Gas station without pumps

2011 July 17

Skills at the center

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This month, a number of the teacher bloggers whose posts I read are participating in a virtual convention, started by Riley Lark.  He introduced a theme for bloggers and is collecting pointers to their posts at the “Convention Center“.  The prompt boils down to “What is at the center of your classroom?”

The current dogma is that classrooms should be “student-centered” (as opposed to “teacher-centered”, which is decried as ultimately evil) and predictably many of the posts reinforce that message.

I’ve been thinking about my courses and I can’t honestly say that they are centered on people at all.  I’m not a “people person”: I have extreme difficulty remembering names or what people look like, and I don’t enjoy small talk or listening to stories about relatives or acquaintances, which seems to be a major pleasure for some people.  So claiming that my courses are either “student-centered” or “teacher-centered” just seems wrong to me—neither is the center of the course.

Mostly I’ve taught adults (grad students and college seniors), though some classes have been for college freshmen and I’ve done a few after-school and summer things for middle-schoolers.  This focus on older students means that development and growth in the traditional sense are not a major goal of my courses, the way they might be for an elementary school teacher. The students coming out of my classes are not transformed in fundamental ways.  Many of them have had 30, 40, or even 50 years to form their personalities and their approaches to life and learning—I may be able to make some small changes in the details, but a 10-week class is not going to turn their lives around.

But I can’t honestly put the content or the curriculum at the center either.  I’ve created and taught too many different courses on a wide range of different topics (VLSI design, technical writing, digital synthesis of music, genome assembly, desktop publishing, bioinformatics, protein design, digital logic, applied discrete math, resource-efficient programming, bicycle transportation engineering, …). Although the content is important to me and I can’t teach a subject unless I know it cold, there are some common threads that run through many of my classes that transcends the specific content of the course.

Looking for those common threads in my 29 years of teaching, I see that I’m mainly interested in students developing skills.  The specific skills vary slightly between courses, but tend to be problem-solving, designing, or writing skills.  I’m not particularly interested in how many facts students learn or how quickly they can recall them, but in how well they apply what they know to new problems.

Different courses have different mixes of skills.  I was trained in mathematics and computer science, so two of the skills that come up again and again are math problem solving and computer programming.  Lectures are often devoted to introducing a skill or particular tools and techniques that the students need learn, followed by students practicing that skill and my providing feedback on their work.

For example, I want students in my genome assembly classes  to apply simple combinatorics to problems like estimating the genome size and figuring out how much sequencing is needed to get the contig lengths they need for finding genes. I don’t want to teach them a formula, but a way of looking at the data and doing back-of-the-envelope calculations (or writing a small program) to estimate what they need to know.

In my bioinformatics class, I want students to be able to write a Python program quickly to find over- and under-represented DNA palindromes in a genome (one of many ways to look for biologically relevant signals).  The specific tasks are not that important (I could replace the DNA palindrome exercise with one that looked for a set of known transcription-factor binding sites, for example), but the skills in writing programs and applying Bayesian probability to biological problems are.

The senior design projects emphasize writing, oral presentation, and debugging of designs (with some time management and group management thrown in, though I’m uncomfortable teaching those, since they are not skills I have mastered).  The bioinformatics course emphasizes programming and applying statistics.  The applied discrete math course emphasized just mathematical problem solving. Many of my grad courses combine various research skills with practice in written and oral presentation.

For senior design and project-based research classes, I end up meeting weekly with individual students (or teams),  working to help them learn to debug their designs or research protocols, as well as providing feedback on written and verbal presentations.  In one senior design course, I made each team start each meeting with a 2-minute summary of what their project was about, so that by the end of the quarter, everyone in the class could give a coherent 2-minute précis of their project without faltering.  It’s a little skill, but a useful one for job and grad school interviews, which most of the students were about to do—we’ve also introduced the 2-minute talk as an annual requirement for all our grad students.

Undoubtedly, an education professor observing my classes could analyze them for adherence to dogma, deciding that they are “student-centered” (for the time spent on feedback on student work) or “teacher-centered” (for the lecture time spent teaching tools), depending what slice of the course they choose to view.  But I think they’d be missing the point—the courses are about developing skills, which only happens with a combination of instruction, practice, and feedback on the practice.

So, my hope is that after one of my courses, students have acquired or improved some of the essential skills that will serve them well in future work.  My assessments of students are primarily intended to determine how well they have developed these skills.  This is not a quick, cheap thing to do.  There are no standardized multiple-choice tests or clicker questions.  To find out if someone can write a 20-page paper or design and implement a program to solve a problem, there is no substitute for having them write the paper or the program, and no substitute for my reading the whole thing closely.  (I have occasionally had a TA to off-load grading to, but it doesn’t help all that much, as they rarely provide a sufficiently detailed critique of writing or programming skills—sometimes because they lack these skills themselves.)

Because I’ve been part of this particular community of teacher bloggers, I’ve done a lot of thinking about standards-based grading (SBG). Unfortunately, that approach to assessment does not seem to work well for courses centered on skills that are not easily decomposed into reductionist standards.  The lack of cheap reassessment undercuts one of the main stays of the SBG approach.

My courses take a lot of my time and a lot of student time, so I can’t recommend my approach to teachers who teach a huge lecture class, who teach many classes at once, or whose students have many other courses, and I’m very afraid that this sort of intensive teaching will be thrown out in the massive budget cuts sweeping through higher education.


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