Thoughts on Teaching by Richard Bleil
Recently, I have been filling in for a colleague of mine in our chemistry class. It’s the same class, but there are four sections. I teach two, and two others each teach one section. All three of us approach teaching differently, and I thought i might talk for a bit about these three approaches, and the pros and cons.
I should mention, this might not apply to all disciplines. For example, I have a friend (yes, I do have a friend) who teaches the harp and other music history and appreciation courses. Her approach for teaching harp, no doubt, must be a hands-on approach. I doubt any students would get any talent whatsoever in a theoretical discussion of the chords and pressures necessary if they’re not actually practicing at the same time. The practice in the sciences can be done at home without my presence.
Before I discuss our three techniques, a quick side note. I worked at a college that always brought in a speaker during faculty pre-session week to discuss some new teaching theory. This was a brilliant idea. Even if you didn’t agree with the new theory, it got you thinking about your own style and the idea of teaching. One of my favorites was a “problem-based” teaching theory. The speaker insisted that (as they often do) that every subject without exception would be better taught using her problem based approach, which amounted to breaking a class up into small work groups of maybe half a dozen, and giving the a problem, allowing them time to work out the details and learn from their own frustrating efforts. I also noted that she gave this discussion as a traditional lecture. I asked a couple of questions, and basically got two things out of her. First of all, that her method is slow and probably not appropriate for large classes where you must get a LOT of information out there in a short amount of time. Her approach may be better, but it is not efficient. Problem based teaching in chemistry might get through a chapter or two in a semester, but it wouldn’t get through the book in a year.
The second thing I got out of her is that the best method of teaching is very much based on personal style as well. It might sound as if I was picking on her, but that wasn’t my intention. I wanted some clarification about personal style and the amount of time. See, there is a common problem (born from excitement so a little forgiveness is warranted) in educators in assuming that their own teaching style is the absolute best. It’s not. There are many out there, and the best is a combination of personal style and subject matter (including quantity of information that must be conveyed). A friend of mine fell in love with “client based teaching”, insisting that “education is entertainment” (it’s not) and that, as the client, “the student is always right” (they’re not). The problem with this is that if the student is always right, it robs the professor of the power to do what must be done. Last week I had to scold my class. Multiple groups in the back were having conversations loud enough that I could hear them in normal conversation level in the front. So, if the client is always right, what should I have done? To do nothing is not fair to the students who were legitimately trying to pay attention. To wait for them to finish their conversation would have hurt everybody in the class, breaking continuity of the topic, and giving less time to get the information they need to them. My friend would have said I was not entertaining enough, I’m sure. I would offer that since I teach chemistry, there is too much information that students find too dry for me to take the time to be entertaining. The reality is that my students are adults, and they need to know when they should be paying attention.
Okay, finally, on to the three approaches.
When I teach, I tend to teach principles. I want the students to have the information necessary to synthesize answers. I do example questions, but I make them up in class to illustrate the points I am making. Students in the past have suggested I should write a textbook, but the problem with this is that I would never be able to use it. See, the textbook should be a voice that is different from mine. If students don’t understand what I am saying, then hopefully they understand the author and vice versa. The problem with my approach is that it relies on the students to take that information forward to the homework and exams and apply it appropriately. Honestly, I don’t believe this should be a problem because, as I’ve said, I do many problems in class.
The colleague for whom I was filling in last week is a homework based teacher. Apparently, he takes problems out of the back of the chapter and solves them in class. No doubt he explains as he goes along, but it’s very practical teaching showing how to solve the problems. He does the even numbered problems since the odd numbered has answers in the back of the book, leaving those for the students to practice. His class usually does better on the quizzes than mine, I must admit that, because he is focusing on teaching them how to solve the problems. My question, though, is if they could apply the knowledge in a situation other than textbook problems. I’m hoping that my approach will make them better able to use the information when it is applicable in their chosen careers (just FYI, these students are almost universally pre-nursing majors).
Finally, the third colleague tends to teach using a lot of the tools that comes from the publisher of the textbook. This means he is using their PowerPoint presentations, videos, and so forth. The problem with this approach is that I wonder how much of this is his course, and how much is the publisher’s. I never use them, because I figure my students can go and watch them (they are available on our course site) on their own, and the same information is there. I know he expands on it, but I would still not be comfortable that i could make it enough of my own course.
Who is right? Well, I am, of course.
No, not really. The reality is that we each teach in a fashion that seems best to us. There are pros and cons to each approach (yes, even mine). Students don’t always get what a professor is trying to accomplish, and seem to think that the end goal is to get a good grade. The reality is that the end goal is to get students to learn some of the material. All of it would be nice, but enough to be useful is about the best we can hope for. So, we do our best, in the way that seems best to us, and hope for the results that we seek.