TITLE: Students Paying for Content AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 10, 2006 5:37 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

Education is an admirable thing,
but it is well to remember from time to time
that nothing worth knowing can be taught.
-- Oscar Wilde

Recently I have been having an ongoing conversation with one of my colleagues, a senior faculty member, about teaching methods. This conversation is part of a larger discussion of the quality of our programs and the attractiveness of our majors to students. In one episode, we were discussing the frequency with which one quizzes and exams the class. Some of our math professors quiz almost daily, and even some CS professors give substantial quizzes every week. My colleague thinks is a waste of valuable class time and a disservice to students. I tend to agree, at least for most of our CS courses. When we assess students so frequently for the purposes of grading, the students become focused on assessment and not on the course material. They also tend not to think much about the fun they could be having writing programs and understanding new ideas. They are too worried about the next quiz. My colleague made a much stronger statement:
Students are paying for content.
In an interesting coincidence, when he said this I was preparing a class session in which my students would do several exercises that would culminate in a table-driven parser for a small language. We had studied the essential content over the previous two weeks: first and follow sets, LL(1) grammars, semantic actions, and so on. I don't think I was wasting my students time or tuition money. I do owe them content about compilers and how to build them. But they have to learn how to build a compiler, and they can't learn that by listening to me drone on about it at the front of the classroom; they have to do it. My colleague agrees with me on this point, though I don't think he ever teaches in the way I do. He prefers to use programming projects as the only avenue for practice. Where I diverge is in trying to help students gain experience doing in a tightly controlled environment where I can give almost immediate feedback. My hope is that this sort of scaffolded experience will help them learn and internalize technique more readily. (And don't worry that my students lack for practical project experience. Just ask my compiler students, who had to submit a full parser for a variant of Wirth's Oberon-0 language at 4 PM today.) I think that our students are paying for more than just content. If all they need is "dead" content, I can give them a book. Lecture made a lot of sense as the primary mode of instruction back when books were rare or unavailable. But we can do better now. We can give students access to data in a lot of forms, but as expert practitioners we can help them learn how to do things by working with them in the process of doing things. I am sympathetic to my colleague's claims, though. Many folks these days spend far too much time worrying about teaching methodology than about the course material. The content of the course is paramount; how we teach it is done in service of helping students learn the material. But we can't fall into the trap of thinking that we can lecture content and magically put it into our students' heads, or that they can magically put it there by doing homework. This conversation reminded me of a post on learning styles at Tall, Dark, and Mysterious. Here is an excerpt she quotes from a cognitive scientist:
What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn't affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content's best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality. The issue isn't that teaching a subject, say, kinesthetically, doesn't help a kinesthetic learner understand the material better; the issue is that teaching material kinesthetically may compromise the content.
Knowledge of how to do something sometimes requires an approach different from lecture. Studio work, apprenticeship, and other forms of coached exercise may be the best way to teach some material. Finally, that post quotes someone who sees the key point:
Perhaps it's more important for a student to know their learning style than for a teacher to teach to it. Then the student can make whatever adjustments are needed in their classroom and study habits (as well as out of classroom time with the instructor).
In any case, a scientist or a programmer needs to possess both a lot of declarative knowledge and a lot of procedural knowledge. We should use teaching methods that best help them learn. -----