29 January 2011

Quality vs popularity in teaching

A few months ago a Boston Globe article (4 July 2010), titled "What happened to studying?",  commented on research done by two Economics professors, Philip Babcock  (University of California Santa Barbara) and Mindy Marks (University of California Riverside), about the significant drop of number hours that university students spend studying:
The average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.
In fact,
[t]he National Survey of Student Engagement found in 2009 that 62 percent of college students studied 15 hours a week or less — even as they took home primarily As and Bs on their report cards.
So Babcock and Marks  asked why.  Obvious culprits,
the allure of the Internet (Facebook!), the advent of new technologies (dude, what’s a card catalog?), and the changing demographics of college campuses
didn't seem to be the main reason for this dramatic change. Perhaps then,
students [are so] much more efficient [nowadays, as compared to 40 years ago] that more than 60 percent of [them] study less than 15 hours a week and still earn As and Bs.
But some people, like the Stanford University provost John Bravman, try offer  some cheap explanations such as
[s]tudents live very different lives
[t]hey [have] jobs while attending classes.
[they] are [not] lazy, but [simply are] too busy — busier than previous generations
 In the words of John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University,
“Much busier,” describing the “on-demand” world that students work in today. “I was a student here from ’75 to ’79. I was reasonably engaged in things. But I had so much free time compared to students today. They do so many things — it’s amazing.”
Could it be the use of computers? No, because
the greatest decline in student studying took place before computers swept through colleges: Between 1961 and 1981, study times fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours per week (and then, ultimately, to 14).
 And, just to be sure, hours spent in studying are not the goal of education. Nobody says that a student studying twice as much as another is twice smarter, twice better or that he/she will achieve better grades or have better education. Generalizations like that are silly. But something is happening.
Even the students themselves, when asked to comment on difficulties in their education, agree on that
they simply [do] not know how to sit down and study.
A possible answer to the cause offered  by the two researchers is the following (and to me it is not suprising at all):
[There] is a breakdown in the professor-student relationship. Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, they suggest, is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible.
No one really has an incentive to make a demanding class, To make a tough assignment, you have to write it, grade it. Kids come into office hours and want help on it. If you make it too hard, they complain. Other than the sheer love for knowledge and the desire to pass it on to the next generation, there is no incentive in the system to encourage effort.
What has happened is something that everyone who takes education seriously sees, very clearly, but most people have no incentive (in fact they may be punished by the university) to talk about. It is, in other words, a common secret.

Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California Berkeley was a graduate student at Berkeley in the sixties, and was part of an upstart movement pushing for students to rate their professors. 
The idea, Sperber said, was to give students a chance to express their opinions about their classes — a noble thought, but one that has backfired, according to many professors. Course evaluations have created a sort of “nonaggression pact,” Sperber said, where professors — especially ones seeking tenure — go easy on the homework and students, in turn, give glowing course evaluations.
And, yes, this is a very likely cause of the problem. It is common knowledge that a teacher's job may rely on students' evaluations. If the lecturer teaches a demanding course then he/she knows that the evaluations will be bad and then the lecturer will suffer the consequences from the administration: "You are not a good teacher!" So, most lecturers either give up or are, simply, forced over the years to adopt a perverse system. The lecturer is forced to make the course easy, to make it popular, to, simply, work towards achieving a good evaluation from the students. Regardless of the content, if the lecturer gets good evaluations, he/she will be awarded by the administration by, say, receiving a teaching award, a pay rise, and congratulations by both the university and student parents alike. The system works because it makes most parties happy. It obeys the rules of Economy: If I try to sell a good product at the proper price, whereas everybody else is selling a similar-looking, but bad product, at half the price, then I lose, especially when customers just want the brand and not the quality. It can also be explained by the very simple fact, one we are never allowed to speak about, that some teachers, lecturers, professors, etc., find it much easier to teach the same old stuff they once learned, rather than try to educate themselves with new developments in their subject. Teaching, good teaching, is a dynamic process, one that is inseparable from research. And it requires effort. Many teachers find this a daunting task. And if they work in a place where they can, simply, be awarded for doing less, by making both their bosses and their clients happy alike, then that's what they do. The students walk away from the classroom happy, happy that they spent one hour looking at pretty pictures (and sound, and multimedia, and what have you) and happy that they don't have to study at home, but, simply, go partying for the rest of the day. So, everybody is happy.

There are universities where students' perception of how exciting the lectures are is their only goal. To wit, I once worked in a university where one of the head administrators told us:
 We are in the age of www.ratemyprofessors.com
going on to explain that the university is serious about student satisfaction and student metrics. In fact, they had prepared course evaluation forms giving students the possibility to comment on things which were absolutely hilarious. One of the questions, designed by the university administrators, was this:

Even if you never sought assistance from the lecturer, the lecturer was: (a) Very helpful, (b) Helpful, (c) Rather unhelpful, (d) Very unhelpful.

I used to change this question to:

If you sought assistance from the lecturer, the lecturer was...

Simply because the question was irrational: Why should a student who had never asked a question, or gone to the lecturer's office, be in a position to comment on the helpfulness of the lecturer? Absurd!

Another time, one of my colleagues who had a really high students' rating was one who had mental problems. So much so that he would never teach anything the students could understand but who was known to tell them what would be in the exam and even walk out of the classroom during exam and leave students alone for three hours to write their exam. When asked why he did that, he said that he had "bladder problems" and had to be in the toilet to pee. I had commented on this guy some time ago, only in passing. But he's in jail now, so students won't have to complete evaluations about him.

Now, going back to the research of Babcock and Marks, I would like to explain that I don't happen to think, as I commented above, that a lot of studying is necessarily an index of success. However, there is evidence (besides common sense) that those who are not willing to sweat over a subject won't go too far. Genius, someone said, relies on 90% hard work and 10% brilliance, or something like that.

The universities, in all parts of the world, should think about their product seriously. Clearly, the product is education and research or research and education. But if the product becomes faulty, then, however great the economic success and customer satisfaction is in the short term (the last 40 years, say), the long-run consequences will be really grave. Everybody will be crying when they will have to learn mandarin to send their kids for education in China. For the time being, Chinese still come to Europe and America. Because, "education is better". But for how much longer?

Have we also imagined that when we educate someone (ourselves, for instance) towards a certain goal then we really want to achieve that goal? For example, if I want to be a car mechanic, I'd better try to fix a car or two before getting a real job rather than pay to get a car mechanic certificate from an online college, or if I want to work towards finding a theory unifying gravity and the other 3 forces of nature (electromagnetic, weak, and strong), then I had better understand physics and mathematics well, rather than, simply, have a perfect grade on my diploma, a grade which I may possibly have achieved by filling in evaluation forms and by taking courses which are popular, taught by lecturers who use flashy multimedia

Food for thought, for teachers, students, administrators and politicians alike.

17 January 2011

Local music

Promoting the local rebetiko music group Trikala (Tony Klein - bouzouki, mandola, baglamas, oud, tzouras, guitar; Matti Pohjola - guitar, mandolin; Georgios Dimitroglou-Rizell - vocals, accordion, baglamas, guitar) from Uppsala that I listened to on Saturday night:

10 January 2011


What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant