Two years ago, the media (and almost everyone else) couldn’t stop talking about how great MOOCs were. Even I got pretty excited about them. Some people got a little crazy predicting the imminent death of the traditional higher education system, but the reality was impressive. High quality courseware was getting put online for free and people all over the world were taking advantage of it.
After two years of off-and-on blogging about all sorts of things at High Variance, I’ve decided to move everything I have to say about teaching and education in general to this brand new site. I realized that I have a lot more to share and it will be easier to find an audience if this content isn’t mixed in with posts about 80’s music and Conan the Barbarian.
One of the huge payoffs from having smart students that are engaged and thinking creatively is that they have great ideas for how I can make my courses better. Yesterday was the last meeting of the semester for my Economics of Human Capital in Latin America seminar, and I spent the last 15 minutes getting feedback on the course. I could have waited for their written course evaluations, but this way we can actually have a constructive dialog. Here’s what we came up with:
While some disciplines encourage substantial creativity in their undergraduate students, the vast majority of college student academic effort goes into analysis or memorization. Certainly that’s true in economics. Most of the students in my seminars are seniors, and they are far more comfortable interpreting and using theory than creating or even tweaking it.
Donald Kagan is a giant1 in the study of ancient Greek history–I mean sheesh, you should see his Wikipedia page! He is also one of the most celebrated teachers at Yale and the other day I had the pleasure of hearing him talk about how he teaches seminars.
We live in a world where more and more people and organizations make decisions based on data. These include business decisions, policy-making decisions, and even many personal decisions. Google employs hundreds of quantitative analysts to analyze auctions, forecast revenue, predict customer needs, and surely lots of other things we don’t know about. A good friend of mine just spent the last month carefully analyzing student loan data for the Federal Reserve. I even just read about a guy who scraped dating data from OK Cupid to find himself a wife.
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: