I recently heard Michael Koelle (Associate Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale) give a very interesting presentation on teaching. He led by saying he wasn’t going to talk about anything trendy like MOOC’s or flipping the classroom or project-based learning, but would instead focus on how how he teaches traditional big lecture courses. He proceeded to tell us about the most progressive lecture courses I’ve ever heard of. Among other things, he never lectures for more than 15 minutes at a time and peppers his classes with interactivity and small group exercises. While his whole talk was inspiring and full of concrete advice and ideas, I want to write today about something he brought up almost in passing.
I’ve written about how I like to run seminar classes before and you may have noticed that my approach is decidedly low tech. My students read the week’s articles before class and fill out a “worksheet” for each one. Before this semester, the most important question on the worksheet was “What didn’t you understand?” I would look over their answers to identify weak spots that we would cover in class.
Last week I gave three reasons why Yale shouldn’t worry so much about grade inflation:
Grade inflation at Yale is a sensitive topic–The administration doesn’t even like to call the issue grade inflation but instead refers to the problem as grade compression. The feeling is not that grades are (necessarily) too high, but that with so many A’s and A-‘a being handed out, it’s very hard to distinguish the good students and the great students. Is this really true? And is grade inflation itself a real problem? And if there is a problem with grade distributions, how should we fix it? I don’t have answers, but I do have opinions.
With just a few exceptions, no one likes exams. Students don’t like the stress of taking the exams, instructors have to write the exams, and someone usually has to grade them. In-class exams don’t give enough time for testing very much material, and if the test is too long, it punishes students who know their stuff but are just a little slow. Take-home exams can cover more content, but it can be very tempting for students to cheat by getting help from friends or the Internet. Unfortunately, we need objective assessments of how much each student has mastered the course material, and right now exams are the best tool we have.
MOOC’s are Massive Open Online Courses and they are what everyone in higher education is talking about. These classes are usually free, have huge enrollments, and per student are pretty cheap to run relative to a typical college class. The quality can be decent and MOOC’s open up access to higher education to literally billions of people around the world. MOOC’s also have the potential to decrease the cost of education for the millions of people that would normally attend a traditional in person college.
At Yale, economics majors are required to take two “senior seminars” before they graduate. These classes usually have 10-20 students and revolve around reading and discussing contemporary research in a specific area. After three years of mostly big lecture classes on theory and methods, seniors finally get a chance to apply what they’ve learned to a substantive topic.1 I just finished my fourth year of teaching two of these seminars, and while that might not seem like very long, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.
Juniors can take these classes if they meet the pre-requisites (at least two of intermediate micro, intermediate macro, and econometrics), but seniors get priority and the most popular seminars are full by the time juniors can register. It’s a shame, really, since these seminars can be great training for writing a senior essay. ↩
The big lecture is an institution in institutions of higher learning. The professor stands at the front of a hall full of students and talks. Sometimes he or she uses slides and sometimes he or she writes on a board. And sometimes, he or she is informative and engaging, but it’s almost always a pretty one way affair with occasional questions posed to the class.1 The experience for students is a lot like watching a good documentary. And that’s the best case scenario. The vast majority of the time, students sit back and absorb the flow or just check out. They don’t get their questions answered or engage constructively with the material. The average professor talks at their students for an hour and a half twice a week and it’s more like a late night infomercial than a documentary.
Every spring university departments match their faculty to the courses that will be taught the next year. Often, professors are assigned to courses they’ve never taught before. This is almost always the case for new assistant professors who haven’t really taught anything before. In the best case scenario, whoever taught the class the last time around has lunch with the new instructor, passes on a few pearls of wisdom, and hands over a subset of their course materials. I’ve personally benefited immensely from this generosity since it’s much easier to prepare a course when starting with a stack of slides, problem sets, and old exams. It’s also quite common to have to start from scratch. But there is a better way.