A Risky Educational Experiment

It’s that time of year again, when I start thinking about my fall term classes. I would really prefer to put it off for another couple of weeks, and I will put off spending much time on class prep in favor of finishing up some paper-writing and other things, but when the calendar turns to August, I inevitably start thinking about what I’m going to be doing in September, no matter how much I’d like to be thinking about other things instead. This year is worse than most, because I’m planning to really shake things up with regard to the way I teach the intro mechanics course.

I’ve been doing more or less the same thing since I started, albeit with a couple of changes of curriculum, first to a locally designed sequence, and more recently to the Matter and Interactions curriculum. My teaching style has been more or less the same throughout, though– I tend to mostly lecture off PowerPoint, with frequent stops for in-class questions and example problems.

Lately, though, this hasn’t been working all that well. The last few times through the course, I’ve had a harder and harder time getting students to participate in class. When I ask questions, they just sit there; when I do an example on the board, then ask them to do a similar problem themselves, they doodle aimlessly and say they don’t have any idea what to do. It’s been very frustrating, and that drives me to do even more lecturing, because if they’re not going to talk in class, I might as well do all the talking.

This is highly sub-optimal, as there’s tons of education research showing that a traditional lecture format doesn’t work as well as more active techniques, including a paper I ResearchBlogged earlier this year. I’ve been trying to nod toward this by doing more active engagement in a halfway sort of fashion, but it’s clearly not working all that well.

So, not without some trepidation, I’m going to double down.

That is, in my introductory mechanics course this fall, I’m going to try to go much farther in the active learning direction. I’m going to try to cut my lecturing down to almost nothing in favor of in-class discussion/ problem solving/ questions/ etc.

I’m more than a little apprehensive about this, because everything I’ve read about this suggests that the key to making these techniques work is getting students to read the textbook ahead of time (that this produces benefits is not exactly surprising). And that’s been a huge problem with our students in the past– when I implemented pre-lab quizzes last year, asking students to read the lab handout the night before lab and answer a handful of multiple-choice questions about the lab, I got a bunch of student evaluation comments complaining that this was a ridiculously unreasonable imposition. I’m a little nervous about what they’ll do when asked to read the textbook and come to class ready to talk about it.

There are some reasons why that isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for the whole idea, though, primarily the fact that my section last winter was one of several, and I was the only professor doing pre-lab quizzes. This fall, I’m teaching the one and only section of intro mechanics, so they won’t be able to compare notes with their friends in other sections and conclude that they’re being assigned extra work. And, you know, I have tenure, so even if the experiment fails, I’m not putting my career in jeopardy.

There are a few other things that make me really nervous, though. Such as the recent Ph.D. thesis from the Georgia Tech PER group looking at Matter and Interactions and finding that some of the results aren’t what you might hope for. I talked about part of this a while back, and it’s blogged at length (one, two, three) at the Computing Education Blog (with, obviously, a focus on the numerical-modeling parts of the curriculum). That makes me wonder about the whole project, though there are some obvious lessons to take away from the Georgia Tech stuff that can help avoid the same pitfalls.

There are also logistical issues: our crazy trimester calendar means we have to try to cram most of a semester’s worth of physics into just 10 weeks, which is always a huge challenge. Most of the active-learning approaches I’ve read about go slightly slower than their traditional-lecture counterparts, which could be a problem, as we don’t have that much slack in the class schedule. A lot of the example lectures and so on that I’ve seen also seem to presume a separate TA-led recitation session where students go through homework-type problems in detail, so class time is spent only on basic conceptual stuff. Again, we don’t have that luxury, so I’ll have to do as much of the problem-solving stuff in class as possible.

Writing out all the negatives like that makes this seem like a completely crazy project, and as I said, I’m nervous about this. At the same time, though, there are some definite upsides. If I can get the students to buy in and do the reading, I hope to be able to do some of the more open-ended model building stuff that Rhett and Dan Meyer and people like that talk about. Things like the roller slide problem (the answer is here), even (though that one would have to wait until the very end of the term). And that sounds like a lot more fun than just doing the same examples over and over again.

It’s going to be a ton of work, though, and it might fail spectacularly. But I’ve more or less hit the limits of what I’m doing now, so I might as well try it…

(Pointers to really good resources for this sort of thing– beyond the stuff at Compadre and that I can get from the Matter and Interactions folks– would be much appreciated. Shoot me an email, or leave me a link in the comments.)

