Thursday, March 3, 2011

inspiration and perspiration

I really enjoyed this post, over at Daily Science Professor, about student approaches to exam preparation. It reminded me of something that I forget from time to time, although I often say it to my colleagues: Academics are (by and large) at a disadvantage as teachers because we were all good students.

None of us got where we are without having an uncommon level of devotion to our studies. I know some academics who only had this devotion to their own field, but as undergrads, most of us worked very hard in all classes, because we were good students and would have been embarrassed to fail, or even to be average. This causes two problems in our teaching:

1) We have a hard time understanding that some students don't care about their grades. Seriously, my first semester teaching I cringed every time I assigned a sub-B grade. I thought the poor student would be devastated! To my surprise, some students were thrilled to get Cs. This attitude is hard for me to understand, and I had to re-think my approach to the classroom, to draw in students who don't care about getting As.

2) We figured out the "tricks" to being a good student so long ago that we don't consciously know what they are. Therefore, we have trouble teaching them to our students. That's why I think the DPS post is so good - it's a reminder of the basics, which many of us don't remember learning. For example, it never occurs to me that students believe they are failing at a subject because they aren't "smart", when the truth is they need to work harder. Edison was right: success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I remember learning that from a high school math teacher, the first person who told me that there is no such thing as a "math brain".* My failure or success as a math student would hinge on my willingness to put in the work. I already knew I could be successful at every other subject, if I put in the effort. Not all of our students, however, do know that, and it's critical that we explain both the necessity and the rewards of hard work.

*I won't go into the topic of gender bias in math instruction, and whether or not I would have been told I didn't have a "math brain", if I'd been male. That's a topic for a different post, or possibly a different blog.

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