Thursday, August 29, 2013

It's Magic!

Sebastian Thrun, Founder of Udacity: "The thing I'm insanely proud of right now is I think we've found the magic formula."

Despite nearly twenty years of teaching experience, first as a grad student and then a professor, I still get the jitters before the first class meeting.  This is especially true when I teach my ginormous Introduction to Ancient Rome class: 400 students and a range of previous experiences with learning history and reasons for taking the course.  From demographic surveys, we know that most of them are there to fulfill a core curriculum requirement; but, for whatever individual reason, they've chosen to take this class instead of some other class that fulfills that requirement.  I love walking in on the first day of class and seeing that so many students are going to be learning about ancient Roman history and culture.  They are going to be learning about the evidence historians use and how we evaluate it.  They are also going to be learning that you can't blindly trust everything you read or see.  You have to think about the larger historical and cultural context that produced that text or monument. 

The first few weeks are all about orienting the students to the many moving pieces of the course.  Most especially, they are about setting expectations for the level of active engagement with the content that I am going to expect from them inside and outside of class.  This requires a tremendous amount of thought, organization and hard work from me and my teaching team (four graduate student TAs).  Going into this fall semester, I feel pretty optimistic that my structure for the class as well as the "protocol" in place will, on the whole, work to motivate students to make good choices (e.g. stay on top of the course material; attend class meetings).  If they make good choices, chances are in their favor that they will learn more and better; and earn a higher grade than they would have if they were in my traditional lecture version of the course.

Still, at the end of the day, everything depends on the students.  I can set up a course that motivates and rewards good learning behaviors; but I can't make them learn.  All to say, there is no "magic formula" in higher education.  Or, perhaps, better said: the real magic formula is investing a whole lot more money in public education, so that we are not teaching 400 students at a time.  The "magic formula" is a strong and positive relationship between instructor and student.  When we are talking about teaching hundreds or thousands of students at a time, however, we can do our best to set them up for success; but learning is ultimately their responsibility.

As well, in actual college classrooms, we don't have the luxury of improving our learning outcomes by changing our student demographic.  There's nothing novel or magical here.  Highly selective colleges and universities learned this trick a long time ago: if you want to boast about the success of your graduates, only admit the very best and most prepared students.  It's hard work--and risky--to admit students who are less well-prepared, who need a lot of guidance from experts.  As university professors, we work with what we have.  I am lucky, in that the make-up of my students doesn't change a whole lot from year to year.  Still, one of the challenges of the large class is finding ways to identify and provide help for the students who are struggling.  It's also knowing when and how to intervene. 

I wish there was a magic formula for this, but there's not, at least not yet.  Maybe someday a magic algorithm will be able to predict early in the semester that a student is going to struggle.  In the meantime, my TAs and I have to use the many combined years of experience we have to work with the range of students that we have.  We do a pretty good job, but it's hands on, a lot of time and effort from us as well as the students.  Then again, I've not yet tried to wave my magic wand and cast a spell...

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