30 Replies to “A Risky Educational Experiment”

  1. I made this switch a couple years ago in the first quarter of intro physics, and I think I’ve been pretty successful getting the students to read the text using the JITT approach. The students answer a set of free-response questions before every class (really every other class since we meet four days a week). I’m reasonably happy with the results (based on pre- and post-quarter FCI results, but I still have a lot to learn. Overall the response has been positive, I think, but a few students really, really hate it.

    Send me an email if you want some more details.

  2. We use WebAssign for the homework, and I’ve tried putting a few questions on each assignment from the next class’s topics (generally the “here is the mass, here is the speed, what’s the momentum?” sort), which sorta-kinda does the JITT thing. I’m planning to do more of that this term.

  3. I also used WebAssign for the warm-up exercises (though I’m thinking of switching away this year to our internal CMS). Last year I also used it for the regular homework, but I didn’t like that at all. It was actually pretty easy to review all the online responses before class; it took me about an hour for a class of 40 students.

  4. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of WebAssign for the full homework assignments. Students seem to be able to find ways to get the right answer on WebAssign without having the foggiest idea what they did.

    It was nice to be freed from grading all those papers, but the results were really bad, educationally speaking, and I went back to collecting a handful of more complicated problems a week on paper, keeping WebAssign for just the simple exercises.

    (This was not a universally shared approach, either, so I got killed for that on the course evaluations as well…)

  5. When I took intro physics, all lectures and labs had a “pre-flight” that was usually extremely straightforward once you’d read the material (it also allowed instant computerized grading and unlimited submissions, so there was every reason to get all of the points). It sounds like your WebAssign could be good for such ‘easy points’ type assignments required *before* the lecture, if you really want to ensure more reading beforehand.
    The keys to make it less hated: it really did help you learn the material, and you knew you *could* get nearly all the points if you were just diligent enough (i.e. no questions that required anything other than plugging formulas already presented). It can actually be good to get some confidence before the lecture.

  6. I have a similar complaint with MyMathLab; students can get the right answers without knowing how they did just by pecking at random until they get it right (it’s set up in multiple choice format.) Worse, staring at the computer screen seems to zap every sense of actually using paper and pencil to figure the problem out.

    Finally, maybe it’s time Chad started aggressively flunking kids out of his class. No, reading the material beforehand is not unduly onerous. Yes, I had to do that in most of my physical science classes back in the day when we had to make all of our lab equipment out of stone knives and bearskins.

    I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but it seems to me that as a group the kids are getting lazier and in this endeavor they are abetted all too often by the administration.

  7. Would you do an experiment without designing it first?

    You need to begin by defining the outcome(s) you are most interested in, preferably ones with quantitative results (results for problems on the final exam) from previous years that you consider disappointing. I would add to that some post-course metric, like success in the first physics major or engineering major class they take later on.

    I’d also mention it to someone in the engineering school, saying you want to know what deficiencies they see in this year’s students and to be prepared to contrast that to next year’s students who take the experimental course.

    You can get them to read the book. The starting point is not lecturing. One example: I assign them to write the “four equations” at the top of their notes for the next class. At the start of the next class, I start to write them on the board and then immediately erase them to see who was copying them off the board. (I write a lot faster than they do, so this is most entertaining.) Or I just put the equation numbers up there, not the equations. If your class is small, just walk around and see if they have them in their notes.

    BTW, your views of certain types of web homework is spot on. I’ve watched student “do” homework with MyMathLab and it is a joke. They just ask for a hint and then copy the solution to the “similar” problem. It is as bad as some of the pseudotextbooks Dan Meyer complains about, where every problem tells you which example to follow from the book.

  8. [W]hen I implemented pre-lab quizzes last year, asking students to read the lab handout the night before lab and answer a handful of multiple-choice questions about the lab, I got a bunch of student evaluation comments complaining that this was a ridiculously unreasonable imposition.

    It’s been a while since I was a student, but ISTR that in humanities subjects (English, history, etc.) students were expected to have done the reading before class so that they could participate in the discussion. Is this still true where you are? If so, ask any student who might complain about this practice to explain how (apart from the specific topic) participating in a physics lab is significantly different from participating in a discussion of, for example, Macbeth in a class on Shakespeare. Labs are to intro physics as discussion groups are to humanities classes. If any student does not take the hint, consider flunking him, as ScentOfViolets suggests.

