Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Some thoughts on teaching

February 20, 2011

I am half-way through  Jay Parini‘s The art of teaching, a slim volume of about 160 pages. Parini, being a writer, finds lots of similarities between teaching and writing; and, with his literary and poetic training, finds lots of similarities between theatre and classroom performance:

Teaching and writing have a lot in common here. “In creating,” wrote James Russell Lowell in ” A Fable for Critics”,” “the only hard thing’s to begin.” In the classroom, starting over can feel daunting. Teaching–again, like writing–is a brave act of self-presentation, and with every new class, the need to reinvent oneself is vividly, even scarily, at hand. In fact, good teachers have no choice but to consider their public selves in a calculated fashion; a subject I address in detail later in this volume. The classroom is a form of theater, and the teacher must play various roles, often in an exaggerated manner: wise man, fool, tempter, comforter, coach, confessor. And that is just for starters. (…) In fact, there is nothing natural about teaching; (…)

Of course, some of the advice and suggestions that Parini gives are meant for those who teach literature and humanities; but one can see the spirit behind those, and modify them for teaching in other branches as well.

Parini is also not a great fan of examinations, tests and quizes:

I was always suspicious of the classroom as a testing ground for intelligence, a place for sorting the “good” from the “bad” students. The idea of the academic world as a place of competition repelled me. To be frank, it still does, and I never feel happy with students or colleagues who seem excessively interested in grading, in putting up barriers to jump across. I hate exams, and I find quizzes an annoyance–for me as well as the students who must take them. Test-oriented teaching strikes me as anti-educational, a kind of unpleasant game that subverts the real aim of education: to waken a student to his or her potential, and to pursue a subject of considerable importance without restrictions imposed by anything except the inherent demands of the material.

On the whole, a nice book; strongly recommended if you are interested in teaching or started teaching recently.

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An ephemeral snapshot

January 10, 2011

Here is a nice piece (as you can see below) by Bharadwaj Rangan on critics and their profession that touched a chord with me because it set me thinking about teaching and grading.

The idea that I find to be the most difficult to communicate to my students (most often) is that though I set the question paper, and that I have corrected and given such and such grade, the grade by itself does not tell anything about how “good” or “bad” the student is in any absolute sense (to paraphrase Bharadwaj Rangan, from here).

As teachers, in addition to teaching, we are also forced to give exams, evaluate students and give our stamp in the form of grades (like Rangan and his ilk who are asked to give stars and rating numbers in addition to reviews). And, much like Rangan, I also feel that this entire system of grading is

vestigial remnants of a long-established and corrupt system, necessary evils we have to live with, and they deserve nothing but contempt

As Nana Patekar says in his Ab Tak Chhappan, “Mujhe bhi accha nai lagta hai; lekin, karna padtha hai”.

The only reason I would like to give exams to my students is to check how far I think I have been able to communicate what I wanted to communicate and for the students to evaluate how far they have understood what they think they have understood; however, grading, and the pressures associated with grades (if I do not have such and such grade I will not get this admission or that job) interferes with this process.

I would love to see that day when grading gets separated from teaching!

Learning to do incorrect research

September 17, 2010

In the latest issue of EPW, there is a perspective piece by Donald W Attwood titled How I Learned to do Incorrect Research which might be worth your while (and, pray tell me, how do you NOT READ an essay titled thus?)

On a different note, Yes; I know. But, I am not able to figure out how to get the link for the pdf of the article at the EPW site.  Anyway, hurry before the piece disappears from the front page.

Good seminar behaviour

June 14, 2010

There are some very useful tips to developing good seminar behaviour at this post of Tomorrow’s Professor blog:

When assessing seminar behaviors one can ask, How does a person contribute to the seminar? To what degree does he or she engage in the following three kinds of behaviors?

A.  Introduce substantive points: …

B. Deepen the discussion: …

C.  Facilitate group exploration: …

A very useful and interesting piece.

Physics education research

March 19, 2010

I just found that Phys. Rev. family has a journal for education (Thanks to ZapperZ). Some of the papers there seem to be very interesting too — like this one for example:

We report a detailed study of the implementation of Tutorials in Introductory Physics at a large-scale research institution. Based on two successive semesters of evaluation, we observe students’ improved conceptual mastery (force and motion concept evaluation median normalized gain 0.77, N=336), albeit with some student discontent. We replicate the results of original studies of tutorial effectiveness and document how and why these results occur. Additionally, using the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey we measure the support of students’ expertlike beliefs about learning physics in our environment. We examine this implementation from a viewpoint that emphasizes varying contextual levels of this implementation, from students’ engagement in individual tasks, to the situations in which these tasks are embedded, to the broader classroom, departmental, and educational structures. We document both obvious and subtle features that help ensure the successful implementation of these reforms.

