surface learning

I’m sick and tired of being a student, of having these wafer-thin boundaries between work and the rest of my life, of being in a position where people can legitimately claim time from every single part of my day for extra recitation sessions or labs or committee meetings or whatever other crap comes up. And I’m going to suck up and deal for another year, because I want that gilded diploma.

On a related tangent, this article has given me a passel of interesting thoughts to chew on – it’s all about the difference between deep and surface learning, as the author calls it, and the pedagogical strategies which help promote deeper learning. You can all guess what kind of learning I’ve been doing for the past three years, right?

It’s been incredibly frustrating to put so much time and energy into coursework that I don’t really learn from; extra-frustrating because I want to take responsibility for my own education, even when a class is less than ideal. When a class goes badly I just feel guilty for not working hard enough, as though I don’t have the right to make constructive criticisms until I’ve independently exhausted all other options. Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty and all of a sudden I’m on a therapist’s couch talking about my mother. That’s really a personal issue, though, and right now I’m complaining about an institution.

I have been astonished by the great variance in teaching quality at this school; it’s part of what’s drawn me to seriously contemplate a career in education. I know many professors who blow my socks off with their teaching prowess, their involvement with the undergraduates, their wit and their coherent outlines and their spanky multimedia presentations and above all, their drive to present the subject they love so that students can learn to love it too. I know many more who just stand at the board fumbling with some old notes they can barely remember writing, and when everybody’s thoroughly confused they go home.

The current approved, institutionalized approach to poor teaching is to attack it piecemeal: approach each professor, by yourself or through an official go-between, and politely express your concerns. Even when all professors take all concerns as seriously as they ought, this is an inefficient, underwhelming, and downright red-herring-filled approach to the problem: there are too many lousy profs on this campus, too many new hires, too many who are suddenly shifted from advanced graduate seminars to innocent little sophomores.

The obvious solution is a bullet-pointed manifesto-slash-open letter.

Dear Herr Professor Ma’am:

  • When you stand up on the first day of class and say “before we can address the subject at hand, we must develop a certain level of abstract or mathematical background” – you are lying. If you can’t contrive a set of decent examples to motivate that background, it’s probably not necessary material, you should probably not be the one to introduce such material even if it is necessary, and you most certainly should not expect me to care about your worthless technicalities.
  • When someone asks me to care about the solution to a problem before I even know what the problem is, that’s unfair. If that person happens to be myself – it’s still unfair.
  • I am not a superhuman curiosity machine and neither are my classmates.
  • I know I’m smart, and I know the material seems simple to you – but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. I need to decode what you just said, write it down in a form that will make sense to me when I reread it later, and make connections between this material and things I’ve already learned. This all takes time. I can’t always follow along, take good notes, and correct your stupid algebra mistakes.
  • It’s fine to make algebra mistakes; when a student does find one, that’s an extra-special bonus. Please remember that while you erase a single letter, I sometimes have to scribble out a complicated expression. Before you move on, make sure most of the eyes in the lecture hall are looking back at you.
  • If you want me to pay attention in lecture, try not speaking in such a fucking monotone.

Dear Other Students And Also Me:

  • I know you know Caltech is first and foremost a research institution, and that most of the profs only teach because they have to. That means we will always have to put up with some mediocre teachers; it doesn’t mean we should put up with an endless series of piss-poor confusing lectures. Nothing will change if we don’t band together and demand it. Just bitching is not enough.
  • Most profs want to be decent teachers, but they don’t quite realize what they’re doing wrong. So for the love of elvis, tell them! Especially if it’s an easy fix, like doing more examples or writing slashes through Z’s so they don’t look like 2’s.
  • I will not think you’re stupid for asking a question in class. I repeat: I will not think you’re stupid for asking a question in class. If no one ever asks questions, then everyone feels uncomfortable asking questions, and class turns into an awful downward spiral of confusion and shame. Please don’t let this happen.

Aiy, that feels a bit better. This is actually something I might want to clean up and bring before some kind of committee, maybe. But I need a shower now.


  1. Smitha wrote:

    *applauds* I’m in total agreement on all points…thanks for putting it so succinctly. I’ve considered being a teacher as well, partly because of the fulfillment of the job, and partly because of this.