    You don’t give any numbers, so I don’t know whether the we-shouldn’t-have-to-read-the-book-before-class crowd is a majority of your students or just a sizeable and loud minority. If the latter, you can point out that most students seem to be OK with the requirement, and you are not going to water down the class that they (or their parents) are paying for just to suit the ones who aren’t willing to put some effort. If a majority of your students think reading the book before class is unreasonable, you have worse problems to deal with.

  9. @Eric Lund- Shakespeare was a much better writer than any physics textbook author I am aware of. While I am not arguing it is onerous to ask people to read beforehand (and indeed, I pointed out a strategy I have seen employed in physics classes to ensure reading beforehand actually took place), it may be pointless to expect people to *understand* what they’ve read in abstract subjects where most textbooks are painful to read. And of course, if the textbook is sufficient to understand it all… what value does the class time have?

  10. Shakespeare was a much better writer than any physics textbook author I am aware of

    ‘Tis a shame how the name of Feynman doth fall from the memory of many a student. Good becca, how, pray thee, might his great prose do upon thy mind? Would thee call it fair and read most ravenously? Or would thy eyes grow weary of his words upon the printed page?

  11. I taught from 1965 through 1997 at a regional university. I am well convinced that the quality of the students declined over that time period. Also, and perhaps more important, there was a growing sense of entitlement. “I exist. Gimme my A.”

    I think the less work the professor does, and the more work the student does, the more learning takes place. It is not a matter that we need to do more for them, as many think, but rather a matter that we need to con them into doing more for themselves.

  12. Re the no TA thing: So do you have more classroom hours that you teach to make up for no TA time, or do your students just have fewer hours overall than is typical? I.e., the 5-credit intro physics class I took was 5 credits that boiled down into 3 professor lecture periods and 2 TA discussion periods, plus a 3 hour lab that somehow didn’t count. So do you get 5 periods or just 3?

    @becca: “And of course, if the textbook is sufficient to understand it all… what value does the class time have?”

    It forces you to read the book. Few people would read a calculus book for fun, but compared to attending a calculus lecture, the book is actually pretty good.

  13. Re the no TA thing: So do you have more classroom hours that you teach to make up for no TA time, or do your students just have fewer hours overall than is typical? I.e., the 5-credit intro physics class I took was 5 credits that boiled down into 3 professor lecture periods and 2 TA discussion periods, plus a 3 hour lab that somehow didn’t count. So do you get 5 periods or just 3?

    Because of the aforementioned silly calendar, we teach our classes in 65-minute blocks rather than the standard 50-55. This supposedly gets us the same number of minutes in lecture as an equivalent course under a semester system. We meet three days a week for lecture, and once a week (in an hour-and-45-minute block) for lab. So it’s effectively 3-and-a-bit, not counting the lab.

  14. I will also chime in for the JiTT suggestion. Because there is this “assignment”, students will read the book. Me seeing what the students got (or didn’t get) from the book is quite enlightening. I can pinpoint the common misconceptions in my bits of lecture. And when I share those answers with the class (anonymously), they get to see that they weren’t alone in their misunderstanding.

    I also realized early on in my career that salesmanship is key. I need to explain why I want them to do the reading, and the 3 JiTT questions, and the homework problems sets, etc. My taking some time periodically to explain why it is all in their best interest (citing the PER studies, or showing them the correlation between homework done and exam grades), seems to help a lot with the end of term evals.

  15. Chad,

    Have you seen a similar benefit to this kind of approach in teaching Calculus as well? I have two intro calc sections again this fall, and am a traditional lecturer, but with a lot of spiral teaching (revisiting concepts throughout the course on a 2-day, 5-day and several week cycle), but have been contemplating a switch to a more experimental approach with the students. My student evaluations are usually positive, so I’m not really worried about that side of it.

    I am able to get the students to investigate on occasion (say 1 out of 5 classes), which works *very* well for them, but it just doesn’t seem to cut it on a course-wide basis. I have tried that before, but this has led to much apathy from the students, and getting them to read textbooks in advance has been harshly received.

    Also, for those who are saying that students are just getting lazier, I’m not sure how much of that is really true, or just our perceptions of how much it is true. I can remember (now over twenty years ago) in school when students were failing just as much as they are now, and that some students excelled just as much as they do now. I also remember that I often read the textbook before class when I had time. Sometimes I had time, other times I did not. It depended on the courses I was taking that semester and what my current assignment load was like. (QM, E&M and fluids always won those battles, stats always lost in my case for instance. 🙂


  16. @ Alex- I’ve read Feynman. I’ve read Shakespeare. And there’s really no contest. Feynman’s too high-brow, not enough fart jokes.
    But anyway, everybody knows ‘6 easy pieces’ was a lecture, not a book. 😛 Feynman would be the first to note the atrociousness of the majority of textbooks, after all.

