Reinventing university education? Practical ideas…

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!

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Reinventing university education? Practical ideas…”

  1. “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.”

    I disagree slightly … I think we human beings are programmed to learn from a person rather than an automated tool. During my undergrad days, I tutored about 150 students on C/C++/Java, and it felt that they are more comfortable in getting the info from a person, rather than a book or a tool.

    Sure, teaching tools are probably more efficient in providing the information. But you’ve got to factor in the human nature … do we learn / remember better when a person teaches the info?

    My bet is on a human tutor, rather than a tool.

  2. @Julian I think that being passionate and being told exactly what to do are incompatible.

    Also, I don’t think that being passionate is a “personality trait” altogether. Some people are more prone to it, but everyone can grow to love something.

    Finally, if you take courses with me, then you have to understand that I will push you, sometimes in directions where you’d rather not go. I feel that it is my job… My job is not to give you what you want… I am not here to spoon-feed you with data and “knowledge”. I am here to challenge students, to push them beyond their limits… up to the point where they feel uncomfortable.

    Sure. I’m crazy. But I am not kidding about the good reviews I get from students. I have been told by some students that my courses are the only “university-level” courses they have taken in their entire degree. Many students are very happy to have been challenged.

  3. “that’s precisely what I want: students who dislike being told what to do”

    Yes, that’s the students you want, but is that the students you’ll get?

    You might argue that you want to shape them into people that don’t want to be told things. But is that possible if they’re already at least 20 years old when you meet them?

    And is it even your job to change their personalities?

  4. My favourite courses are the ones where I’m challenged. This year I took ring theory and group theory and loved doing proofs.

    I’d like to see assignments move away from lots of tiny questions to a small number of larger questions. My vector calculus class last year was no fun because our prof had to assign about twenty questions to cover all the concepts he had taught that week, each question usually requiring lengthy computation. On the other hand, my group theory assignments were shorter–they usually took me about the same amount of time, but they were more enjoyable because I felt like I had accomplished something at the end.

    I’m fine with project-based teaching as long as that doesn’t necessarily mean “group projects.” I abhor group projects with every asocial bone in my body (which is every bone–except maybe my left femur, that traitor). I understand that group projects are often necessary evils and that in the “real world” (which I will avoid as much as possible upon graduation) we often have to work in groups. But my marks always seem to go down in a group, not up.

  5. Sorry for the double comment, but as I submitted the last comment I realized I’d forgotten to ask a question….

    While I have burning passion for my field of study (math), I’m well aware that most of my peers don’t share this passion. They’re more interested in getting through university and getting a job with their degree. I know this was particularly a problem in that group theory course I mentioned in the previous comment–I and a few others enjoyed doing proofs, but everyone else just wanted the class to be over.

    So as a future teacher, I worry about trying to make courses interesting for students who approach them with the attitude of “well, I’m taking it because it’s required, but I’m not going to like it.” I know a teacher’s attitude alone can make a great difference. My first year discrete math prof was very enthusiastic and amicable. He’d use pop culture examples and was a terrible artist (much to our amusement). As a result, most of us enjoyed the class immensely (and missed him this year while he was on sabbatical). Have you any additional words of wisdom? 😀

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