Monday, December 22, 2008

Capriciousness is not a Pedagogical Virtue

I have an unfortunate difficulty in finding philosophy professors who can teach. Fortunately, I'm not a philosophy major. My experience in this area is somewhat limited, only having attempted to take two such classes, but so far I'm down two for two.

The first time was a class titled "Logic", ostensibly on logic, which turned out to be on informal discourse instead. This was bad enough, but the instructor's dead-pan delivery, rote reading of the textbook, and consistent inability to answer questions told me everything I needed to know. I dropped the course, because it had nothing to offer.

The second time was a class titled "Logic", which turned out to actually be on the subject of formal logic. It might not have been so bad, but the instructor's dead-pan delivery on the first day made the warning bells flash. Having already scoped out the topics on the syllabus and the book, I felt that this time, at least the course content was in the area. Additionally, the instructor seemed to know the material at a deep level... to the point that he would flip between multiple notations and have to correct himself midstream. I thought he had something to offer, even if he gave a droopy presentation that day.

I was right, he did seem to know his stuff. He also had something to offer and genuinely seemed interested in having the class perform. But I was also wrong, in that there were factors other than casual interest and long-term experience that determined the effectiveness of the instructor and class outcome. Specifically -- looking back on it -- a capricious instructional philosopy coupled with apparently conflicting interests and college commitments precluded a good learning outcome.

Regarding conflicting interests, students have them too. Yet when an instructor has them to the point that he fails to instruct, it impacts everyone.

Several students began to question his commitment to the class, as they observed that he was not familiar with what was in the course book and evidently had not taken the time to familarize himself. He admitted as much in class on more than one occassion, saying that he had some sort of college related work to do. Two hand-in homework assignments were given in all the semester; the first was not graded before the mid-term and the second was assigned and handed back only a few days before the final.

Again, the reason was that he was too busy. Whatever the cause he put a low priority on outside time spent on the class.

His instructional method was easy to follow, but mainly because it was "extensively shallow" and presented no organized material. That is, class time consisted almost completely of an ad-hoc question and answer session where a few students would say "Question blah" and he would then start to work the question. But he used vague, imprecise language, ambiguous wording, with lots of verbal hand-waving about results and methods, and abruptly halting mid-stream with a "well you can figure it out from there" gesture. (On the plus side, he would usually complete a proof and restate it more clearly when asked to do so.)

The class could be thought of as "rubric free" in the sense that the instructor's expectations and the guidelines by which we should judge our own progress were not clear. In short, students were told to read the book and do as many of the section problems as possible and then come to class with any questions. As mentioned he did not seem to be interested in presenting the material in an orderly manner: he was only ever prepared to do so a couple of times during the course. There were only a scattered handful of what might resemble lectures based upon hand-outs, but those were poorly organized cut-and-paste jobs presented with odd language variations and frequent mistakes. After years of instruction in this area one might think that an instructor would have developed supporting materials that were clear and consistent; that did not appear to be the case. Several of the formal definitions left me and my peers searching for the question intended to be answered, let alone the proper mode of answering. Some of this was no doubt a fault with the textbook, but even staying on track with the book was difficult because the class time didn't track the readings. One never knew where the class was at, and the classtime in general did not contribute to learning.

That this instructional method was not sufficient for most students was strongly suggested by the failure of almost all of the students on his mid-term. Yet the methodology behind his test was itself unpredictable. He rejected valid answers for unspecified reasons. There were to my knowledge no partial credits and few constructive remarks given. The hand-in homework was of course useless for learning since none was graded or returned in a timely manner. A peer remarked that upon handing in a remake answer identical to one marked incorrect on the mid-term, the instructor checked it off at full credit. This suggests that the instructor was not committing the necessary amount of attention to grading the tests, but simply scanning and crossing off answers.

Both the mid-term and final exam were presented with unfamiliar language -- not used in the text, homeworks or in class time -- and with problems that were largely not representative of the kinds of challenges we were presented in class or in homework. This capriciousness may be a worthwhile quizzing or homework strategy for a logic class to reinforce the ability of the student to translate. Yet when this is not regularly reinforced with taught techniques during the course it serves no purpose in the testing except to disrupt the students' thinking.

The best way to summarize his instructional philosophy was "capricious".

Some students are slackers, and cannot be helped except through a psychological breakthrough. Others "just don't get it" because the material is too far removed from their prior experience. The instructor's approach appeared to be aimed at these students, but it evidently failed to bridge the gap. Many students like myself devoted significant amounts of time to study but felt the effort was not reciprocated by the instructor's dedication of his own time to the course. The lack of organization and structure in class time left us with little direction on what was important, where to focus our effort, or how the topics fit together meaningfully into a solid body of theory.

Personally I felt it was a disservice to the students. I've seen valid uses of randomness before in an instructional environment, but deliberately choosing to use randomness is not a substitute for adequate preparation and is no excuse for poor organization and a hand-waving lack of rigor.

Incidentally, I got an A+ in the class but the capriciousness of the instructor's pedagogic approach left me feeling that I should have dropped the course and focused on other studies.