Teaching to Learn

I loved teaching – warping young minds – and I employed a number of unorthodox methods in the process.

Backwards. Following Piaget’s dictum that learning proceeds from familiar to novel, I once taught a course in physiological psychology backwards. That is, I went through the text book from back to front. The author had begun the book by introducing the neuron and all its parts, bandying about lots of unfamiliar concepts and terminology. He ended the book with chapters on human behavior, described in terms familiar to anyone who had completed introductory psychology. The in-between chapters built logically from single neuron to interactions between neurons, up to hormones and the nervous system, into the brain, and finally, behavior. It made sense to start with what the students already knew, and gradually drill down to the cellular mechanisms, rather than the other way around. While the students were a little confused at first, they realized that absorbing all the details was a lot easier when they had something to pin them on, and by the time they reached the first chapter, they had already learned what all those arcane terms meant.

Group Quizzes. In a course on learning theory I taught at the University of Denver, the text covered exactly as many theorists as there were weeks in the term, so I organized the schedule with a chapter a week, culminating in a three-item quiz each Friday. The first question was a multiple choice item dealing with the terminology of the week’s theory. The second was a short-answer item requiring the student to recall some specific detail of the theory. The final item always asked the students to write a paragraph applying the theory of the week to explain a “real world” situation or event (a different event each week).

What made this course different was that I required the students to form groups of three to discuss the quiz for 10 minutes before separating and writing the answers individually. At first, some of the students didn’t want to “share” their knowledge, for fear that someone else might get a better grade than they “deserved.” But they quickly discovered that talking about how to approach a question, and explaining their reasoning, actually helped them understand how the theories worked. And I reminded them that this was good practice for when they would be in a world in which they would be expected to work as part of a team. Not surprisingly, the “smart” students still earned “A’s” in the class, and there were still some “B’s,” and even a few “C’s”.

PSI. One of the first courses I taught using the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), which I described in my previous post, was Introduction to Statistics. Metropolitan State College (MSC) in Denver had a larger than expected number of psych majors and needed to split Stat 1 into two sections. Their regular professor taught one section, and I taught the other.

I broke the text down into units that could be covered in a week, with a day for lecture, a day for discussion and a day for mastery quizzes. I created three roughly equivalent quizzes for each study unit, so that if a student didn’t pass the first quiz, s/he could restudy, ask questions, or review, and take an alternate quiz. And if they didn’t pass the second, there was a third. Rarely would anyone need to go back to quiz 1.

There was one student who got stuck on the unit on hypothesis testing. He must have rotated through all three quizzes at least four times, with lots of frustrating study and discussion in between each quiz. Finally, during one of our review sessions, he had his “aha” moment, and suddenly it all made sense to him. He breezed through that unit and all the subsequent units, and earned a “A” for the course. As it turns out, of the 15 students in the class, 14 completed all the units and earned “A’s” and one settled for a “B.” The school was upset that so many students on one class got “A’s,” and I was not invited back to MSC to teach any other courses.

All the “A” students from my section took Stat 2 the following semester from the other instructor. It was very satisfying to learn that while only 3 of the students in his Stat 1 section made an “A” in Stat 2, each and every one of mine made an “A.”

Missing the Concept. PSI doesn’t always have a happy ending. In a course I taught at the University of Denver I described the whole concept at the beginning of the course, handed out the course syllabus and unit assignments, and explained that mastery of each unit was required before advancing to the next unit. Students would demonstrate mastery by summarizing the unit’s main ideas orally to me or the TA. By and large, the course was successful for all the students but one. This one young man collected the materials on day one and never came back to class until the very last day of the term, when he informed me that he was “ready for his interviews.” He became very incensed when I told him that the opportunity for interviews had passed, and that there was no way he could meet the requirements of the course at that point. To say that there were acrimonious words would be an understatement. Even though I submitted an “F” for this person’s grade, his father intervened with the Dean, who decided that alumni contributions were more important than academic integrity, and changed the student’s grade to a “D,” allowing him to graduate.

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About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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