    @Mike Kozlowski- since I tried and failed (several times) to pick up a calculus textbook for fun but learned it without a monumental struggle once I finally had a lecture… touche.

    @Jim Thomerson ‎”I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint”

    OH! by the way- by the time I took intro physics, it was a well-honed MACHINE. They actually had the data for “students who read BEFORE the lecture” test scores and “students who do not read before the lecture” test scores, and they were happy to share it with us. Hard to argue with. It might be worth thinking ahead as to how you might collect that.

  17. I’ve read Feynman. I’ve read Shakespeare. And there’s really no contest. Feynman’s too high-brow, not enough fart jokes.

    Feynman, however, was writing in modern English. There were many changes in the English language in the ~350 years between Shakespeare’s retirement and Feynman’s peak writing period. If you were to read something by Shakespeare or one of his contemporaries today, could you understand it without the notes provided by the editor of whatever edition you were reading? I know I couldn’t–I can deal with the “thou” form and a few things like that, but not always with changes in usage or words which have fallen out of use (including about half of the words Shakespeare himself invented). Nor have I seen any evidence that science textbook writers, as bad as they may be, are significantly worse than humanities textbook writers, a group which would include editors of Shakespeare editions and other literary classics/anthologies that a college student might encounter today.

    There is also a difference between lectures and labs. Yes, some people do learn better from lectures than from textbooks; for others the reverse is true. But it’s possible to sit through a lecture without having done the reading and not get caught. Not so with labs, which is why I specifically compared labs to discussion groups in humanities subjects. You actually do need some understanding, however imperfect, of the subject matter to get through a lab.

  18. @13 concerning your calendar for this class:

    I skipped over this in my original comment since it isn’t really germane to your experiment, but you need to know that your college is not coming anywhere close to what is done in comparable courses within what I knew as a “quarter” system. Enough that it amazes me this is not an accreditation issue for your engineering school.

    The standard model for calc-based physics for engineers that I know about in detail (at a handful of Flagship R1s as well as my CC) is essentially 3+2 (lecture+recitation) for 4 credits plus a 1 credit lab. The lecture “hour” is 50 min while labs vary from 2 hours to 3 hours to “open” scheduling. Lecture and/or recitation can be bundled in many different ways. Classes meet for two 14 or 15 week semesters, plus finals, with 14+ weeks seeming to be the most common these days. [BTW, this would be a “trimester” system if the summer was also the same number of weeks. I’m so old that I remember when one Flagship U converted from real 18 week semesters to the shorter 15 week trimester system.] This course of study covers everything through optics. No modern physics. I know some places that do this with a 3+1 scheme but I don’t know what content they include or if their students can read or if they also have open schedule tutorial rooms rather than a formal recitation class.

    One school that now has a 15 week system used to be on a 10 week, plus finals, “quarter” or “term” system. Under that system they also used a 3+2 scheme for 4 credits. There turn out to be fewer days in their current semester system than in their old quarter system, but how many depends on the calendar in use as well as what exam pattern you use.

    Apart from details, these two calendars cover the same amount of physics in roughly the same number of class minutes. Content is split up differently in these two systems. Randy Knight’s book follows what I know as the traditional “term” scheme, while the majority follow the traditional semester scheme that has 10 or 11 weeks of mechanics, including SHM, along with 3+ weeks of thermo in the first semester.

    So what I see is that you have 4 classroom (50 minute) days per week to teach physics, while the competition has 5 of them per week. It isn’t really clear to me what you are supposed to “cover” in this class, but there is no way you can give justice to 50*70 to 50*75 minutes of physics in 30*65 minutes of your classes. It is even a stretch to fit 50*50 minutes of a mechanics “term” into your schedule.

    I recommend a long talk over some tall beers with the faculty of your engineering school to figure out if you are meeting their needs within your current scheme.

  19. I skipped over this in my original comment since it isn’t really germane to your experiment, but you need to know that your college is not coming anywhere close to what is done in comparable courses within what I knew as a “quarter” system. Enough that it amazes me this is not an accreditation issue for your engineering school.

