Yesterday, John stressed that education is about helping people discover their passion. I have many brilliant students, but few passionate students.
Success is more a matter of hard work than talent. We need to humble our students with difficult problems and long assignments. However, we should find ways to do it without turning our students into bureaucrats.
To fight industrialized teaching, I have been using cognitive stress: make sure part of your course goes beyond what any one student can grasp. I think that you learn best when your brain is forced to rewire itself. Cognitive stress is my way to force students to think differently. If I could, I would take my students on a flight to Mars and I would teach in Klingon.
(Don’t worry about taking my courses: 90% of all my students would recommend my courses to other students. Just make sure you don’t belong to the 10% who hates me.)
I will change the way I teach in the coming years. Maybe I also need some cognitive stress to evolve as a professor. And, I feel that professors must evolve—quickly—if they are to remain relevant in this new century.
- Do we need grades? Grades are convenient to compile statistics about students. No need to get to know the individuals, to compute averages and standard deviations. Mike Stiber described on this blog the grades as an interface from academia to the rest of the world. The Rancourt case has convinced me to reevaluate this a priori. I want students—undergraduate students—to challenge and surprise me. For the good students, I want them to go beyond getting an A. For the weak students, I want them to try to turn their weaknesses into strengths. The Rancourt solution is to give an A to all students who pass your course. You take the railroad that are tests and standard assignments, and you just pull it off.
- Do we even need formal classes? While I resisted project-based courses for numerous years, I might have been misguided. I am thinking about setting up courses with broad guidelines, where students must build something. My role would be to set the frame of reference, tell them what sort of skills I want them to learn, and provide them with feedback. I have had great luck supervising senior B.Sc. thesis. For example, one of my student did a survey on fast shortest path computations over the DBLP database. Many of the more specialized courses could probably be project-based. I think that this helps to evacuate the role of the professor as a provider of content. I may know a lot about Databases, Information Retrieval or XML. But I can’t spill the content into my students’ brains. And I am not the sole source of content. Nor even the best source.
- Automated personalized teaching is probably underutilized. For teaching technical skills, such as computing derivatives or programming in Java, I think that a human instructor is wasted. Automated tests can provide faster feedback, and allow for more ambitious courses through personalization.
These measures will challenge the weak or lazy students, but also the best students. Without a clear path in a given course, some students will feel cheated. After all, it is much easier to be told what to do. Ah! But that’s precisely what I want: students who dislike being told what to do!