Friday, March 04, 2005

On the teaching approach

A couple of days ago I received a thank you note from a student who had taken my class the year before. The class - Principles of Economics for honor students - had opened his eyes. He is an engineering student, I believe Chemical Engineering, and social science thinking was new and alien for him. The first week of class we collectively learned that "incentives matter." The rest of the semester was an amplification on that basic theme, including learning about some of the more famous economists and how they approached issues and made argument. Economists as heroes is probably a stretch in most contexts, but in this class setting it worked.

Opening students' eyes to a new way of thinking and having that resonate with them must be close to the ideal for general education. At least with this one student I believe this ideal was met. And I think I came closer to the ideal with this class than I ever came before.

So I want to drill down a little on why it happened with the thought that there are lessons to be learned that are more broadly applicable.

First let me say that a lot of it was the students themselves. They were very bright, readily enegaged, and they did the work. Most of them were engineers. As we talked during the semester I learned that my class was a tonic to the rest of their courses, which based on what they said I would characterize as learning by brutality - overly hard homework coupled with uninspiring lectures. It is not my goal to critique engineering education, but it is clear that my course benefited from the contrast.

Next, and the point I want to emphasize in this piece, I tried a lot of things according to my intuition. There was experimentation both with method and content. I know that in other contexts instructors fear experimenting and taking a good solid courses and changing it into a situation where students bear the risk and end up getting something less. I will agree that there are risks but I challenge the ways the issue is being framed. The trouble with a good solid course is that it just like every other good solid course. Students will approach them all the same way. They will "learn" as measured by the standard means, but the chance that their world view will have changed is nil and the prospect of retaining the knowledge is meager. As one colleague put it, "the knowledge vanishes out of the tips of their fingers as they write their final exams."

If students are to have a leap in their imagination, they must take risks. They need to abandon their familiar world view for something else. If we as instructors want them to do that we must be right there with them. Our perspective must be ready to change too. The good solid course is same old, same old. That just won't do.

Of course the experimentation must be done with intelligence. There needs to be reason to believe the experiments will be successful , with a skeptical eye in the design of the activities. Armed with that caveat, however, the foot should be on the accelerator not the the brake.

In my economics principles course I chose not to use a textbook, because I didn't want that to be a crutch for students and because i wanted the students to read the unflitered writing of other economists. But I didn't want the students to have kniptions about it; if they wanted to consult a text that should be their perogative. And I wanted to gauge their general research skills because there would be assignments down the road that relied on those skills.

So I designed the following assignment to start the semester. Each student was to find pinciples textbook titles for books that were among the top 10 in market share. Students would get 10 points for every book they identified in the top 10 that no other student had identified. If at least two students identified a particular book, then nobody who identified that book would get credit. That was the incentive part.

I had no idea how this would turn out. I had never done ane an assingment like this before. But I had an intuition. These were honor students and they cared about their grades, a lot. The reward system was designed to encourage them to find the more obscure texts on the list. That would require more effort in searching.

I tabulated their submissions, posted the table in our class site, and then we had a reflective discussion in class about how they went about doing the assignment. The power in the approach is that they experienced the effect of the incentives in their own behavior. Collectively they had identified the 10 top texts plus some others and in total I gave out credit to only one student who came up with a single title that was not duplicated. It was a conundrum for them why they worked so hard to receive no credit. That was hitting them in their breadbox and made the reflection more compelling.

Did any of them shirk or contemplate shirking? No, this was the first assignment in the course. The isntructor couldn't possibly be encouraging that. Did they think of colluding with their classmates? No, that would be cheating. Had they thought through the incentives in advance? This one we really didn't discuss, but I made the point strongly that their course grade would come from doing the work and this exercise had value even if they wouldn't get credit for it. The note from my student, a year later, confirmed that this was a very effective exercise.

What are the larger lessons? First, if we can design scenarios that will generate experiential knowledge, that is a powerful way to introduce the theory. Second, if we can get a group of bright kids to collectively "get it wrong" then we've created conditions ripe for learning. Surprise is a powerful and perhaps necessary component. Third, the instructor has to be prepared to ad lib, but can do that on the basis of the student work so that in class the discussion seesm to be what the the instructor intended all along.

In designing a reformed system for instruction, these would seem to be key elements to incorporate.

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