February 9, 2009

Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline!

This post is about our on-going journal club over "the math problem", particularly chapters 3 and 4 of the book Talking About Leaving. This book should be read by anyone who teaches engineering- preferably early in their career.

There is a lot of good stuff in these chapters that makes a powerful case we are doing our students a great disservice by trying to do our profession a great service. I remember that the first time I read this book I got emotional and upset when I hit chapter 3; and getting emotional over most scientific publications is hard! I've always let my heart run away from my head when I see what I perceive to be injustice, and chapter 3 really paints a picture of the injustice we do our students. Why injustice?

  • We sucker students into joining STEM disciplines without doing a good job of explaining what exactly you can expect your career and life options to be.
  • We place greater emphasis on the disciplinary knowledge than the people who make up the discipline. And my alignment has always been chaotic...
  • The primary reasons that students leave STEM disciplines are due to things the faculty can easily change but don't.
  • Grades seem to be highly unrelated to what people learn.
  • Faculty use pedagogical approaches that don't emphasize conceptual understanding with dire consequences for students' long term understanding.

Obviously the list could go on quite a bit longer, chapter 3 is rich in issues than need to be addressed in engineering education. There are really two issues that I feel strongly about in this chapter and want to go into a little more detailed reflection on: the negative impact of grades, and the difficulty of focusing on building conceptual understanding.

First conceptual understanding... How does one design a class to focus on conceptual understanding, what are the concepts that most faculty agree are absolutely critical for a discipline, and what is the correct balance between conceptual and procedural understanding? All these are hard questions and my own reading has not led me to any answers yet. I have always been fascinated with the idea of taking a year off and laying out a conceptual foundation for my discipline. Though I've toyed with this idea I've never put any real effort into pursuing it. One of the first things I would look for is a conceptual taxonomy to rate and value different concepts. Also a conceptual hierarchy if one exists would be valuable in designing a class. Looking into conceptual taxonomies and hierarchies is a possible direction to pursue in later meetings of the journal club.

The balance between procedural and conceptual is perhaps an easier question but might be framed as a "chicken and egg" problem. Does one design lab experiments that illustrate application of concepts, or do you investigate and master concepts as they arise in doing actual engineering work? Again, I don't know the answer.

Grades. Blecch. Do grades serve any positive purpose whatsoever? Grades motivate certain students, but I would argue in the wrong way. Grades are highly uncorrelated to actual knowledge. Grades are a pain in the ass for faculty to assign; there isn't much more boring than the task of grading. Grades give students false impressions of their own level of knowledge. Grades--due to their inherent binary nature--cause moral quandries for faculty who have to balance the harm caused by failing a student with the long term problems that may arise by passing that student.

Hell, it is obviously time to get rid of grades and go with a more sensible system. I think I really need to write the gaming proposal that the imp of the perverse has been whispering in my ear for the last year...

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