kitchen table math, the sequel: Are math & science lectures boring in a way humanities & social science lectures are not?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Are math & science lectures boring in a way humanities & social science lectures are not?

I ask because at least from what I can see commenters (and instructors) who are more MOOC-friendly than I am seem to be mostly math/science types.

That could simply be because I happen to be writing a blog called Kitchen Table Math as opposed to Kitchen Table Humanities or Kitchen Table Social Sciences.

Nevertheless, it strikes me as possible that the lecture may be a serious 'form,' with a kind of value in and of itself, in the humanities in a way it is not in math/science.

I liked lectures as a college kid, and I like lectures as an adult. The idea that you would get rid of 'boring' lecture so students can work in 'interesting' pods and pairs is …. well, "horrifying" wouldn't be too strong a word.

By the way, in my own class I never lecture. Ever. I give extremely brief 'lessons,' I guess you would call them, followed immediately by cold-calling, followed immediately by whole-class exercises done individually.

I use Stick Pick for cold-calling, which my students always seem to think is hilarious.

My class is pure instructivism, and pure instructivism requires interaction.

I wish I could find the professional development video on direct instruction I posted a few years back. It was terrific (though, as I recall, the video may no longer be available…) I remember the lecturer (& she did lecture) giving a formula for how many questions a direct instructivist should ask per each 10 minutes.

It was a lot.

(This post from 2012 discusses teaching and question-asking as they used to be done....)


Eureka
Eureka, part 2
Eureka, part 3
Eureka, part 4
Eureka, part 5

Flipping the Classroom: Hot, Hot, Hot
MOOCs grow the gap
The New York Times is surprised
In the world of MOOCs, 2+2 is never 4
World's funniest joke: humor depends on surprise
Dick Van Dyke on comedy
Philip Keller on the flipped classroom
If students could talk
Who wants flipped classrooms? (Salman Khan on liberating teachers)
True story
Are math & science lectures boring in a way humanities & social science lectures are not?

28 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I've always found humanities lectures much more boring than math and science ones. There was much more tendency for the monotonous drone and the reading of lecture notes, and much less enthusiasm for the topic. My wife, on the other hand, prefers humanities lectures. She also likes video recordings of lectures, which I find almost invariably put me to sleep, even when the same lecture live would keep me interested.

I think it depends more on the student than on the topic.

kcab said...

I don't think 'boring' is the problem, exactly. There's a tendency for students to think that they've learned quite a lot from a lecture in math/science/engineering and yet be completely at sea when they try to do work related to the lecture. I don't think it's just me - though I did think that when I was a freshman in college! I've read something recently about this being a fairly common experience - possibly on Dan Willingham's blog, but I'm not sure. In any case, having explanations available in multiple formats that can be reviewed multiple times can be useful.

Also - getting immediate feedback on problem solutions can also be very helpful in math/science courses. My daughter's Physics instructor is using WebAssign for homework problems and I think that format is MUCH better for her than turning in a weekly problem set and getting it back graded (or not) a week later.

SteveH said...

I think you're giving the teacher presentation variable a little too much credit for success. I think it's more important to examine feedback on homework. Clearly, most would think that a live person is better than a video, and a lecture-dominant course is better than a hand-on group-dominant course. Besides, one doesn't waste class time on what can and should be done outside of class. There is more opportunity for student interaction outside of class in college than in K-12. I would hope that the professor had something useful to teach me.

Math and science courses are all about homework or problem sets. A lot depends on the textbook and the feedback rather than the excitement of the professor. I valued more the understanding and explanations of the professor than his/her teaching style.

For programming courses, everything depends on the incredible amount of individual time one has put in on getting a program to work. What the professor says in class might help, but it won't be meaningful until you have done the work yourself.

I suspect that writing is something like programming - it requires a lot of individual effort that can't be helped much by lectures, no matter how exciting the teacher. However, while programming has a clear point of success, writing does not. Perhaps the problem is that that point of success is only know by the teacher, whereas students clearly know when their programs crash and burn. Besides, programs often include teacher-provided test suites that have to be passed. With writing, it seems that the feedback loop has to pass through the teacher a lot of times or that the teacher has to be able to get students to understand what success looks like. I think that is so much more important than making lectures exciting.

SteveH said...

In any case, I'm not sure what the question is here. Are MOOCs good? Given what assumptions? Are we comparing MOOCs with the live lectures? I always thought that MOOCs were just a way to get to people who couldn't physically be where the teacher is, and that they also offer classes for free or low cost.