    You might think that. But, in fact, the engineers are probably the most gung-ho group on campus regarding the current calendar. They really like it because having three terms a year rather than just two lets their students do terms abroad at almost the same rate as students in humanities and social sciences. It’s easier for students to just take a term off from science and engineering classes, and the Gen Ed system is set up so that doing a term abroad fulfills one big component of Gen Ed, which frees up some spots elsewhere in the schedule. Also, if we call our trimester courses equivalent to semester courses, students take a minimum of 36 courses rather than the 32 they’d take on a semester system.

    So the local engineers love it. And despite the way that ABET requirements get cited to justify doing anything that folks in engineering really want to do, ABET doesn’t actually care about the details all that much. I went to a workshop on teaching calculus-based intro physics that included a talk from somebody at ABET, who was asked whether changing to a reformed physics curriculum like Matter and Interactions or Six Ideas would create any problems with ABET. His reply was, basically, that they require two courses in physics, but don’t really care what’s taught in those classes, or how.

    This is more or less consistent with discussions we’ve had with the local engineers, as well. They don’t really care what we teach their students, as long as we take them all.

  20. @20:

    Interesting. The part where they don’t care what you teach them, that is. That isn’t what I hear from the engineering faculty at a nearby university, who really want their entering majors to be able to use the chain rule from calculus and solve mechanics problems with free-body diagrams. Perhaps it is a difference in the SAT scores of the respective student groups. But that solves your problem: you can do anything you like as long as you only pass students with a certain level of critical thinking skills — but you might have already made that cut with the admissions standards at Union. So just do whatever you need for the ones who will be physics majors and let the engineering faculty fill in the gaps.

    Having been in both systems, I agree 100% that three 11-week terms are superior to two 15-week semesters. Sure, you can take a bunch of 2-credit classes in a semester system to mirror the breadth of the shorter 3-credit classes in a quarter system, but it isn’t the same because it gets diluted over the long semester. It is particularly well suited to the sciences or any program that has internships that can run during the school year rather than just in summer.

    Semesters appear to be chosen to fit the needs of the football program, not students. Ohio State is one of the holdouts that is now switching over to semesters.

  21. Having been in both systems, I agree 100% that three 11-week terms are superior to two 15-week semesters.

    I would probably agree with that, if we didn’t have to pretend that our 10-week terms were equivalent to 15-week semesters. That is, if our engineering majors took a year of physics (3 terms), I think we’d be able to do a really good job with them. As it is, though, they only take two terms, so we’re trying to jam as much of a semester’s worth of mechanics into ten weeks as we can, and it doesn’t work as well as we’d like.

    The fact that most intro texts are designed around a 15-week semester doesn’t help, either. Matter and Interactions splits very naturally after chapter 13, so if you have a 15-week semester, you can do a bit less than a chapter a week, allowing time for exam review and the like. We try to do 11 chapters in 10 weeks of class, including all the exams and stuff. And that leaves a couple of orphaned chapters at the end of the first volume (on thermodynamics) that we don’t get to, and can’t stick in the E&M course, either (that fits a little better, with 10 chapters plus a section or so getting us up through Maxwell’s Equations, but still orphans a couple of chapters on optics and modern physics).

    (In this respect, I think the Six Ideas books might’ve been a better reform curriculum, in that you can mix-and-match them in a way that gives three roughly equal classes. It’s too late to do anything about that now, though.)

  22. I prefer shorter terms to longer ones, and shorter class periods (except for labs, which could be lengthened) to longer ones as well. That might seem to be contradictory, but it’s been my experience – and this includes myself – that people can do a much better work doing two ten-hour jobs than if they attempt to do four five-hour jobs. Iow, shorter terms, shorter class periods, and fewer classes during each term.

    I’d like to pare class periods down to thirty minutes and have more of them during the week as well, but that’s a little too much institutional inertia for me to be operating against single-handed.