  2. yami wrote:

    Nothing to add? The more bad habits I recognize, the more comfortable I am insisting that profs not be so shitty, at least not while I’m in their class…

  3. Dennis wrote:

    Cheers, yami; as usual, a sharp distillation of a very widespread problem. If I may, I’d like to add a footnote to the following bit:
    their drive to present the subject they love so that students can learn to love it too
    Note that in some (many?) cases, departments foist certain courses (in particular the core, introductory offerings that more senior professors aren’t necessarily jumping at teaching) on junior faculty, who are contractually obliged to teach a certain load. So the idea that the teaching of a course is always an elective gig is sometimes not the case, and therein may lie part of the problem. Junior faculty in the sciences are under a simultaneous pressure to do new research and publish, so teaching can be viewed by the young and untenured as a massive speed bump to this goal. This isn’t an excuse for poor teaching, just an observation.

  4. yami wrote:

    Oh, I’m fully aware that teaching is not much of a choice – that’s mostly why my socks are knocked off whenever I get a prof who actually *wants* to do it. It’s a rare and valuable thing.
    But on the flip side of things, some of the horror story profs on this campus are department chairs who teach introductory courses because they want them done properly. They’re the ones who cram in extra material, fill problem sets with interesting-but-impossible subtleties, and make students cry during oral exams.
    It’s one thing if the tenure-tracked don’t want to put much time into teaching… but things like waiting for us to finish writing before moving to the next point don’t really require extra time, and that’s what really frustrates me.

  5. Rasmus wrote:

    I’m an artist. I never had any professors droning for hours without sufficient examples, so really, I can’t relate to this. HOWEVER, I do think, based on your sharp observational skills, witty persona and social nature, you would be an excellent teacher in any class.

  6. G wrote:

    Just a couple remarks from “the other side”, which should not be taken as dissent – in fact I agree completely with every bullet. I would, however, add a few things that may not be specifically relevant to the classes you’re talking about, more to College Algebra classes at large Midwestern universities.

    The newspaper (and, in particular, the crossword) is a lovely thing and I enjoy it too. If you read it in my class, I will deliver unto you the Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts. And newsprint hurts like hell.
    The above is actually a corollary of a more general principle: it is not my job to make you want to be here. It is my job to teach you the things that you allegedly want to know. If you don’t want to be here, I don’t want you here. If you’re only lukewarm to the idea of being here, that’s fine – just sit there and pretend you’re getting another fake tan, and let the rest of us do the things we’re here to do.
    Asking questions is the only way to let me know that you’re with me. Having your head down writing isn’t enough, and I will not take it as evidence of paying attention (see bullet no.1). When you come to me later and insist that you’ve taken notes every day and you can’t imagine why you failed the test, I will nod sadly and walk back to my office.
    Asking a question for the sole purpose of making yourself look smart never works. I (and everyone else) just think you’re an ass.

    Um. It seems I’m a little more bitter today than most days. Sorry to inflict this on you. Won’t happen again (soon).

  7. G wrote:

    Related: Things to do Next Semester (via cheesedip). I should write the math/hard-sci version of this. (Oh, and yes I’m feeling much better after lunch, thanks.)

  8. Tinka wrote:

    I’ve “fortunate” enough to have experience with both being a student and a teacher of students. And both sides have problems.
    – Student Side –
    – Teachers expect you to know things that you cannot possibly know. In my field, this could be an intimate knowledge of Classic philosophy and the Bible. Preferably also a good knowledge of canonical texts not in your mother tongue or English.
    – Teachers suppose that apart from the required texts, you also read two or three novels (from the canon) every week. You should also keep up with the latest news and attend all guest lectures.
    – Teachers often forget that students need pick-me-ups or summaries when confronted with new material.
    – Teacher Side –
    – Students show up ill-prepared and without having thought about the material they have halfway read. It is a waste of my time and the students’ time.
    – Students expect the teacher to know everything and be able to explain everything – including things that are not in the teacher’s chosen field. I’m *so* sorry that I cannot explain a particular phonological problem, but – hey – I teach writing within a literary context!
    – Students do not let me know if they do not grasp the material or if I move too fast. How am I able to adjust the level of the material if I’m not told this?
    Often people forget that what is happening in the classroom is a *collaboration*. Teacher and students need to work together and not point fingers at each other. I should add that if I catch some more student painting her nails while in class, said student will be torn apart. If I met one more teacher who is surprised that I haven’t read “Don Quixote” – she’ll be torn apart too.
    Final note: balancing being a student *and* teaching classes at undergrad level is bloody hard work. I’m not doing that ever again.

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