Monday, January 21, 2013

Take credit for your student’s success? then take the blame for the failures.

Nothing makes me question someone’s teaching ability more than when they brag the achievements of one of their past top performing students, and then launch into a rant about how the bottom of the class is wasting everyone’s time because these students are lazy, unintelligent and/or unmotivated. We all have superstars in class and they will always perform well. All one has to do to get the superstars onside is to flatter them a bit while offering some sort of helpful advice. These students can do wonders for your teaching reputation as they are invariably the most outspoken and articulate and therefore most likely to tell everyone how wonderful you are. Hence, catering to the elite end of the class is probably the easiest and surest way to advance your teaching reputation. However, it does not make you a good or even passable teacher. The top 10% always takes care of itself, it is how you deal with the other 90% that separates the great from the descent teachers.
If you want to have my respect for your teaching then ask or tell me how you deal with your worse student. What techniques and methods do you use with the ones who are struggling? What ideas or approaches are you considering to improve their performance and yours? I have some ideas, like emphasizing what is beautiful about the subject and always trying to emphasize and bring out what is the most astonishing and amazing aspect of whatever topic I cover. I m convinced that only by kindling a genuine interest can one hope to motivate the bored students.  In addition, I have found that treating even the worse students like responsible and reasonable adults who are not stupid, but perhaps misguided, or who might have problems outside of class can help as well. Remember that no matter how much a person screws up, doesn’t attend class, or misses assignments, no one wants to be a failure. The question you have to ask the student is why are they behaving that way and what can they do to change that behavior?  So what do you do with your problem students?
The bottom line is that you should not take credit for your students’ successes unless you are also willing to take the blame for their failures. The real measure of your teaching ability is how much better ALL your students’ are with your help, than they would have been without it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Our Tech Savy, But Network Illiterate Students

This past semester I had a blast teaching Communicating Biology (Bio 380) at my new university in Plattsburgh. Since this is a third year class the focus was more on post-graduation skills than on university survival like the tutorials I used to teach in Southampton. Hence, there was also an emphasis on writing cover letters, working on CV’s and on different forms of presentations students might find themselves asked to do in the real world. Two very important aspects of this are dealing with the media and managing their web presence. For the media assignment, I had the students set up and video an interview with each other including much of what I learned from a valuable career development workshop seminar giving by the Royal Society on interacting with the media a few years back. To my great surprise the students needed hardly any equipment (most did interviews on their own webcams) and did very creative jobs with editing and producing their programs, albeit with enough copyright infringements that most could not be posted online. What amazed me was that I only had a couple who asked to borrow webcams and that all of them managed to put together videos with very little instruction or school provision of equipment and software.

On the other hand, I was taken aback at the apparent lack of thought most students have given to their web presence. They all must think about it with their Facebook sites, but very few can make the leap to how this can work for and against them in the grown up world. I must admit that I am equally dismayed at how little thought most of my peers give to their web presence as well. As competitive as academia, any edge helps; and the internet is one of the best ways to gain that edge. So after enlightening my students about how to tame Facebook, use Linkedin and the importance of taking control of their online presence, I also assigned them to make their own websites by modifying freely available templates with HTML and to write blogs which are online (link). I was worried that assigning basic HTML programming using a text editor was a bit like teaching how to use a slide rule in an age with computers, but they did well and seemed to appreciate actually seeing how this thing called the internet works. Interestingly they came up with websites that were more professional looking than most of our faculty members off campus sites. The blogs are kind of a mixed bag as you can see, but several of them found a voice and they actually were communicating biology, which I what the course was about. What will be telling will be to see how many of them keep it up.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Twice as much education for double the price?

One of the most striking differences in the American and British university systems is the amount of class time required for a bachelor degree. The US semester is 50% longer and the undergraduate degree program is one year longer (3 years in Britain, 4 years in the US). For those who have problems with math, this means American undergraduates are in class exactly twice as long as the British counter parts. Of course, The British students only take classes in their major, whereas the American system includes breadth with liberal arts requirements. The two questions that I have to ask are 1) Do American students get twice the education as the British and 2) do the British spend half as much money per student as the Americans for a Bachelor’s degree?  I realize that I am biased, but my guess would be yes to the first and no to the second. In the case of double the time, American students get a much broader experience, more opportunity to change direction as the students mature. We American instructors get the added freedom and luxury of time with the longer semesters allowing more time for teaching innovation and time for flexibility in dealing with difficult topics. The flip side of this can be a lack of focused effort from the students. This extra time and extra choice leads some to flounder whereas the focused more intense rationed system of the British system encourages never straying from the path.  I have no idea about the second question about relative cost between the two countries.  If anyone can point me to any hard numbers on these issues please do.