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My role as a teacher in higher education: feeling useless

  1. May 19, 2016 #1
    This one may sound like a rant, so please forgive me if I am generalizing a lot.

    In my student life as well as teaching career, I have noticed an alarming trend that makes me question the worthiness of my profession. The only type of students that I (as well as other teachers I have seen in action) can manage to successfully teach are the ones who show very high cognitive abilities. Even if I explain something poorly, they somehow manage to catch it. These students are the ones who usually score high on competitive tests.

    To my dismay, I have realized that students who require and appreciate my special attention are often the ones who fail to score well.

    I always assumed that self-tutoring is a crucial ability in higher education. The higher you rise on the academic ladder, the more self-reliant you have to become. However, I always assumed that this is a skill that students automatically pick up as their interest as well as knowledge grows. Unfortunately reality turned out to be quite different from that expectation. Is there any cognitive science study that goes deep into this phenomena? Anything I can do as a teacher? I personally do not know any miracle teacher who can give me advice. That is why I am sharing this here in the hope of getting some valuable input.

    I do not want to rush to some conclusion like ADHD or poor IQ. Through persuasion (and some personal experience) I have found direct correlation between performance and the amount of time students study at home. Some students have reported that they find it much easier to enjoy solving problems when they are doing it under my supervision; but cannot seem to be able to attain the same interest in study when they practice alone at home. They have reported that they feel overwhelmed when they look at the problems and often procrastinate. I suspect that if somehow I can help them kindle the interest to study at home, the necessary self-tutoring skill will grow. I have noticed that it helps some of them if I mark questions for them to try at home, but that is a temporary solution. Study should not feel like a chore.

    I have been given different theories as explanation. One says that students who have no interest in their subject matter show this behavior. However, that does not explain why the same students appear so curious and engaged during classes. Is that an illusionary effect of being surrounded by an organized environment?
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  3. May 19, 2016 #2


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    What about the Khan Academy strategy that some teachers employ where the homework is to watch the video and the problem solving is done in class with the book under your supervision?

    We've all had that experience of thinking we understood what the teacher said in class (and in Feynman's lectures even marveling at the conciseness of the logical exposition) but then going home and not remembering or remembering wrongly what you heard.

    Here's some pros and cons of Khan Academy uses in the classroom:


    Another school of thought is around cognitive bias and how students think they know when they don't:

  4. May 19, 2016 #3


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    It's a skill successful students pick up. The ones who don't tend to drop out of college.

    When it comes to learning, it's what the student does that matters, not really what you do. Students often don't understand this, so you need to point it out to them.

    As jedishrfu has suggested, a flipped classroom will likely help you use the limited class time more effectively. I'm guessing for most of your students, lecture is largely a waste of time, hence your disillusionment at their lack of learning.

    Part of it is likely the expectations students have based on past experience. They've learned what level of effort is needed to succeed in K-12, and many don't realize what worked in high school isn't going to cut it in college and that you need to understand material on a higher level. You can always tell them this instead of hoping they figure it out on their own.

    Some students simply don't know how to learn. When they spend a lot of time making minimal progress, it's not surprising that their motivation wanes. In class, they can ask you for help when they get stuck, but at home, they simply don't know what to do. You need to teach them how to get unstuck on their own.

    For example, in one of my classes, when students ask for help, the first thing I do is ask them to read me the question they're trying to answer out loud. The majority of the time when they do this, they start and then say "Oh!" when they get to the piece of information they missed. I could've just supplied the information for them, but this way they quickly learn that it's a good idea to start by rereading the question carefully.

    Your campus probably has resources devoted to student success, like a tutoring center. You can encourage your students to make use of them. I've heard it helps to physically lead your class over there, so they know exactly what you're talking about.
  5. May 19, 2016 #4


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    Personally, I can barely function at home. I'm too tired and there are too many distractions. I have to get out of the house and go elsewhere to be able to do much. I expect that many of your students face the same problems.

    It also helps to have someone else around that's interested in the subject you are studying. I love discussing whatever I'm working on, especially when I'm trying to solve a difficult problem.
  6. May 19, 2016 #5


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    That's a good point. It's easier to stay motivated when others are working with you. I do encourage my students to study together.
  7. May 19, 2016 #6
    Thanks for the pointer. I will check it.

