Monday, February 24, 2014

Teaching innovation: one step forward, one step backward

It great to try new things in teaching. We desperately need to when we are honest about how little many students actually learn, particularly with traditional modes of delivery. Technology also makes possible all sorts of things.

People will often promote innovations; but sometimes a few years later it is found that they don't work as well as they did or were hoped to. Yet I suspect that sometimes, because of disappointment or embarrassment, the proponents are a bit coy about making known regressions.
So in the interest of transparency and to promote discussion here are a couple of mine. They both relate to a course PHYS4030: Condensed Matter Physics that I have taught on of off for the past ten years. It is a final year undergraduate course that basically covers approximately half the material in Ashcroft and Mermin.

A few years ago I introduced three innovations. Both seemed to work for a while.

Formative and summative assessment following the example of another undergraduate course I was involved in. Students must complete a certain minimum amount of work [attendance, writing on the course blog, assignments, ...] to pass the course but this has little effect on their final grade.

A course blog that students must post and comment on several times a week. I did this because it had worked earlier in a biophysics reading course I taught.

Students give a talk on a recent research paper [often from a luxury journal] that relates to the course.

I won't be doing any of the three this year.
Why? Basically, for the same reason as
Confession of an Ivy League teaching assistant: Here’s why I inflated grades
It is not worth the hassle of dealing with student complaints.

It seems some students think they should "credit" for all the work they do. Some read the course profile to mean they could make all their posts on the blog in the last week. Some didn't see why they should have to attend the paper talks of their classmates. Some also had rather different views to me about what grade they should get for their talks.

So, for now I am reverting to the old traditional assessment: exams and assignments.

I welcome comments and suggestions.


  1. I think it is a shame that you are giving up. I'm only guessing, but I bet there are several students in the class that really benefit from this sort of assessment. However, there are always a few troublemakers that cause the problems you describe. In my experience you need to make sure all the rules are tight and explicit, otherwise there are people that try to do exactly the things you describe - they are always looking for loopholes to how they can avoid work. But I think they are usually the minority.

    Meanwhile, you reminded me of this:

    I hope that gives you a chuckle.

    1. Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the encouragement. I agree the rules need to be very tight. But I thought we had. So then reformulating them, communicating them, monitoring them, and defending them also takes time and energy.

      Ultimately, one has to weigh up where one wants to put ones time and emotional energy.

  2. My belief is that the amount I learn is not influenced much by the assessment, but it is greatly influenced by what goes on in the classroom in the teaching sessions (lectures and tutorials). And what's most important is not the method or the microscopic details, but the overall arrangement and philosophy of the course. Does it build upon some key ideas, that are introduced very early, and then logically show how they lead to a complete understanding. I can follow board after board of mathematical detail in class and forget it two weeks later, but if the way things fit together is well taught, I remember that.

    1. Hi Smatthey,

      Thanks for the feedback.
      Your views on teaching, focusing on the big picture, align with mine, and so are an encouragement to do that.

      But I also find there are certain number of students who seem to want every step of algebra worked out in detail, rather than a focus on describing what the result is, why it is important, and the schematics of the derivation.