Sunday, March 06, 2005

the role of the faculty

Lecturing is an important function. Doing it well takes time and effort, particularly when the subject matter is new. It is only occasionally correct for the faculty member to present her own research tracing back the way she came to have those ideas. More often, another way to view the work is needed, because the audience will not have thought as deeply about the issues. The good lecture helps the students penetrate the ideas and gives the students a sense of what is important, where the focus should be.

Mentoring is also an important function. The mentoring relationship is much more personal and driven by the learning needs of the student. The good mentor encourages an open intellectual relationship with the mentee and allows the mentee to grow and gain confidence in his ability to generate ideas, produce good work, and communicate about the work.

While lecturing and mentoring happen at both the graudate and undergraduate levels, the stereotype is that graduate education is mentoring while undergraduate education is lecturing. In the U.S, graduate education is perceived as very high quality, while the perception of undergraduate education is that it is less good. One is naturally drawn to ask whether one might improve undergraduate education by making it less lecture centric and increasing the emphasis on mentoring.

Especially for subject matter that has been around, even if there are new perspectives, one must recognize that there are alternatives to the lecture. The Principles of Economics that I have taught recently is content-wise not so different from the same course taught twenty years ago. There are textbooks, streaming video with and without PowerPoint of lectures on the subject matter, online lecture notes, and simulations (such as my Excelets). To the extent that students use lectures as their introduction to the information, this is a very poor use of the faculy member, especially when there are some many other alternatives that might introduce the student to the material. Bill Massy makes this point strongly. Faculty should be used for higher order things. Massy argues that faculty should teach upper level courses only, with a different mode of instruction and different personnel involved in teaching the introductory courses. I (along with a host of others) have argued for a more modest change - that there be online alternatives to introduce students to the material and that those entail some degree of assessment both to promote the learning but also to ensure students are held accountable. Then the live class session would change to be more reflective and allow deeper penetration into the subject.

However, I don't beleive this reform goes far enough. I think faculty need to spend some significant amount of time mentoring undergraduates and I think that undergraduates themselves must be involved in significant mentoring relationships, possibly several simultaneously. Hubert Dreyfus, in a critique of online learning, argues that the master-apprentice relationship represents the deepest form of teaching and learning possible. I've seen some take issue with Dreyfus on his critique, but the refutation is that face to face instruction is often large, impersonal lecture not intimate mentoring between master and apprentice. Nobody disagrees about the value of the mentoring itself.

The problem of course is one of scale. The student/faculty ratios we have don't allow every undergraduate to have a signficant one-on-one relationship with a faculty member. Absent a scalable solution, this is just so much tilting at windmills.

My solution, which if you have been reading the previous posts should be obvious, is for much the mentoring to be student to student. More experienced students mentor other students who are earlier in their college careers. This should happen within the context of courses. Faculty mentor the student teacher/mentors. This might seem like additional burden and if it plays out that way then the faculty won't go for it an the approach will fail. The key is that the faculty mentoring will be part of ensuring quality instruction in their course. As long as the faculty view the student teacher/mentors as productive and as long as the faculty are themselves engaged in teaching, this can work.

As this approach unfolds those faculty who begin down this path will hand select their student teacher/mentors from the best that they had as students in previous incarnations of the course. However, for the approach to scale, ultimately it must be that all students who are sufficiently far along mentor other students. In the next post, we'll discuss how that might work.

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