    That would have made my job easier. We don't really have any significant number of dropouts in India. They stick to the program until the very end only to leave with average grades :-(

    They are aware. They just can't help themselves. Do you think that the habit of slacking can become ingrained? If yes, then how to shake it off?

    This is where I am failing. Personal story time: I picked up teaching skills in my student life from my own teachers, but I have never had a teacher personally approach me to evaluate and improve my cognitive skills. I guess my teachers just assumed that I was doing my best. I have studied education as a subject, but that did not cover this vital skill. I was taught a few canned motivational speeches and rituals, but nothing hands-on.

    Not a thing in India. When a student fails to perform, we give them a "you did your best" look and move on.

    Masterfully explained :-) Home is a source of infinite distractions. I myself have hard time concentrating when I am at home. How can I rebuke students for not practicing? However, I know pupils who can overcome this distraction. I wonder if this is a skill that can be taught.

    This is a great advise, but this is not always possible due to geographical reasons. There are not too many PG students around. My own classmates chose jobs after graduating, and I was alone throughout my PG years.
  8. May 19, 2016 #7


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    The issues you're facing are universal. Some students are easily able to study for long hours, require little help, and get excellent grades. Most students are not like this and you cannot expect them to be. Despite what some people may think, learning is hard. It's really hard. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort and commonly causes large amounts of stress. The strain on a person's mental "resources" is huge. It's a wonder anyone ever manages to complete a degree at all! While it would be nice if you could simply teach every student how to be like those top performers, this is a pipe dream. It's not going to happen. Sure, you may get a student every now and then that you can teach a few skills and then sit back and watch as they undergo a metamorphosis into the perfect student, but that's an pretty extreme rarity. Instead, aim for small improvements. A little bit of help can go a long way.

    Now, there are a thousand reasons a student may be under-performing and having a difficult time studying on their own. A large part of it is probably time management and motivational problems. Are your students making schedules and sticking to them? Are they making sure they aren't overloading themselves? These are skills that can be taught and can sometimes have drastic effects. I don't know what I'd do without a study schedule, even if I don't always follow it exactly. Just having it in place helps tremendously.

    When it comes to motivation... well, that's a more difficult problem. Problems with motivation are often problems in other areas that cause a student to lose motivation. Being unable to decipher that crazy math language in their textbook on their own, feeling swamped with schoolwork, not even liking the subject/major they are taking... the list goes on and on. I don't really have any recommendations for this area. Fixing problems with motivation typically requires getting to know a student, which takes time and is difficult to do as a teacher with dozens or hundreds of students every semester.

    As for distractions, I will say that I don't know if I would have passed my classes without my college's learning center. I go there every single weekday and sometimes on the weekend to do my schoolwork and study. If your school doesn't have one, then perhaps you could try to convince them to set one up? I don't know much about the attitudes and details of education and society in India, so it's hard to make suggestions. I could give you some statistics from my own college comparing the grades of students who regularly visit the learning center versus the students who do not. I believe that, on average, students at my college who regularly visit the learning center for tutoring score about 10-15 percent higher than students who do not. That's one or two letter grades, a significant improvement! If you want more detailed info I could ask my boss at the learning center if he has more information.
  9. May 19, 2016 #8


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    As a tutor, the first thing I do when I go to help someone is to assess what they already know and their way of thinking about the problem or subject. Sometimes it's just a minor misunderstanding of a single math rule that is tripping them up. Other times the person literally doesn't know why multiplication even works. They just memorized the rules. I find that many people know little bits and pieces of something, but are failing to connect everything together. In math, people commonly don't understand why the rules they are learning work. They don't even know that they should know why.

    Beginning to correct these misunderstandings and weaknesses in students first requires that you recognize them yourself. And that's tough. It's very easy to assume you know why a student is having a problem and then launch into a long explanation of something. I still find myself doing this even though I've been a tutor for nearly a year now. The only advice I can think of at the moment is to just have patience and to have the student their thinking and understanding of the problem to you. Then you can try to base your own response off of that.

    Trying to teach someone how to teach themselves is not a simple task. It's a totally different way of thinking for most people. It's often difficult for me to teach myself, even when I want to know something. It can take a substantial amount of extra time and effort to learn something on your own, and many people simply aren't used to this. They often don't have any confidence in their abilities, which means that even if they do end up finding the answer to something on their own they commonly don't believe it's correct. Not until confirmed by someone else like a teacher.