Are we comparing lecture with group work? Are we looking at classes that are part lecture and part teacher-guided individual work? For the programming and math classes I taught, I had too much material to cover to offer them time to work on problems in class. That might be good for the poorer students because they need to be forced to do that, but that's not the best use of class time for the better students. I always had office hours and free time after classes. Deadlines and a clear understanding of what defined success drove the process.

Let's say that I was starting a new unit on a programming data structure called B-trees. Preparing them do tackle a program involving that technique did not require me to ask a bunch of questions during class. They would end up being rhetorical, anyways. My goal was to come up with the most simple way of explaining why they are useful and how they work. I can't think of any way to make them exciting. However, students would be excited if I reduced or eliminated the struggle they had in getting their program to work. I focused on explanation, not about being non-boring.

Some educators think that students have to struggle to learn. I disagree with that completely. My goal was to make learning as easy as possible. That provided them the "rush"(I hoped), not my exciting lectures.

I think this points to a fundamental idea we have been looking at for ages; top-down versus bottom-up. I think that all of the meaningful excitement of learning comes from individual mastery of basic skills. That will drive excitement and will help students become good in that field. If you try to engage students with real world examples and hands-on group work, that excitement will quickly evaporate as soon as they start doing individual homework.

I'll call it "Drill and Thrill".

I've seen it in the math students I've tutored. They are thrilled to be able to confidently do homework problems.

allison said...

In my math and physics courses, invariably the most "exciting" profs were the ones who thrilled us with a proof or a derivation of something exciting which left us in awe, and then five minutes after class ended, left us in despair. Despair because we had NO IDEA how we had gotten there or how to think it out for ourselves and all of the steps to the right answer seemed like magic.
Kcab, every single friend I had had the same feeling. It was universal.
It wasn't until I was in grad school at least 4 years after finally graduating from MIT that I realized those professors were the bad ones at teaching not the good ones.
We were utterly dependent on out lecturers and recitation instructors though. We were typically assigned 4-6 textbooks to read per course and navigating through them to actually solve a problem was impossible. Too few examples that were anything like our homework.


It is easy to make a class exciting. The hard part is to make it exciting AND informative.

allison said...

Math and science courses may be all about the problem sets, but not the way engineering courses are. They weren't just "follow the recipe". They were "figure out how to apply what you have learned to a problem you have never seen before." Being shown how to do the problem the typical "approach" of a tutor. But such an approach was basically missing the point: HOW to know the approach. That subtlety was missing from most profs who couldn't tell you who just knew. And so in many ways math and physics courses were fundamentally constructivist. They didn't really think that could be taught...it just had to be experienced.

firefly said...

I personally think that "classroom flipping" (aka "closed lab course" which is what we called this style in the 90's) is far more relevant and useful in computer science and certain other engineering courses than it is to the humanities. In the end, we most care if the students learn to do things (solve engineering problems, write maintainable and efficient code, design a circuit), and students take away very little of that from a traditional lecture. A demo of how one would solve a problem is more useful, and the guide on the side approach that everyone here hates so much may be most useful. I find that a short mini lecture introduceing the useful concept, along with a quiz based on the reading they should have done, and then a closed lab with me helping out and nudging is the most effective approach

Catherine Johnson said...

In my math and physics courses, invariably the most "exciting" profs were the ones who thrilled us with a proof or a derivation of something exciting which left us in awe, and then five minutes after class ended, left us in despair. Despair because we had NO IDEA how we had gotten there or how to think it out for ourselves and all of the steps to the right answer seemed like magic.

Interesting.

I'm starting to think humanities/social science lectures really are fundamentally different from math/science lectures (or at least from math lectures).

I can't imagine the equivalent experience in any humanities/social sciences lecture -- although I can't say what it is, exactly, that lecture in humanities/social sciences does that 'reading the textbook' does not do….(I'm thinking of a comment on another post…)

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't think 'boring' is the problem, exactly. There's a tendency for students to think that they've learned quite a lot from a lecture in math/science/engineering and yet be completely at sea when they try to do work related to the lecture. I don't think it's just me - though I did think that when I was a freshman in college!

Absolutely. That's everyone.

Very true in grammar & writing, too.

Sometimes, with my students, the problem is that students haven't 'gotten it' yet, but not infrequently the problem is that I didn't anticipate what the mistakes would be because I lack 'pedagogical content knowledge.'

I am constantly frustrated by the utter lack of an effective scope and sequence for the teaching of writing as well as the complete and utter lack of effective practice regimens.

