Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Invitation to Debate Some Pedagogical Practices

Today's post is a call for discussion and resources on matters of teaching. One of the real benefits of blogging is my interactions with other academics or students, who have really pushed me to reflect on my pedagogy and the goals of teaching undergraduates. Specifically, what I have been mulling over the last few days are two common practices/attitudes I see among college professors.

The first is the desire to make examinations as "objective" as possible. There are lots of motivations for this: i.e., to ensure that multiple sections of a course are fairly standard or to ensure that faculty preferences or dislikes of students don't factor into evaulation. I am sympathetic to the last goal. I am not so enthralled by the first goal. The desire to ensure some kind of uniformity among multiple sections of a course, such as Intro to Philosophy, seems to me to take the judgement and expertise away from the faculty teaching the course, and opting instead for pre-programmed and "canned courses," which frankly, anyone could teach. If we were to standardize our intro courses, for example, we might begin by adopting a common book, which comes with pre-made lectures, exam and quiz banks. We would adopt a common syllabus and the faculty member would merely be an administrative type: giving the pre-programmed lectures, and the pre-programmed tests and quizzes that are easy to grade.

The obvious downside of this model is that the Ph.D. is totally meaningless in this context. It would be cheaper to hire upper-class students to run these sections, rather than waste the more expensive resource of Ph.D. faculty.

The other problem with this model is that "objective tests" often translate into multiple choice, T/F, fill in the blank type questions. What I want to hear, from my readers, is why on earth faculty think that objectivity is best captured in these sorts of examinations? I fully admit that I am skeptical, but I imagine that there are folks out there who are up on pedagogical techniques and aware of research that demonstrates the value of these sorts of examinations. The object, as I understand it, is to assess if the students are learning the material. But, I remain unconvinced that such standardized tests really teach us anything about what our students know, and how well they have absorbed the information and skills we are trying to impart to them.

My second agenda item is the importance of attendance policies. I am someone who has an attendance policy. I have adopted it for various reasons, including: that I think I am teaching students how to be successful by getting them to participate in their education; that class interactions and discussions are important means for reinforcing the material being learned as well as fostering other skills such as speaking in front of peers or learning to ask questions; and, to be able to better track students who are struggling. However, many of my colleagues forgo such attendance policies.

One common retort I hear is that if a student is perfectly capable of doing well on examinations and papers without attending class, then why force them to sit through a class. What bothers me about this response is that it, once again, demeans the role of the professor in the same way that the "canned" classes do. Why on earth should we even be paid to teach if our courses are so designed that students can do perfectly well on their own? I am not suggesting that we create a dependency in them, but rather that what underlies this attitude, it seems to me, is a very different view of what education is about. If it is merely about teaching students lessons in a book, written by one of our colleagues (who we may or may not agree with), then it seems to me that we are wasting way too many precious resources by hiring "teacher-scholars" to run these courses.

My bias is that faculty adopt these sort of teaching practices solely to free up their own time and to minimize the amount of time they invest in students. Sometimes faculty do this in order to focus on getting enough publications to get through tenure. Sometimes faculty do this because they are lazy. My sense is that they rationalize these practices as being more "objective," but that is not really what motivates them.

I would like to hear from other faculty or students on this, particularly if I am terribly mistaken in my views or being uncharitable.