    I personally don't have any motivational speeches or rituals. I've never found them to be effective in the first place. Of course, I'm a tutor, not a teacher, so I don't usually need something like that. I can, however, say that the best thing for my motivation is to be taught by someone who actually likes what they teach and likes to teach it. Someone who's honest and says, "Okay. This is a difficult topic for most people. It will be hard. You will have problems with it. And that's okay. Work hard, persist, and I'll do my best to get you through it."

    Whew! I feel like I've been rambling, so I'll stop here. o0)

    As I always say, I'm no expert, so if I'm wrong I blame everyone but myself! (especially @phinds)
  10. May 19, 2016 #9
    I am very disappointed in our teachers after learning the concept of learning center. That concept is totally foreign to me.

    The very top universities in our nation (IIT, ISI, IISC) have something conceptually similar. They put so heavy workload on students that students cannot afford to leave university campus. They stay in dormitories. The libraries and laboratories stay open 24/7 to help students do their assignments. Even then, the assignments tend to be so hard that most students get only 4-5 hours of sleep per day.

    However, to get admission in one of these universities, you need to be an exceptional student to begin with.

    I recently learned about mind wandering theory from another helpful person. To quote the theory very broadly: a heavy workload prevents the mind from wandering away. We will need to enforce much higher standard of evaluation if we want to prevent learning centers from becoming common rooms. I will have to find a way for colleges to enforce a higher standard without pissing off the university. It will also require the co-operation of the entire faculty. I am in no position to fire a professor if he/she denies to meet standards. In conclusion, your solution is excellent, but it may be beyond my ability to implement. I will try my best.
  11. May 19, 2016 #10
    Hmm... I'm not to collage yet but from the problems you describe, I fell that if you offer them to opportunity to video chat with you at speculated times so they can ask questions, and work on problems "under your supervision" they might do better. I understand you have a personal life and this may not be practical, but it is an idea.
  12. May 19, 2016 #11
    But then we return to giving a man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish. They will likely get stuck again while doing their PhD and post-doctoral work. I am not a fan of keeping a terminal patient alive on life support. It will be more merciful to tell the student that he/she has no future in academics and there is nothing I can do to help.

    I fear I am procrastinating now. I should concentrate on preparing lessons. Hopefully I will get more input on this. So I will check back later. My thanks to everybody who participated in this discussion.
    Last edited: May 19, 2016
  13. May 19, 2016 #12


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    The learning center at my college is separate from any other department. It has its own faculty who run it and who are in charge of making sure the environment stays appropriate for learning. The tutors are sometimes teachers, but are more commonly students themselves that are qualified to tutor the subjects they've already passed. If someone is being loud and bothering others, they will be asked to leave. The other teachers have nothing to do with the learning center and could be asked to leave themselves if they are being disruptive.

    I'm not sure I see where mind wandering theory comes into this. Or standards of evaluations.

    Note that the way the learning center is implemented at my college is just one way of doing it. There are plenty of other ways.
  14. May 19, 2016 #13


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    There was another point to consider. We had a corporate dude give us talk on presentation best practices and he started out with this theory of learning types. Basically there were three kinds of learners visual, auditory and kinesthetic and the best way to talk to them was to make things catchy for the visual leaner to repeat stuff for the auditory and flail your hands around for the kinesthetic learner.


    At the start we were given a quiz to determine the type of learner we were. I came out as a visual learner (because I could read :-)) . He said the majority of folks are visual to some extent. For me auditory did very little (too much ear wax) and the same for kinesthetic (couch potato syndrome).

    Humorous Punchline:

    So there you have it: If you dress like Ronald McDonald, tell a lot of subject matter jokes and flail your arms while jumping around, your kids will laugh and learn at the same time. Your success may vary...
  15. May 20, 2016 #14
    Last response was a mess. I was talking about myself more than my students.

    Evaluation standard comes from a different issue, which does not require immediate attention in this discussion. I explained it, but then retracted it. I need to form a core theory before dealing with cultural issues.

