TITLE: Internalized Knowledge and External Triggers AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 04, 2007 11:12 PM DESC: ----- BODY: With the end of finals week, I've begun thinking about my experience teaching this semester. I graded the last homework assignment for my course this week and ran across this comment in one of the submissions:
I spent 4 hours or so this past week cobbling bits together, and tried to assemble them into a coherent mess, but failed. All I have are some run-time errors that don't mean much to me. At this point I would rather write the entire interpreter in another language than use Scheme.
The last sentence made me sad, even as I know that not every student will leave the course enamored with what I've taught. I was again struck to receive such a submission with no questions asked, despite e-mail everywhere and plentiful, often empty office hours. I run into this sort of submission more frequently these days. This term, I've also encountered student time trouble on quizzes more frequently. Even students who seem to understand the material well have run short of time. The standard comment is, "If I just had more time...". Now, if you've had me for class, even this class, you can appreciate the sentiment. But I do have a pretty good sense of what most students have been able to accomplish in the allotted quiz times over past few years in this course. Is time trouble more frequent these days? I think so. I'm not one who like to talk about students in the "good ol' days". Students were no smarter, no better, and no harder working when I was in school. To think so is usually just selective (and aging) memory. But I do believe that occasionally there are systematic changes in how students behave, and recognizing these changes is important if we intend to teach them -- help them learn -- effectively. Consider students running short of time on a quiz. I think I understand at least part of the problem now. Students these days need a "crutch": access to reference material. Open notes are an example. Students love the idea of open-book exams. And how do they program? With uninterrupted access to all the reference material they want. The help desk in Dr. Scheme contains everything they need to know about Scheme, and then some. So, there is no need to memorize syntax. If they need help writing a letrec? Type that string into the Help Desk search box, hit return, see the canonical form, and then maybe even copy and paste an example into their code. The web and Google are likewise at their ubiquitous disposal, ready to serve their every need at any moment. This is how they expect the world to be. But that isn't how exams work, or job interviews, or most jobs. You have to internalize some knowledge to be effective. What was it like in the old days? I think just as many students had a similar resistance to avoid internalizing, but we all had fewer alternatives. We didn't have the technology to pull it off, so we adapted. We crammed and memorized. Our only other choice was to find a new major. (And what major didn't require knowing some stuff -- at least any major that also offered the prospects of a paying job?) Maybe our technology is making us dumber because we become less adaptive to our surroundings. I think that's probably an overstatement. Perhaps even the opposite is true: we are becoming more enabled, by offloading unnecessary data and focusing on more important stuff. I think that's probably an overstatement, too. In any case, the phenomenon is probably something to be aware of. As an instructor, what is my solution? I can imagine many possibilities. Shorten my exams and quizzes. Allow external support, such open books and notes. Give my exams on-line, in an environment that more closely resembles the students' working environment. Educate them about the way the world works, and try to help them more directly to move toward a world in which they internalize basic knowledge and skills. I think the last of these is the right answer, and worthy of the effort, even if it turns out to be a futile attempt. But whatever I try, being aware of my students's more fundamental dependence on extrenal triggers will help me out in future courses. If I take it into account... -----