Of course, my brain would probably explode if I had to take certain classes for more than a semester. Exhibit 1, my "The Search for Extra Terrestrial Life" class. I've bitched and moaned about this thing before, so I won't go into all the gory details. However, I will say that I'm glad it's over, and that I wish the professor had been a little less ... 'astronomy guy' and a little more ... 'professorial guy', because the subject matter was fairly interesting. And no, we didn't just study Roswell and watch Aliens over and over. We did, however, study the Drake Equation in microscopic detail. And the prognosis for life out there? Not so great. Not unless we're not unique at all, and not unless civilizations manage to stay around a lot longer than we've been around (by, like, a factor of 10 or so). But I'm still going to keep hope. I'm optimistic that way.
Anyway, despite the relatively cool material, the class blew chunks. The best part is that the professor didn't even give us course evaluations so that I could express my eloquent opinion via official university scantron. Instead he said we could email him with our suggestions. Or drop something off at the department office. Since I've never been able to pass up the opportunity to speak my mind when I feel strongly about something, I'm going to send him a few helpful comments.
Since we weren’t able to provide you feedback via course evaluations, I’d like to take you up on your offer of emailing you with suggestions for future classes.
Although I’ve admired the way you’ve attempted to teach a very complex course, I would like to suggest several modifications to you:
First – consider adding homework and/or extra credit components to the course, so that students who do not do well on the tests, but who do make an effort to understand the course materials, can prove this understanding and perhaps raise their grades.
Second – It seemed as if your enthusiasm and excitement about materials taught in the last two weeks of the course was much greater than it was for the foundational materials at the beginning. I heard comments from many students (and felt the same way myself) about how much they felt they had finally gotten to the “meat” of the course, and believe their enthusiasm matched yours. Consider expanding the time you spend on these items, instead of packing them into the last 4-5 lectures. Your absences notwithstanding, these materials deserved far more time than they got. I also don’t believe you needed to build such a sturdy foundation of fundamentals that these more interesting topics received such short shrift.
Third – If students continually have trouble answering a specific question that you’ve presented on exams multiple times over the years, consider that it may perhaps require you teach the subject matter in a different manner. I watched a number of students in this class become more and more frustrated with their grades on the tests, especially those who made a real effort to understand the materials, attend the study sessions, discuss questions with you after class, and who still performed poorly. These are not students who failed because they weren’t trying. They were making quite reasonable efforts, and were genuinely discouraged when those efforts made no difference (or, sometimes, lowered their grades further).
I believe some of this confusion stems from the fact that you often presented theories and the flaws in theories at the same time during lecture, then posed questions on the test that asked students to extrapolate logical outcomes if those theories were correct, without ever addressing *how* to extrapolate those outcomes. Often students in the study sessions could explain theory as well as the primary and secondary objections to said theory, but had no means to understand how to apply a theory that might be false in a given situation.
I know that you feel you have taken the relative inexperience of non-science students into consideration when you lecture or create test questions. Unfortunately, I do not believe that you have. A proof of this was your response when the study group asked you about the answer to one of the study questions you’d provided, and you said, “Well, the grad student TA for this course had no problem answering this question and he hasn’t even done the assigned reading.” Please consider this statement for a moment. You asked a grad student, who, I assume, is also well versed in the field of astronomy to answer a question on a test. I would certainly hope that he’d get it right. It is his field and, even if he is not versed in the specific course reading, he is presumably trained in the same manner you are to look at problems and is familiar with the material as a whole (since he is TAing the course). That does not mean that a freshman student, taking their first science class since high school, will automatically be able to develop the same sophisticated understanding on their own. I am a senior who has taken her fair share of science classes (even though it is not my major), and I had an extremely difficult time as well. The confusion and frustration was often daunting.
Also, consider why the median grade of the class for tests was generally around 75%. You provide detailed study guides and even study questions that are actually on the tests. It seemed that you offered, on average, a 10 point curve on every test. That means that the majority of students in your class were receiving 65% on every test, even with these incredible study materials. I’m not proposing that you stop providing review sheets or discontinue curving the test scores, but I’ve never heard of a class where the professor provides so much leeway in the grading and offers so much direction on the study guide where students were getting 75% on tests. I think those numbers are staggering.
I respect the fact that you are trying to encourage students to think outside the box, to go beyond a memorization of dates and a recitation of facts. However, I believe that you may want to reconsider whether your teaching methods enable them to do so.
I’d like to thank you for suggesting we could email you, and for taking the time to read this. It is very much appreciated.
So here's my question: I know the entire thing is pretty blunt. Partially that's because I watched a lot of students struggle painfully in his class. Partially because I struggled painfully in his class, and I wanted to learn. Partially because I don't think he'll actually listen unless I come right out and say what I'm going to say. But Neil says the text in italics is harsh enough it would make him, as a professor, stop reading. And I'm curious what y'all think. Since I've never made a poll, here's a poll for your thoughts (better than a cyberspace penny, right?)
Do you think the italicized text above is like a slap in the face to my professor?
I'm going to catch up on some sleep, and hopefully rebound bouncy and cheery eyed tomorrow for the paper writing extravaganza that will fill the next five days. Woot. Back to theory. Theory I can understand!