A few thoughts on college education

Since I'm trying to get back in to blogging and writing more, I thought this would be a good place to jot down a few rambling thoughts I had today - mostly so I would have a place to refer back to it in the future!

(Anyone who stumbles across this and actually reads it - keep in mind that I've never taken an education class and am not very familiar with pedagogy and that most of the education I've done is in the informal outreach setting.)

One of our professors is planning to implement a "flipped classroom" approach for his introductory astronomy class next semester and part of my job will be helping him put together the materials. One of the "evangelists" of the technique in our college gave a seminar about it today and I tagged along to learn a few things - although I was hoping they might get a little more into the technology (which is what I wil mainly be doing). Still, I found it to be an interesting discussion of teaching and learning in the modern day university.

Near the end he was talking about some of the student feedback, both good and bad, after taking a class taught that way. The bad feedback was a comment from a student who said they wanted the professor to give clear lectures and spell out exactly how and on what materials they would be tested. I was nodding along with that so the seminar presenter asked for thoughts and pointed to me, and I mentioned, although I am not personally a faculty member, I have heard our faculty complaining about students having this attitude. Basically, they want a cookbook class - a set of numbered instructions that they need to follow to get the results they are looking for (a good grade, presumably). One of the actual faculty members chimed in and said "basically, they don't want to think". I wouldn't have put it quite that bluntly, but I think she was kind of right. At least I don't feel that the students want to have to think outside of a pre-instilled idea of how education is supposed to work. And that gets me to the epiphany that I had one the walk back to my office - this is the fallout of the state testing that the students who are now in college (if they grew up in Texas) have been doing all their school career. I realize that this is a broad generalization, and it might not even be the right conclusion, but it the idea just seemed to 'click' with me. Teachers are told the topics that they need to teach because those are the topics the students will be tested on. And in some cases, the students are basically told "these are the facts you will be tested on, learn them". And then at the end of the year (depending on their school grade) they are tested on just those concepts and facts. So when these students get to college, they kind of expect the things to be laid out the same way. The university does require a syllabus to be handed out to the students on the first day and that they will know what goes in to calculating their final grade, and I don't have a problem with that. But the feeling I'm getting is that students just want to be given a list of facts and concepts (or problem types) that they will be tested over and then that is all that will show up on exams. I've *literally* been told by a student "just give me the answer". But I, and others, don't think that is the end-all-be-all of education - to just be told a bunch of info by a professor and then regurgitate that answer back to them on homework, quizzes, and exams. You're not really LEARNING.

The example I alluded to above was up at the telescope one night. I run a public night that students also go to in order to do observing assignments from some of the professors (from our university and from the local community college and high schools). So, they often come in with a worksheet with little blanks to fill in (already getting a little too "cookbookish" for my taste for the college students, but these are mostly non-science majors) and come to me to get the info to fill in to those little blanks. Sometimes the answers are straightforward - the size of the telescope, things like that. But sometimes the questions give me a chance to make the students work for it a little instead of just *giving* the answer. In the case I'm remembering, we were looking at the binary star system Albireo in Cygnus, which is a pretty double with one golden star and one blue star. One of the students was writing down the info in order to write it up for a class assignment and needed to write down why the stars are different colors. I asked what class they were in and surmised that it wasn't going too far to expect them to either know or at least be able to guess what the correct answer was (they have different temperatures). After one or two half-hearted guesses the exasperated student said, in a not-too-kind tone "just give me the answer!". My immediate thought was to say "no, at least go look it up for yourself", but instead I asked around to the other students, one of whom knew the answer (and who I think was in the same class as the original student).

I'm sure there are - and always will be - lazy students who just want to follow a prescribed regimen and give a stock answer to straightforward questions. And I don't think any new teaching techniques will get to those students. But for the students who really want to learn and are really interested in the subjects, taking advantage of the new technology available to us - that the students are very comfortable with since the kids now in college grew up with it - is something at least worth trying. One of the speakers described the teacher as "coach" in the flipped classroom model, and I really liked that idea. You can teach them technique and give pointers to improve performance, but ultimately the student has to perform on their own.

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