Guest Blog: Avoid Applicable Math
14 August 2012
Statistics is an interesting subject – really!
28 August 2012

I have a problem with lecturers (and professors, teachers and instructors too, for that matter) who expect students to turn up to all lectures or give credit to students for just turning up to tutorials. Why should we dictate the way students learn?

Required to turn up

When I was young my father took a course at a local polytechnic. Having a young family and a job he bought the textbook, skipped the classes and studied hard at home. When he turned up to take the final exam, he was told that he was not eligible as he had not attended classes. He, perhaps, should have spent some of his study time carefully reading the course syllabus. The point is, if someone has learnt the required material what is the purpose of denying them credit. Are we teachers really so self-centred as to believe that direct contact with us is the only way that students will learn properly? Or, are we just scared that our assessment methods are not sufficiently robust as to properly test learning? By forcing students to turn-up do we hope they will have learnt, at least, something?
If you are studying to be a doctor or engineer or plumber or electrician or pilot then being expected to put in a number of practical hours to provide you with a grounding in the practice of your discipline is important. This is something you won’t get out of a lecture or book. If you are studying a bench science, it may be important to have experience in the lab doing practical experiments. Similarly, one outcome of a statistics or operations research course might be the ability to drive an appropriate statistical or O.R. package. Time spent doing is a good way to learn. Often that time will be gained through computer lab sessions. But, credit for turning up to the lab is not the best proxy for what should have been learnt there.
These days with on-line courses from MIT and the like, University credits should be more about certifying learning rather than controlling it. The internet abounds with sites devoted to providing support to learners in a range of disciplines. We should embrace these things rather than clinging to our own self-importance.

An alternative

I do my best to embrace this way of thinking by providing students with a range of different materials and activities to engage in. I take the view that not all students are motivated by the same things, so a range of materials and activities provides me with more opportunities for engaging the most students. This involves a fair amount of work, but the materials can be built up and maintained over time.
The materials and activities I have provided over the years include lectures, lecture notes, tutorial activities, textbook readings, my own readings, videos, on-line activities including self-directed lessons and (not-for credit) quizzes, assignments, physical activities and demonstrations. I tell my students that while I provide a range of materials and activities to help them learn, I do not expect them to engage in every activity but I do expect them to learn what is required. It is not the students who don’t turn up to lectures or tutorials that concern me. It is not the ones who don’t attempt the on-line activities or videos. The students that concern me are the ones who don’t do well in the first assessment and then fail to do more or different activities.
I expect students to learn, not to just turn up.
Dr Shane Dye – Guest Blogger

1 Comment

  1. When I taught my first community college course I was reluctant to impose any kind of rule about attendance. But I was advised, and it seemed credible to me, that students, particularly undergraduates, don’t have experience in figuring out how much class time they need, and may make too much of the liberating attitude that, yes, they can too just skip classes whenever they like. A bit of that and who cares; too much of that and why are you in this course at all?
    So I did after all go to keeping attendance records with the warning that a class missed (except for cause) would take a point off the final grade. I don’t believe it made an important difference for anyone’s performance (in practice I forgave a couple absences anyway), and someone who realized that would probably not be too horrified by the lost credit for a couple sessions.
    I don’t believe that I’d try it for upper-level courses, though. I’d expect freshman and maybe sophomore years to be ones where students figure out what learning schemes do work for them, and also figure out what courses they actually want to take out of interest in the subject rather than because the school requires a certain number of credits in each of these given fields.

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