Saturday, June 11, 2005

Student Heterogeneity: Nurture versus Prestige 2

When I taught the large intermediate microeconomics course, a rule of thumb was that Engineering students would like the course more than Business students. Two obvious reasons for this preference: (1) Engineering classes are in general more demanding than Business classes in terms of both the expectation about the time required to do the work and also about the expectation of the difficulty level of the work. (2) Feeling comfortable with Economics taught at this level requires feeling comfortable about mathematical modeling.

For the Engineers the Econ course was neither particularly hard nor particularly time consuming and among the courses that fit the social science, Econ is probably closest to Engineering. For the Business majors, the Econ course as I taught it was time consuming and "they had to teach themselves" rather than have the instructor do that for them. Furthermore, apart from some operations research stuff, which most Business students opt out of, mathematical modeling is not emphasized in the rest of the Business curriculum.

Econ is now in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but when I taught intermediate micro it was in the College of Commerce and Business Administration (now College of Business). Many LAS students wanted to transfer into CBA and the Econ Courses were both a way to parallel the CBA curriculum and those course served a gating function. This meant LAS students who were CBA wannabes viewed the Econ courses as hurdles to overcome. Their perceptions of these courses may have been even more focused on earning a good grade in the course (CBA student were very grade conscious) because the ability to transfer to CBA was tied to GPA and performance in CBA core courses.

Although Econ has always had a sizable number of majors, the Business students and LAS wannabes were the majority in my course. So there was a majority student population who had a hostile view of the course. They clearly viewed it as a screen and not infrequently would inquire about why the course was required. For my part, I taught a thorough course that I felt was at the appropriate level for the students intellectually. But it was quite obvious to me that I wasn't nurturing this group. At the time I believe I viewed that as an impossible goal, in a similar way that it is impossible to get pre-med Biology students to like Organic Chemistry.

Now I think I could nurture that group to some, but whether I could nurture all groups that are horizontally differentiated in the way Engineering Students are different from Business students, I'm not sure.

There are other ways that students are differentiated. One is in their willingness to put in time working on the course outside the live class session. One might think of this willingness as itself an indicator of student seriousness. But at the conference I attended last Monday a different view was articulated by several people in attendance. They argued that many students are taking a full load of courses while working full time. The underlying reason must be that these are lower income people who have to pay their own tuition and don't want to go part time because that will preclude the better programs that don't allow a part time student or because that path implies a longer time to degree. For such students, an instructor demanding that students put in a lot of time out of class makes it that much harder for these students to matriculate. As far as the argument goes, I think we can all understand it.

However, what I couldn't understand but what they argued is that such students should be accommodated by having fewer out of class requirements. That is, courses should have a low total time requirement for students because some of them will be working full time and this is the only way to accommodate. I think this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Long term, the value of the education in the labor market has to be tied to what that education has produced in terms of productivity. How can the education produce much if anything with a low time requirement for completion? That just doesn't wash.

But there is a related idea that does need to be considered as well. Some things are time consuming to complete because they are difficult. Conversely, if something is easy to pursue then one can race through it. The difficulty level matters both for the time issue and directly as well on whether the education is nurturing.

Yet it is not so straightforward. Bright people need to be challenged. There is no learning without that. In a challenging but successful environment the student goes from unknowing, perhaps feeling some anxiety about that, to perception, which brings a sense of self-confidence. There may not be that much difference from the successful situation and the one where the student finds himself blown out of the water. Is it the teacher or the student? Is it lack of nurture or lack of discipline and effort? Or is it none of these and just a bad fit on the subject matter?

Those were the questions I had when I got started with learning technology. In some respects we haven't come so far.

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