I worked for a visiting professor during my second semester as a teaching assistant. He usually taught at one of the UW’s two year branch campuses, so he had rather inflated expectations of what students in Madison could do. In order to help them study for the first exam, I wrote up a study guide based on the lectures and the readings. I gave a copy of the study guide to the professor. When the test came, literally none of the terms I put on the study guide appeared on the test. He told me that he didn’t want to make things too easy for the students. Needless to say, neither of us was particularly popular after that.
Before I started teaching my first classes as a lecturer at UW-Oshkosh, I watched one of my friends teach a World History class. For her lecture, she wrote out an outline on the blackboard beforehand so that her students wouldn’t get lost and so that they would be able to spell the tough European words correctly in their notes. I didn’t have the time for that since I had two separate preps and a dissertation to finish, so I picked out a smattering of six or eight ID terms per class period to signify that these terms were particularly important and fair game for quizzes. Then I added two or three arguments to read up front to serve as scaffolding for the lecture. I still do both those things today through the magic of PowerPoint.
Jeremy Adelman does nothing like that in his World History MOOC. Perhaps students don’t need guidance at Princeton, but I sure do because (here comes the embarrassing confession) I am absolutely bombing the multiple choice questions after each lecture segment. After two lectures, I think I’ve gotten only one of them right on the first try in about eight or nine chances.
How could this be? Unlike my new Twitter pal Vim Ph.D., I’m pretty good at avoiding multi-tasking. When I get distracted, I do it in the old-fashioned way (i.e. I zone out). Nonetheless, I think there’s a design flaw involved here too. Like so many other history professors I’ve encountered, Adelman seems to be assuming that absolutely everything he says is incredibly important. It may be, but to expect anyone to remember everything you say right after you say it is entirely unreasonable, especially if they’re taking notes (which I am not by the way – we’ll see how much that hurts me come paper time).
When I teach, I always give signals to emphasize what’s particularly important so I know the students will remember the most important of all the important things I cover. Without guidance, knowing what’s important enough to get quizzed on is basically a guessing game, even when the lectures are broken up into twelve minute segments. And for some ridiculous reason, these multiple choice questions sometimes have more than one correct answer, which goes against every test rule that I’ve learned over my 20+ years of education. I’ve inevitably been jumping after I find one correct answer (because I’m conditioned to do that) and then getting the question wrong if there’s another one too.
This critique doesn’t mean that I claim to be the greatest teacher in the world. Far from it. However, my early experiences have made particularly sensitive to the need for history to be narrowed for students somehow. Otherwise they will inevitably be overwhelmed. Despite my many flaws, I do spend enormous amounts of time thinking about how I can teach US History to new Freshman better. I’m not sure that anyone at Princeton would ever be able to a better job at that than a talented community college professor whose job is essentially teaching and nothing else (except, of course, committee meetings). Maybe Coursera’s super-professors should be the ones who’ve spent the most time in the trenches teaching the masses rather than the ones who teach at the most prestigious schools.
Hey! That gives me an idea for a new TV series: “The Best Community College Professor in America.” Winner gets their own MOOC (and maybe a living wage too). I wonder what the weekly competition segments would look like…
PS Lest you think I’m a lone angry crank, James Atherton covers a lot of the same ground that I do here.