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April 26, 2011

Why students don't learn what we think we teach

It's that time of year when professors reflect on what their students have learned in the past semester. While mulling over my own class on the design and analysis of algorithms, by chance, I was pointed at this excellent lecture by Robert Duke, a professor of music and human learning at the University of Texas Austin, on "Why students don't learn what we think we teach" (hosted at Cornell University Videos).

Duke is captivating, and he makes a clear argument that students don't learn what we think we teach because they're too busy learning what we're actually teaching, which is, often, that precision is more important than understanding and that grades matter. The solution, he argues, is to teach, over and over, the things that we actually want our students to remember after the semester is over. And, that we should not defer learning about "The Good Stuff" until after they've suffered through boring prerequisites. Instead, we should teach the good stuff first and teach what we really enjoy.

This seems like pretty good advice, and I hope to be able to improve my courses by striving to follow it. The difficulty, of course, is trying to figure out what exactly are the most important ideas we want our students to remember after the course is over. Duke argues that many professors don't themselves have a clear idea of these things, which of course makes it difficult to teach in a way that emphasizes them. For quantitative fields like computer science, I think we sometimes convince ourselves that detailed problem sets are necessary to teach the quantitative (mathematics or programming) skills the students will need for more advanced work. But how much of what we really care about depends on those? For students destined for the computer industry, or for non-computer industries, what do we as computer-science teachers really want them to remember, even if they never write another line of code in their lives? Food for thought, for sure.

Tip to Larry Hunter.

posted April 26, 2011 04:46 PM in Teaching | permalink


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