Thursday, July 30, 2009

University lectures

I enjoy learning, especially in the context of improving whatever it is I am doing. I do not enjoy the university lecturing system, even when the content is relevant and the lecturer is good. In contrast to interactive learning in the context of relevant activities, it is very inefficient.

In the industrial model of student mass production, the teacher is the broadcaster. A broadcast is by definition the transmission of information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. The teacher is the transmitter and student is a receptor in the learning process. The formula goes like this: "I'm a professor and I have knowledge. You're a student you're an empty vassal and you don't. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you."

The definition of a lecture has become the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.
Provocative but unfortunately sometimes true. In The Impending Demise Of The University Don Tapscott goes on to write about the generational and technological forces that are impacting the traditional university model of learning.

Carl Wieman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 writes in Why Not Try A Scientific Approach To Science Education? about his experiences in educating.
I have conducted an extensive research program in atomic physics over many years that has involved many graduate students, on whose professional development I have spent a lot of time and thought. And over the years I became aware of a consistent pattern: New graduate students would come to work in my laboratory after 17 years of extraordinary success in classes, but when they were given research projects to work on, they were clueless about how to proceed. Or worse — often it seemed that they didn’t even really understand what physics was.

But then an amazing thing happened: After just a few years of working in my research lab, interacting with me and the other students, they were transformed. I’d suddenly realize they were now expert physicists, genuine colleagues. If this had happened only once or twice it would have just seemed an oddity, but I realized it was a consistent pattern. So I decided to figure it out.
He goes on to talk about measuring student learning, research on learning, the role of technology and various approaches tried. Towards the end of his multi-part series he offers the following summary.
Our society faces both a demand for improved science education and exciting opportunities for meeting those demands. Taking a more scholarly approach to education—that is, utilizing research on how the brain learns, carrying out careful research on what students are learning, and adjusting our instructional practices accordingly—has great promise.

Research clearly shows the failures of traditional methods and the superiority of some new approaches for most students. However, it remains a challenge to insert into every college and university classroom these pedagogical approaches and a mindset that teaching should be pursued with the same rigorous standards of scholarship as scientific research.

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