RANDOM THOUGHTS ON TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
Dr. Don Stierman
As a card-carrying nerd (pocket protector and all), I think learning is fun. Learning something new is entertainment. My idea of a perfect vacation is a month-long tour of the San Andreas fault, collecting samples of earthquake-related rocks and photographing natural and cultural features modified by faulting, maybe checking out variations in agricultural products along the route. Other vacations have included archaeological expeditions to a site that first appeared on National Geographic maps in 1991, and geophysical studies of places that have yet to be mentioned in Blade articles.
Learning is also essential to our survival as a culture. We are faced by many problems - some technical, some political, some social, some economic - all with solutions that are simple, painless, and wrong. Problem solving is a difficult skill to learn and master - but it is perhaps the skill most essential in today's rapidly changing world.
The more you already know, the more there is available to learn.For example, if you can read, you can learn from books. If you can read maps, you can also learn about a region by looking at its maps. If you can read Spanish, you can learn from reading Latin American newspapers posted on the World Wide Web (that is, if you also know how to use computers). Knowledge should thus grow exponentially - become a habitual and life-long scholar.
Some memorization is necessary. Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin states: "Memorization, often thought to be the antithesis of creativity, is in reality the indispensable basis of creativity. Creative insights tend to come at odd moments - and can only happen if the mind has a large store of memorized information to manipulate." The same can be said of solving problems. A new solution to a problem (social or economic) is usually found only when someone puts the facts together in a new and creative way. The more facts there are to work with, the more likely it is that new connections between facts will be created. So fill your head with facts, not opinions, and learn to recognize the distinction. Fill your head with a lot of facts - you can never anticipate just which facts will prove useful.
Teachers can not teach unless students want to learn. A university teacher is a facilitator - a person who knows something about a certain body of knowledge, how that knowledge was developed and how it is organized. This experience can save a student who needs to share in that knowledge a lot of time and effort. I expect students to attend lectures. If the book or "notes" were sufficient, I'm wasting my time preparing lectures. I also expect students to be informed of current events. If an earthquakes destroys the stadium at UC-Berkeley on the Monday of Finals' Week, that will be on the test (if the course is Geological Hazards)! This also means that, so far as geology is concerned, my prime directive is to help students discover or learn the answers to whatever questions they might have, even if it has nothing to do with the topic under discussion in lecture. If you want to learn about dinosaurs, something not part of any syllabus I have prepared, I'll tell you all I know and point you to some real experts.
Knowledge is cumulative and intended to stick. As such, it is irrational to teach and test on what is expected to be forgotten. All of my tests are cumulative! In upper division courses, I hold students responsible for material covered in prerequisite courses. If anyone reading this thinks that it is logical to spend 5 weeks preparing for a test - or 15 weeks taking a course - and then forgetting that material, please explain your reasoning. If all you want from college is a piece of paper (puro papel), we have fundamentally different philosophies and are probably not good for one another. I have dealt with this conflict since 1969, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in a teaching university with a "professionalization" program (certification program for teachers without teaching diplomas) when I resisted administrative pressures to pass students who did not know how to solve simple problems they had not previously memorized. I won that argument when a student answered a series of test questions with flawless solutions to problems that had appeared on a previous test rather than the solutions to the questions asked. I think Student Government ideas on Final Focus Week are also irrational.
Knowledge can not be rigidly isolated into disciplines. Literature that does not somehow reflect on history, psychology, sociology, politics, law, ethics, economics or other elements of the human experience is probably not great literature. Musical sounds are based on physics and the scale on relationships that can be expressed mathematically. Even seismology, the study of elastic waves in the earth, shares with music the fundamental investigations of and experiments involving frequency, amplitude, and phase. But sounds are not "music" - music also involves emotional elements beyond physics and mathematics. Geology and geological events influence human activities and perspectives. I use allusion involving non-geological items in lecture - bring your Liberal Arts to class! What did Leonardo paint behind the Mona Lisa? Looks like geology to me -
We learn best by doing.If you want to learn Spanish, go to a place where you must speak Spanish. If you want to learn geology, do geology. Turn over rocks, test them in the lab, look at them under microscopes, observe the forces that modify rocks. My best teaching is usually in small groups - teaching students to use field instruments on real projects or coaching computer processing of geophysical data in small groups or one-on-one. Having made a great many mistakes, I can often identify what a student is doing that is wrong or inefficient and show him or her a better way. Unfortunately, this is not the model that either the OBOR or Legislature finds "efficient" - so I also lecture. In lectures, I try to use case histories to illustrate how geological processes impact human activities. Listen to the stories - they are tools and examples, meant to illustrate principles I hope you will remember. I like discussions and questions from the floor - other than "How many questions are on the test?", the only question that is "stupid" is the one you do not ask.
What will be on the test?Upper division courses focus on "doing" so tests are not important except to certify (on very rare occasions) that each student is doing his or her own work. Term projects or lab reports are used to document achievement. In large lecture sections, tests are the only way to document achievement. Tests are usually multiple choice (up to 10 items to chose from!) and matching. Multiple choice selections range from the subtle to the absurd - but students who have not attended lectures might respond - and have responded - that earthquakes are measured using the Stierman Scale. Read each question carefully! Many offered choices may appear familiar - after all, they are probably correct answers but to different questions! In most lecture classes, you will be expected to recognize "jargon", the special language that makes communication among geologists efficient. Names of rocks and minerals, important properties and associations of those rocks and minerals, recognition of places and dates where geological processes were displayed in a spectacular manner, recognition of places where environmental conflicts or impacts made history. Many test items are from lectures - from material that is not in the textbook. Some involve case histories or examples that some people might not write down but which will be remembers by most persons present. Attend lectures! Participate in discussions! Ask questions! Be an active, not passive, learner!
I usually include a "short essay" or two. A short essay may ask the student to compare and contrast two terms (e.g.: earthquake magnitude/intensity, tsunami/tidal wave), explain "why" of a situation (real or hypothetical), or interpret a map or graph. The "short essay" is usually 10% to 30% of the "points" for that test.
Tests are "curved" - here's how and here is an example.
I usually write new tests each term. Questions are often similar to previously composed questions (after all, not that much changes from year to year) but it takes very little to modify a question such that the "old" answer is no longer the new "best" response.
You can see by now - if you have gotten this far - that I am also long-winded. I want to thank Student Government for raising student awareness on how the WWW can be used by students who want to look before they leap.
My Totally Unreasonable Policies on make-up tests, extra credit, and "Incompletes"
Any questions? Comments?? Send me E-mail!
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