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What should college be for students?

  1. Feb 28, 2011 #1

    Pengwuino

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    I had a discussion with my lab coordinator the other day about what exactly a university education should mean. Most of my students, mainly seniors and juniors, don't know how to use Excel. Their lab reports typically have atrocious grammar. They can barely read a lab manual and translate it into actual physical activities. If you're a frequenter of the Sunday chats, you know what I mean :tongue:.

    How do students like this make it in the real world? I mean, in a job market almost devoid of tough manual lab and more and more reliant on computers and software and the like, what kind of prospects exist for students who are so petrified of anything that isn't Youtube or Word? Are universities responsible for educating students in a way that prepares them for the real world? Sometimes it feels like universities are simply: Come to classes we create, we'll tell you stuff we think is cool, there are jobs that vaguely relate to what we think is cool, pay us $50,000 and we'll give you a piece of paper saying you didn't fail at coming to class. At no point does it seem like many students gain anything useful that differentiates them from high school graduates.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 1, 2011 #2

    cristo

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    Universities shouldn't have to teach students how to use grammar, that's what high school and below is for!
     
  4. Mar 1, 2011 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    This complaint is about as old as prostitution.

    There's no way to control who your students are- you get whom you get. An effective teacher is someone who can help the student progress to the next level- whatever that next level is, *defined by the student*. Students may not meet your expectations for preparedness, but that's no excuse for poor teaching.

    The question 'what does a degree from a University mean?' is a good one to ask yourself- ultimately, you supply the meaning to your degree. It can be a doorway to a career, or it can be a pretty piece of paper you hang on the wall. Mine are somewhere in my basement.

    A teacher has a responsibility to guide their student- I chose the word 'guide' carefully. A teacher can't make a student learn, a teacher can't make a student to anything. 'Learning' is ultimately the responsibility of the student- the student must take advantage of the opportunities provided: access to knowledge and skills. The teacher has the responsibility to establish an effective learning environment.

    So- to your atrocious lab reports. Provide clear expectations. Be merciless (but fair) in evaluations. Demand excellence, and reward those who respond. Don't think of the student as an adversary, but as someone who needs guidance.
     
  5. Mar 1, 2011 #4
    Agreed.
     
  6. Mar 1, 2011 #5

    Pengwuino

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    Ah but what should that guidance involve? I tell my students "The physics isn't all that important. After a few weeks, you'll have forgotten everything. What IS important, to me, is your ability to take on new challenges and develop your written communication skills". I try to offer them the ability to improve those skills. I tell them if they want a good grade, they need to put in a good effort into producing quality work. They know what I want, I tell them why I want things the way I do, I even give them a sample lab report. The ones who step up, I'm fine with. It's the ones who simply don't care that I wonder about. They can't be bothered to follow the directions, take 10 minutes before the lab to read it, etc. How do these students make it in the real world? Am I lying by saying that making no attempt to improve yourself during college will hurt you upon graduation?

    I'm a bit interested in things like this because of various studies I hear. The latest was about how students going to Princeton and Harvard and the like have similar levels of success as students who are accepted to those kinda schools but choose to go to universities lower on the ladder. There was another I heard of that claim 90% of college graduates feel their university education didn't prepare them for the real world. It's things like this that make me wonder if universities do enough for students.
     
  7. Mar 1, 2011 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    FWIW, this is *precisely* my approach to teaching. So I'm unbiased :)

    First- some positives. I like that you clearly tell the students exactly what you expect ("What IS important, to me...") and you model the desired behavior ("...I even give them a sample lab report")

    Now a comment/question. You say "I try to offer them the ability to improve those skills." My question is, 'How do you try? What do you do?' What was helpful for me was to write down specific ways that I try to help: for example, in addition to office hours, I tell the students I have an 'open door' policy: if the door is open (office or lab), they are welcome to come in and talk (I also add that if it's not a good time to meet, I'll kick them out). An important part of becoming a better teacher is to "self-assess" as much as possible: Are you effective? How do you know? Can you prove it to someone?

    The ones who don't care, I'm not sure what to say- in all honesty, most of my students are there only because it's a required class; on top of that, it's a class with a reputation of being 'difficult'. So lots of my students just want a good grade, hope to sell their book, and leave Physics behind forever. If I took that attitude personally, I would get *really* depressed (and I'd be lying if I said I *never* took it personally). The unmotivated students are the price you have to pay to get that one (maybe a few) student(s) who *do* get really interested, get some good class discussions going, and in general make teaching a lot of fun.

    A final thought: it's not clear if you actually say to some students "making no attempt to improve yourself during college will hurt you upon graduation", but *don't*. That's how you get in trouble with your Department Chair or even Dean.

    The 'science of education' (for lack of a better term) is trendy now because of broader efforts to improve science education in the US- there are a lot of opportunities for you to learn effective teaching methods (if you are so inclined)- the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Institute of Physics, the NSF are three organizations that I know have specific programs (read: money) to help you get better. If you reach out to them, I can almost guarantee they will trip over themselves to pay you to attend a conference/seminar.

    I'm lucky- both my previous institution and my current one have world-class teachers running 'Centers for Teaching' that provide resources to me. Jearl Walker ('Flying Circus of Physics', Halliday-Resnick-Walker text) is two doors down and has been willing to mentor me about ways to keep the students excited (for example, never underestimate the value of a visual 'gag').

    So I guess I'm trying to encourage you- I think you have a good idea of what to do, now just follow through.
     
  8. Mar 3, 2011 #7
    maybe the size difference on the ladder isn't so great.

    A question I had is a what point is it your (re: educator's) job to care?
    If a student really doesn't want to be there and is only in college to appease their parent, is it your job to reach out and offer your hand to the student? With a yard stick? A fishing pole?
    With things like an open door policy and clear guidelines for grading, you can say that you've tried. And the still choose to ignore your directions and have received grades according to the result. If they're happy with that, why can't you?
     
  9. Mar 3, 2011 #8
    Universities should teach people what the people payed to be taught, not more - not less.
     
  10. Mar 4, 2011 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    Typical consumer attitude. I do not have clients in class.
     
  11. Mar 4, 2011 #10

    mathwonk

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    Ideally we teach our students to reason, e.g. to ask questions and evaluate data, and to communicate, e.g. to formulate a position and defend it.

    Thus all courses benefit from a writing component. "Shoulda coulda" is irrelevant. Almost all college students still need to practice written and oral communication. Send them to the board, take up and criticize written assignments.

    This is a lot of work for the teacher, but we need to do it as far as we are able. In a few places maybe there are still lecturers who just read a lecture and walk off to applause, but that is only suitable for students who can do their own learning.
     
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