  23. I’m going to weigh in on the semesters vs. quarters debate, since I experienced both a traditional semester system and a 3-3-3 system (similar to Union’s) as a student. There are some things that work better under a 3-3-3 system: foreign languages, for instance, because a higher degree of immersion is generally a good thing for learning languages. Intro physics, however, is not one of these things. Lack of a recitation section is a major drawback: in general the recitation instructors will have different teaching styles than the lecturer, and some students will have learning styles that better match the former than the latter. There is also significantly less lecture time: 30*65 = 1950 minutes for a 3-3-3 (my 3-3-3 school also had an option for 20*110 minutes, which many grad level courses used, but the intro physics courses were always 30*65, as were most upper-level undergrad courses) versus 42*50 = 2100 minutes for a 14-week semester (and more lopsided if you really do have 15 weeks of classes). That also means less margin of error: especially at schools with large commuter populations, the risk of losing class time to weather issues (hurricanes, major snow/ice storms) is too great to fit a semester course into a 3-3-3 calendar comfortably. There is also the issue of whether you split the winter term around the holidays (a major headache all around) or wait to start it until just after New Year’s Day and push the end of spring term out into June (problematic for many summer programs, which assume that students can start around or before 1 June). Chad has mentioned that Union uses the latter solution; my 3-3-3 school did as well.

  24. I self edited something from @21 out of thread-jacking fear.

    If you want to see what a quarter-system curriculum looks like, check out Randall Knight’s textbook and just cut out the section on thermo and the section on waves and optics, both of which get taught after E+M. Or look at the venerable Berkeley volume 1, which has the virtue of including relativity so it can be used in E+M. As I recall (from decades ago), we also put electromagnetic waves in the third term along with some modern physics. If you don’t have a third course, just build that stuff you leave out into whatever you use to transition physics majors to the more advanced classes.

    There isn’t time to do thermodynamics in the first quarter, so don’t try. Ditto for waves. You are better off doing SHM carefully plus the driven damped oscillator in all its glory, since both engineers and physicists need to know that. That’s what I meant by “do what you need”.

    Re: 30 minute classes. My experience is that class “overhead” kills the same number of minutes regardless of the length of the class. If run well, you can get more done in 3*65 than 4*50. You must, however, not lecture the entire time! IMHO, the key is to make a 65 minute class into three “classes”.

  25. student/teacher discussion
    Student: “You are flunking me! How could you?”
    Teacher: “Did you do your pre-class readings and assignments?”
    Student: “No! That is an imposition on my rights!”
    Teacher: “Then you have the right to fail.”

    student/administrator discussion
    Student:”That physics prof is so unfair!”
    Admin:”Did you read and do all pre-class work?”
    Student: “No, it is grossly unfair!”
    Admin: “Then you have the right to fail.”

    Ahh, a perfect world, where everyone has a backbone. If all classes demanded all from their students and actually made them work to learn. That all admin. quit the hand holding and back the standard.
    Ahh….a perfect world.

  26. Re: 30 minute classes. My experience is that class “overhead” kills the same number of minutes regardless of the length of the class. If run well, you can get more done in 3*65 than 4*50. You must, however, not lecture the entire time! IMHO, the key is to make a 65 minute class into three “classes”.

    Three “classes” is pretty close to how my lesson plans happen to fall out! It’s been my experience that I’ve got my kids for the first ten minutes (out of 50), for the last ten minutes, and there’s maybe five minutes of administrivia at the beginning/end of each period. The remaining half of the class time? Something like 60% of my students are struggling just to pay attention and take notes.

    From this observation and others like it over the years, my decidedly ad hoc mental model for learning – which I explain to my classes at least four times each semester – is that the human mind is like a sponge. Yeah, real original I know. But the salient feature is an oft-overlooked one, namely that a sponge can only retain so much liquid. So if you spill a full glass of juice on the floor the procedure is to mop until the sponge won’t hold any more, wring it out, rinse, and repeat until the mess is sopped up. As I said, I find myself repeating this bit of folk wisdom at least four times a semester: I remind my students before and after each exam that there is no way, no matter how long you swirl that sponge around, that it’s going to absorb any more material once it’s full until you wring it out. Don’t delude yourselves into thinking you can blow off three weeks of studying because you’ll be able to make it all up in the last two days before an exam with two or three marathon 18-hour study sessions. That’s like expecting your quarter-liter sponge to soak up five liters all at one go. For most of you guys, that’s just not gonna happen.[1]

    I’ve come to believe that this same principle applies writ small to each individual class meeting as well. If I teach a major concept like continuity (epsilon-delta style), it’s all my students can do (modulo the usual exceptions) to absorb those ideas all in one go, even if the presentation itself takes just twenty or thirty minutes. And if I go on and talk about one-sided limits, limits at infinity, functions that are continuous nowhere, etc. for the remaining twenty minutes? Odds are that least half my students are going to make a much poorer job of it than they would otherwise, learning bits of both topics but understanding neither as well as they should.

