Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lessons I learned while teaching this year

1. The less I teach, the more my students learn. I'm slowly learning not to worry about "getting through" all of the material I've planned to do, to embrace the occasional tangent, and to not cover everything in lecture--to let the students learn some stuff on their own. Strangely, covering less material seems to make my students better learners. (I now realize why, but it took me a while to learn and embrace this concept.)

2. My students tend to be very uncomfortable with "unconventional" teaching styles--which to them is anything beyond lecture. But if I'm patient, and if I construct good classroom activities, even computer science majors will eventually embrace them--even the "dreaded" discussion format.

3. If I am being observed, I will do at least one boneheaded thing during the class, such as claim that 20/2 = 18.

4. I should always, always have a backup plan. Particularly if my primary plan depends on the students having done the reading. (Corollary: Making up a lecture on the fly is hard.)

5. I really need to get in the habit of writing all of my assignments before the start of a course (as opposed to determining the topic of each assignment before the course starts, but deferring the actual writing of the assignment to the day before I assign it). I think that doing so will make my classes flow much better.


Baker said...

Re: 1.) Why does covering less material make students better learners? I mean, I have that feeling too, but I don't realize why. Please enlighten.

2.) Planning and writing the assignments before the course is something I'm going to try for next year too. I'm hoping that having them planned and ready will, in a weird way, allow me to cover less material so the students learn more. That is, I used to wait until I'd covered every last drop of the material before giving a related assignment. If I have an assignment schedule and I force myself to be beholden to it, if I don't cover some of the stuff before the assignment due to tangents etc. then, oh well. Students can figure it out....I'm hoping this works.

3.) Why can't CS students read?

Anonymous said...

I suspect the "teach less" plan will work out better for the students in the long-term as well. Much of real-world programming is learning to do things on the fly. At some point, programmers will have to do an XSLT transformation, or write a PL/SQL stored procedure, or expose some functionality of their application as a SOAP-compliant web service. Learning to read programming books is critical.

So while a java student certainly needs to be taught that the String class exists, what it's used for, and some of it's unique properties (immutable in Java, etc), teaching them about specific methods like substring, length, etc is overkill. Will they need these methods for their Intro to Java course assignments? Absolutely. But making them read the javadocs for the String class and having them figure this out on their own is probably more valuable long-term than teaching them String.substring() or String.length().

Astroprof said...

There has been a debate for years on whether teaching less means more learning or not. The trick is to know how much less to teach! If you cover too much, they you are giving information at a higher baud than they can take it in. But, if you really cut back on the material, they learn what you teach well, but they are not ready for a followup class (if there is one). This is what we run into in physics classes.

Ianqui said...

Re #2: I've seen that too, and I really think it's because students just want to be passive and not have to do the work. I can understand the appeal, but it's not going to help them learn, nor is it really going to prepare them for dealing with colleagues in the real world. I strive to have a more interactive classroom as well.

Jane said...

Baker, Anonymous's example is a good explanation of "teaching less". For me, "teach less" has meant try to cover more of the big picture ideas, provide more context, and spend more class time on applications/examples/extensions. And put some of the onus back on students to read the textbook/other sources for the material I don't cover in class. I don't always do as well as I should with this, but I like the way it's working. (Astroprof's caveat of not teaching too much less is a great one too, though, and it is easy to go too far in the other direction.)

As to why CS students don't read...well, I can't say that I ever got too excited about reading the majority of my textbooks, either, so I can't blame them. In that specific case, though, it just so happened that it was one of the busy weeks in the semester/term, and something had to give...unfortunately, the "something" was the reading for my class. Oh well.

Ianqui, I think that passivity is part of it, but I'm also starting to think that they're just not exposed to these different learning activities (especially discussion, which makes them all break out in hives) in their CS courses, and so it makes them extremely uncomfortable.