One of the key things that I found in the paper is the report that as there are students who enjoy these sessions, and, there are also students who would rather not do tutorials. It would be worthwhile to study the group that does not enjoy the tutorials and figure out ways of catering to their needs!

Skills for graduates!

March 17, 2010

Communication skills — written and oral — are an important component of university education, and are also very priced in the job market. At InsideHigherEd, I see that the bar has been raised — to include fluency with the use of audio-visual material:

I’ll share my favorite 10, modified somewhat from the original list.1. Start a Blog

2. Buy an Audio Recorder and Learn to Use It

3. Start Editing Audio

4. Post an Interview (or Podcast) on Your Blog

5. Learn How to Shoot, Crop, Tone, and Optimize Photos (And Add Them to Your Blog)

6. Learn to Create Effective Voice-Over Presentations with Rapid Authoring Software

7. Tell a Good Story with Images and Sound

8. Learn to Shoot Video

9. Edit Your Video with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker

10. Publish Your Video on Your Blog.

And, I tend to agree — the written and oral communication are no more confined only to words and drawings.

Readings: the private and the social

March 9, 2010

Libby Gruner at Inside Higher Ed:

It’s an odd thing, writing a blog. Folks I know — or colleagues I don’t know, for that matter — can stumble across it in ways they’re unlikely to come across my academic work, but they don’t often let me know they read it. That’s fine — one of the great pleasures of reading is how private it can be at times, how personal, how intimate. And if they don’t like it I certainly don’t need to hear it! But when I do hear about it, then writing a blog post becomes part of an ongoing conversation. I think we need both kinds of reading, the private and the social; the first allows us to drink deeply of new ideas and to reflect on them, while the second can allow us to put them into practice, to hone and refine them. (Or, one allows us to skim hastily while the other forces a certain accountability — that’s always another possibility.)

The rest of the piece is about a couple of articles on teaching that appeared recently (which Abi also referred to in his blog). Take a look!

Is contempt the necessary condition for learning?

September 17, 2009

Murray Gell-Mann seems to say so:

Then how did you settle on physics?
After my father gave up on engineering, he said, ‘How about we compromise and go with physics? General relativity, quantum mechanics, you will love it.’ I thought I would give my father’s advice a try. I don’t know why. I never took his advice on anything else. He told me how beautiful physics would be if I stuck with it, and that notion of beauty impressed me. My father studied those things. He was a great admirer of Einstein. He would lock himself in his room and study general relativity. He never really understood it. My opinion is that you have to despise something like that to get good at it.

Why is that?
If you admire it sufficiently, you’ll be in awe of it, so you’ll never learn it. My father thought it must be very hard, and it will take years to understand it, and only a few people understand it, and so on. But I had a wonderful teacher at Yale, Henry Margenau, who took the opposite attitude. He thought relativity was for everybody. Just learn the math. He’d say, “We’ll prepare the math on Tuesday and Thursday, and we’ll cover general relativity on Saturday and next Tuesday.” And he was right. It isn’t that bad.

Link via Swarup who has pointers to some other material as well.

Abstraction is the enemy of learning

September 10, 2009

Abstraction is the enemy of learning – it is the end, not the beginning, of understanding. Mathematicians cannot comprehend this, and I suppose it is conceivable that their brains are wired differently. But most physics students learn by proceeding from the concrete to the abstract, not the other way around. It is the universal blunder of lecturers just starting out in their careers to go straight for the most sophisticated formulation – the one they recently learned in graduate school, and to which they are still in thrall. They want to start every problem with a Lagrangian, even if Newton’s laws would do it much more simply. This is like trying to potty-train a two year old on a full-sized toilet: exciting to the parent, perhaps, but frightening to the child, and potentially dangerous. Our business is to empower students, not to impress them; to instil confidence (“I could have done that!”), not awe (“How did they do that?”). The simplest tool is almost always the best one.

That is David J Griffiths here; link via. A must-read piece.

HowTo: design courses

July 21, 2009

Here is a tutorial that tells how; link via ScienceWoman who is blogging her experience of designing one.