    The mind wandering problem seems very relevant, specially the context regulation hypothesis. A learning center can prevent external distraction, but I don't see how it can prevent internal distraction. I have to go now, so I don't have time to elaborate (and study as well, because I am learning this for the first time), but it seems like planning/decision making can trigger mind wandering. Decision making is an integral part of self-tutoring. This might explain why self-tutoring is so difficult. Maybe pre-planning can solve this problem. This explains why students find it easier to study if I mark problems for them to attempt at home.
  16. May 21, 2016 #15
    Any idea how to conduct that test? Do I simply perform an auditory and a visual presentation and take a quiz on those to see which one the student understood best? I don't think kinesthetic presentation is an option in higher math, and there is no way auditory presentation alone will be enough. It would have been much helpful for visual learners if I could visualize every higher math concepts, but I can't do that.
  17. May 21, 2016 #16
    Kinesthetic learners learn best by writing everything down.
  18. May 21, 2016 #17


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    the point made by the presenter was that kinesthetic learned needed to see you move aroundas you explain things, to use your hands in a more dramatic manner than just pointing at stuff. Also as micromass said they need to write to learn.


    Its easy to test visual and auditory so if you do poorly on both then you must be kinestheic. Also people don't fit just into one category, its that they may need all three to learn but prefer one over the others. Observation of the student will do it too:


    I think our test was more of a personality test as do you like this over this or that over that and based on how you answered the questions it was determined which type you were. I found one you can try out, but I don't know how useful it will be:


    To further confuse the discussion, there are other learning theories as summarized in this wiki article:

  19. May 21, 2016 #18
    Thanks for the resources. I have something to say about that quiz.

    I am not a fan of self-reporting in psychological assessment. I took the test, and came up 65.71% kinesthetic. This is utterly wrong. I can't write and think at the same time. When I take notes, I do it mechanically.

    I was thinking more along the line of: read a paragraph out loud, show them a video, and dictate a paragraph for them to write. Immediately after each activity, ask them some questions from the presented topics. I am not sure how effective it will be, so feel free to share your opinion.
  20. May 21, 2016 #19
    I'm not sure that's how it really works. For example, writing down stuff might not help you think, but it might help you remember and memorize.
    On the other hand, somebody kinesthetic might benefit from walking around while thinking. I know that helps me a lot.
  21. May 21, 2016 #20
    I walk around a lot while thinking. That means I may be kinesthetic. I need to find some authoritative resources on kinesthetic learning to find out how to optimally teach this type of students.
  22. May 21, 2016 #21


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    A colleague noted recently that the idea of learning styles doesn't have much evidence, if any, to back it up.
  23. May 21, 2016 #22


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    A recent NPR report talked about students who took notes by hand did better than students who used a computer.


    Personally, I thought the best way to learn was to record the lesson via an iPad app (Notability) and jot down in the app a quick note. Its feature was that on playback you could touch your cryptic note and it would immediately playback the lecture from that point. Next I would review the lesson afterwards and rewrite my notes more completely. Of course, we all skip some things and so the learning is flawed.

    When I went to school, we never had those resources. We could record but the mic would pick up the surrounding noise and not the instructor. I'd take notes but then not understand why I wrote something. In one graduate physics class, the prof was talking about the stress-strain tensor and he used the ##\zeta :: \xi ## notation (as in Landau) and after two/three sessions I realized I had written everything down wrong because of his sloppy/casual board writing.
  24. May 22, 2016 #23
    There are generally 3 groups of students in a class, interested, semi-interested, not interested. I understand the 3rd group is in the class because it makes college/university look good by raising size of enrollment.

    My suggestion, teach only the first 2 groups. Self-tutoring is totally absent in today's mediocre students.

    Also, we must blame the textbooks. They fill the books with hundreds to thousands pages which could be reduced to 100 to 200 pages. In so doing they completely side track from the main topic any chances they get. Sometimes it seems even the author doesn't know the true meaning of a particular equation
  25. May 22, 2016 #24
    Can you give an example of such a book? I've seen some bad books but after one or two of those you'll know.
    But that's the lecturers choice as well so I don't consider that
    Most books I've used for class were at least satisfactory.

    Pertaining to the 3 groups.
    For the not interested, by using appropriate examples you can show some of them that the matter is interesting. (One of the most powerful ways is to use something in local/global news that you can turn into a problem if you ask me.)
    Especially in first year courses they might not even know they can find physics or whatever interesting.
    While maths and physics are related I've known people that switched after a year because they didn't realise what the field really was about (European system where you choose a major at the start).
    Not to mention the widely different levels of education students received in any one field.
  26. May 22, 2016 #25

    Andy Resnick

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    Not true- at least in my experience. The students in 'group 3' are taking Physics I and II because they are required for their major. They don't like physics (generally because of mathphobia for health science students), and usually resent having to take the class.
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