Katie Beals and I are working on this problem.

With grammar and writing the situation is especially frustrating because grammar and writing, for native speakers, ought to be easy. My students ***already know grammar.****

And yet, because there is no existing curriculum and practice regimen for the grammar of writing, the subject is hard.

Catherine Johnson said...

I suspect that writing is something like programming - it requires a lot of individual effort that can't be helped much by lectures, no matter how exciting the teacher.

I just read a fabulous article by a writer who spent a year taking programming courses -- I should find that article & post.

My sense is that learning to write **should** be a lot easier than it is -- and would be a lot easier if anyone knew how to teach it.

Writing has been taught via the "Writing Workshop" for decades now; at this point it's the only thing anyone knows or remembers.

Writing workshop means the student writes something bad, gets some semi-comprehensible feedback about why it's bad, then tries to write something marginally better the next time.

It looks like traditional learning, in which the novice always makes mistakes, but it's really not. there is no effort, with Writing Workshop, to have students do something correctly the first go-round.

Catherine Johnson said...

I always thought that MOOCs were just a way to get to people who couldn't physically be where the teacher is, and that they also offer classes for free or low cost.

If that were the only point to MOOCs, I wouldn't write a series of posts hammering MOOCs.

In fact, MOOCs were supposed to save the world and make people like Sebastian Thrun rich in the process, which meant that it was OK to put underachieving black students in an algebra MOOC even though research showed that underachieving black kids were going to do badly in a MOOC. It's OK to experiment with other people's kids if your intentions are good.

The obsession with MOOCs led to the firing of U Va's president (she was rehired), and is a force supporting the drive to flip the classroom.

MOOCs as a social phenomenon have been destructive.

MOOCs as recorded videos are neither here nor there.

Catherine Johnson said...

The real trauma, I predict, will happen in districts like mine, where the scores are always 'high.'

Sebastian Thrun looked at results; my district doesn't have to look at results. My district assumes that every "initiative" the district "rolls out" is good because, by definition, anything the district does is good.

The board didn't even have to be informed that the administration had decided to flip classrooms, and no questions will be asked.

MOOCs will stand or fall based on results and funding.

Flipped classrooms will be assumed to be good and that will be that.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think that all of the meaningful excitement of learning comes from individual mastery of basic skills. That will drive excitement and will help students become good in that field.

That's certainly true …. but in my case I am teaching the most remedial college writing course to kids who've spent 13 years not learning to write in their (mostly) public schools. My course is required, and is just the first in a sequence of four courses they're required to take.

Plus I'm, to a degree, one of the first people 'socializing' my students to what college is, and to what the intellectual life is.

So I perceive myself as having a job beyond teaching writing, and that job goes well beyond mastery of content.

My job has to do with giving my students entree to the life and attitudes of an 'educated person' -- and that does require conveying and inspiring enthusiasm.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

My sense is that learning to write **should** be a lot easier than it is -- and would be a lot easier if anyone knew how to teach it.

It would also be a lot easier to teach if parents didn't start screaming the second their child was criticized for doing something incorrectly. As horrible as a lot of math and science education is, there's still a generally accepted understanding that questions can have right and wrong answers. At this point, though, the humanities have been so co-opted by the "everyone's opinion is valid mentality" that any K-12 teacher who dared to teach things directly and give poor grades for work that didn't measure up would be fired in about five seconds. The reality, though, is that if you're teaching students the skills that will allow them to enter academic "conversation," then there are very clear, specific rhetorical gestures they need to be able to both identify and replicate. Otherwise, their writing simply won't make sense. Teaching writing effectively requires teachers to be much more formulaic than what most English teachers have been groomed to be comfortable with -- on one hand, it's much easier because it's a lot less vague, but it also requires students to work much, much harder and at a level of specificity that most of them don't even know exists. A lot of what I do is much closer to what my students do in Math class than in English class, and a lot them are shocked that a "soft" subject can be approached in such a systematic manner.

allison said...

For math and physics, once you are passed freshman courses, the classes generally are similar in their structure/paradigm/narrative/current buzzword for overall ordering of concepts: lectures exist to tell you what the main results are in that subject, and show you why they are true by deriving them from prior results.

Lectures are not places to learn to solve problems, and most students don't know how or why to engage lecture material. They are there to learn what results are true. The historical-derivation portion is usually a cleaned up truth, eliminating all of the false starts. Is pseudo-historical derivation exists because it is unfair and pointless to just throw out results with no way to ascertain their truth value. Should the results be taught in some other way? What would it look like?