    So I’d much rather dismiss early, after, say, 35 to 40 minutes as opposed to fanatically using up those last fifteen or twenty minutes to meet my class requirements. Even if I have to play catchup later on or cut and trim my other lessons. Yes, a certain minimum amount of material has to be covered; as I said earlier in my ideal world I’d meet twice a day and more times a week to make up for the smaller chunks. Realistically speaking of course, that’s never going to happen and the best that I can do is to be very generous with both my official and my unofficial office hours. For those kids who take advantage of that option, things tend to work out in the end.

    The adoption of this strategy and the concomitant prioritizing of material it necessitates hasn’t happened in a vacuum btw. It also seems to fit the preferences of the engineering and science type of professors into whose hands my hopefully well-prepped students will be delivered. That is, these teachers would rather their students have a solid grasp of the more fundamental topics (like continuity) as opposed to a decidedly shaky understanding of a more diverse range of subjects, some of which are just not that important (like certain types of integration strategies) in the grand scheme of things.[2]

    I seem to have gone on rather long; my apologies. We start up again on the 22nd ourselves and I’m confronting these same issues.[3]

    [1]Yes, I was a very poor student my first couple of semesters. I was not well served by my high school, which back in the day was proud of it’s high graduation rate but was otherwise not known for ever sending more than 10% of it’s students off to a traditional four year college. Learning on the fly how to study and to effectively allocate your time is hard in a college environment when you’ve never had to do that before to do well academically, and now you have to develop that skill just to pass . . . no matter how smart your earlier schooling gave you the illusion of being.

    [2]I’m guessing that Chad himself would prefer that his students have a firm grasp on basic algebra, curve sketching and the like, as opposed to kinda sorta knowing their algebra and curve sketching as well as kinda sorta knowing how to integrate by using trig substitutions.

    [3]In the best of all possible worlds, I’d be allowed to let my classes run as long or as short as I felt like, anything from fifteen minutes to three hours depending on the subject and the attentiveness of my class. But I’m not Plato or Aristotle. I don’t even have any grad students I can abuse 🙂 Just a bunch of undergrads who up to this point haven’t had to work particularly hard or long to get good grades in high school.

  27. I just took a (graduate) statistics class in which the professor devoted two 90-minute blocks of time (one midway through the course, the other just before the final) to breaking us into small groups and having us work out approaches to answering specified questions about a data set. He’d circulate around the room and ask us what we were thinking, if we had questions, etc., and then after we’d had about 45 minutes to hash it over he asked each of the groups to explain to the class which variables and analyses they’d decided to use to answer the questions he’d provided. I’m not sure people really paid much attention to the groups’ presentations, but they did seem to be participating in the small-group discussions pretty readily.

    Another strategy I’ve seen used with some success is to make a small number of students responsible for contributing discussion questions and/or giving short presentations at the start of each class. They know ahead of time which date(s) they’ll be responsible for, so they’ll have to *at least* do some reading and thinking ahead of time for those classes. And students may feel more inclined to respond to questions if a) it’s one of their classmates asking and b) they’ve realized how awful it can feel to be asking questions and getting no reply.

    Both of these are probably easier to pull off with smaller classes, and I don’t know how many students you’ll have in the room at once. But you may have better luck if you’re creating avenues for participation other than “be the one person to raise your hand in a room of 50.”

  28. On my old college, the standard for lab-exercises was to do a writeup/report after the lab, and hand it in.
    When some professors made a switch to pre-lab questions and discussion the change was very popular with the students.

    Asking the students to read ahead before the lectures carries the following dangers for me:
    1. Students that didn’t try to read the text will feel left behind even more.Because they are even more afraid to ask elementary questions.
    2. Students that think they do understand the text will consider the whole lecture useless. Even if they are wrong.

  29. I’m a high school student and I know what you’re talking about with the participation beginning to lack. Even in my classes there are very few times where someone will willingly raise their hands to answer a question or even ask a question. My AP euro class however is the hardest class I’m taking but the people in there are there because they want to learn the subject. Otherwise, they would have been scared off from the class due to its tough reputation. We do the same idea that you are trying to promote and I think it helps a lot. I’m more independent this way, but I actually get the material where as in other classes I rely on being explained to. I think if you are going to do this method give two or three days to complete a set of 30 page reading or even more because that is what we use, I don’t know how the colleges work things out but that’s just my advice. Good luck with the class and hope things go well!

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