Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lacking a place to stand, the world remains unlifted.

My last class was this past Tuesday.  My final is next Wednesday.  That is a long time in between.  I have one clerical task to do before the exam.  I will complete that today.  There is too much snow outside now to go anywhere and the basketball game isn't till this evening.  Might as well do something marginally productive for some part of the day.

But there has also been a lot of time to think about various what ifs and here I will record some of those that occurred to me.

As in past offerings of the course, for their final blog post I asked my students to do a self-critique of their performance and a critique of the class.  This time around I also asked specifically about how much time they spend - on the blogging (the story telling part of the class) and on the Excel homework (the math part of the class).  One of the findings that surprised me was that several of the better students reported they liked that part the best because it didn't take them much time to do it.  This cuts so against my grain of what it means to like to do something that I generated several what ifs based on just this reaction.

A factoid is required first.  Essentially all undergraduate economics classes are three credit hours.  Why?  I'll tell you.  I don't know.  As in Fiddler on the Roof, it is a tradition.  My first what if is this. What if we looked at such traditions and asked whether they serve what we're really after?   In the meantime, I ask the reader to do the simple math.  A full load for a student is somewhere between fifteen and eighteen credit hours.  Figure out how many courses the student takes at one time.  Then ask whether the courses compete with one another for the student's time.  Then, assuming it is agreed that the courses do compete with one another, ask whether that is good or bad.

The other factoid, for which there were so many little observations to confirm it during the semester that I didn't need to ask about it in that final blog post, is that the students are entirely wrapped up in a game of paper chase, with a high GPA the elusive goal.  In this universe only surface learning, but enough of that to produce a good grade in a course, is perfectly satisfactory to the student.  My second what if is this.  What if we leveraged this game that students play, instead of having it block the path to deeper learning?

Now a little bit about me.  Somewhere during my time as an economist, particularly in writing referee reports, and my time as a learning technologist, participating in group writing of a white paper of some sort, I learned how to give reasonably good and interesting comments on the writing initiated by others.  These comments were not about the grammar.  Rather, they were about the ideas.  If I liked something the author said I could give a substantive reason why.  If I didn't like something, I could likewise explain why not and then offer up something I'd prefer.  Further,  I could do this relatively quickly, which in some sense is a parallel with what my students said above.  Ironic, isn't it?  The difference is on the depth of understanding gleaned from the activity.  The students I mentioned were only skimming the surface.  As the old joke goes, the students were aiming for beauty.  I was after ugly.  What if this skill for providing ugly feedback were widely held by instructors?

Armed with these three what ifs, I started to construct my ideal of what undergraduate education for Econ majors (and really for students majoring in other social sciences) should look like.  Then I could fancy my course as a way to illuminate the path to that ideal.

What if I didn't know that damn New England joke?  You can't get there from here.

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