Friday, May 27, 2005

What Did We Really Learn?

A thought occured to me while I was in the shower this morning. . .

Imagine that 100 students go through the typical physics/astronomy professional track (i.e. they major in physics as undergrads, go to grad school, and at least make it through the masters/comprehensive exam phase). Even though it would be hard to agree on a measure of the physics/astronomy knowledge that each of these students posses (some might say the ability to answer questions on a comp exam, some would say the ability to carry out a research program, some would say the ability to ask an interesting research question, etc.), we could all agree that there would be a fairly wide spread in skill level regardless of the measure selected.

However, there is one skill that all 100 students would be able to use at a very similar level. What is it? Giving a lecture.

Giving a lecture is the one skill that all physics/astronomy students know how to do equally well, because it was the one skill that was modelled for us most consistently. Day in, and day out for 6 or so years, we all saw lectures. None of the skills like problem solving, research, synthesis of information, or writing are given that type of exposure to students by way of modelling.

For example, professors may work through a problem on the board with the input of students, during a class. But it's not pure problem solving. The professor knows what the answer is, and he's (pardon my reality based sexism) just guiding the students. How many times does a student ever see a professor truly stumped? And not in a, 'I forgot what step I was on in this problem that I've done for 30 years', but in a stumped 'this research question seems to be too big for me,' way. Probably not until the final stages of dissertation research, if that.

Some would argue that there are better lecturers than others within the field, and I would have to agree. Some people do have naturally louder vocies, better voice control, better body control, and can wrap their information up in a more interesting way. However, if you go to a large collection of physics/astronomy research talks, like the AAS Meeting, and look objectively at all the talks, you'll find that they are strikingly similar. The style of presentations are the same, the order of presentations are the same, the structure of the powerpoint is the same, and the use of body and voice is the same. Often we give too much credit to the speaker of one of these talks for being interesting, when really it was just the information conveyed that was interesting to us.

Physics/astronomy programs teach lecturing well, because it is the one thing they model for all students without fail. It would be interesting to see what could be taught if we focused as much energy on modelling other traits.

3 Comments:

At 10:36 AM, Blogger maki-girl said...

Interesting point hoagieboy -- I never thought of it that way. Maybe that's why most astronomy PhD's *feel* they are fully prepared to teach.

Oddly enough, my WORST astronomy class involved no lecturing (star formation).

 
At 10:51 AM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

Well, that class had plenty of badness going for it in all respects.

I think you're right about people feeling that they're ready to teach. The graduates are the ones who have been able to most effectively learn the stuff presented in the lectures. They attribute the learning to the lectures (whether true or not), and thus they feel that they're ready to teach too, since the one thing that they have learned well is how to lecture.

 
At 11:29 AM, Blogger maki-girl said...

I know, it's like a really bad cycle where everything is taught in a way that only a few people get it. Then they teach it that way ... it's like physics/astronomy is supposed to be SO hard that only the select few get it. My revelation this year was that hey, it's not so hard. And it can be pretty interesting. I just got a whole book to help me out next year with mechanics. It's called "The Way Things Work" and has all these great illustrations. I can't wait! Whoever thought I would say that about mechanics?

 

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