader in the "Answer These Questions Before Class" situation, they're placed in the tough spot of having to give The Right Answer in an area they've presumably never studied before. As a reviewer, they are experts; if they say an area is confusing, by gum it is confusing, and it's the textbook's fault, not theirs. Their questions are illuminating and helpful, not "stupid." Some students who think they're "bad at math" are really victims of textbooks that are "bad at teaching."

I couldn't help but think of Olin, where we're supposed to be guinea pigs for experimental teaching methods and courses, and where we're supposed to give feedback on these classes all the time. Do you learn better as a guinea pig? Are the good results we're getting on student learning because the experiments are working, or because they are experiments?

Is being a guinea pig a valid teaching method to test? I think it might be.

1 comment:

David Klempner said...

"That's why I'm not asking them to read the textbook before class," he said. "I'm asking them to review it."

That represents a fairly fundamental transition that you make somewhere around now (but ideally earlier).

The relationship between a university student and a professor shifts from being "teacher-student" to "senior colleague-junior colleague".