So then recitation or discussion section is where problems are worked, problems that depend on the result shown in lecture. Recitation without lecture would be equally pointless as a pedagogical exercise, though students don't offer recognize this in time.

I don't know that history courses have an analogue to this. I don't know how a rhetoric class has an analogue to this. My MIT philosophy classes were analogous , but that is probably because of the unique nature of their philosophy focus.

I am not even sure other science or eng courses have an analogue to this.

Catherine Johnson said...

any K-12 teacher who dared to teach things directly and give poor grades for work that didn't measure up would be fired in about five seconds

I don't think I've ever seen a teacher fired in my district, regardless of how unhappy parents were.

This takes me back to the two bright red "D's" Chris received on the first 'paper' he wrote for his 6th grade teacher. He was 10. He had no idea what he had done wrong (neither did we), and the teacher called him to the front of the class, showed him his 2 D's (don't know why he got two D's on 1 paper, either), and said, loudly enough for the entire class to hear, "Are you doing the work at all?"

She didn't get fired.

Not even close.

We did manage to get Chris pulled out of her class. but only because she had told the kids they were "acting like a bunch of retards." Since Chris had two siblings with developmental disabilities, the principal agreed to move him to a different class.

Where he was also graded harshly and inscrutably, though he advanced from Ds to Cs, and the teacher was much nicer.

Erika, I'll send you those old posts.

I stumbled across them just a few days ago, and it took me back. I called the teacher and said I just couldn't tell what it was she wanted, and Chris couldn't tell, either.

I asked for exemplars of what she considered good work. She agreed to supply them but then told me, a little while later, that she was "not at liberty" to supply examples of what she considered good writing and would award a good grade.

Needless to say, I'm not a fan of 'teaching' writing via bad grades.

Catherine Johnson said...

My daughter's Physics instructor is using WebAssign for homework problems and I think that format is MUCH better for her than turning in a weekly problem set and getting it back graded (or not) a week later.

I wonder if that's what Chris's physics teacher used. He got all of his HW online, and could get the answer as soon as he did the problem. Then he could do more problems if he needed to.

That was fabulous.

If I had to guess, I'd say there's some 'form' of 'video teaching' that is going to work but that just hasn't been invented yet.

In the meantime, what makes sense to me is using technology to do as much 'grading' as possible and to supply more practice on demand.

'Grading' meaning formative assessment.

SteveH said...

"In fact, MOOCs were supposed to save the world and make people like Sebastian Thrun rich in the process, ..."

That's what I'm getting at. This is not really a question about whether MOOCs are good or not, but why people think like this and feel that they have the answer ... for everyone. Few of these people push for many different approaches to education and then allow the parents to decide. Many look for "the" solution to education in a top-down fashion. These grand ideas might work well for getting publicity (and money), but they rarely include the customer in the process. I'm constantly amazed at the simplicity of the arguments supporting these ideas. Meanwhile, the reality of what goes on in classes around the country is quite different, and parents continue to "track" at home.

SteveH said...

"...but in my case I am teaching the most remedial college writing course to kids who've spent 13 years not learning to write in their (mostly) public schools."

Your job is not to fix years of bad education. Your techniques for success do not necessarily define techniques that would solve writing education if started in the early grades. I had to teach algebra to college kids who still had issues with distributing the negative sign. My goal was to help them not flunk out and to get them to the highest level of math required by their degree program. I wasn't sitting there thinking that I had to get these students to do "math" like you seem to be thinking that you need to get students to "write". How do you define success for your course? How is that different from what you would do if you had these same students since 3rd grade?


Anonymous said...

"If I had to guess, I'd say there's some 'form' of 'video teaching' that is going to work but that just hasn't been invented yet."

We call them 'documentaries.' :-)

Think really good ones, like:
    *) Battlefield Britain (history)
    *) Walking with Dinosaurs
    *) The Shape of Life (biology)
    *) Miracle Planet
    *) The Universe (season 1, at least)
    *) Bell Labs Science Series (1956 - 1964)

They take a lot more time/skill/money to create than a talking head lecture, but if the idea is to reuse them millions of times over twenty years, the cost should work out.

-Mark Roulo

froggiemama said...

Having just gone to see the newest iteration of Walking with Dinosaurs yesterday, I would not say it is a replacement for actual teaching. It is a cute way to get small kids interested in dinosaurs, but that is about it. And yes, I know the original Walking with DInosaurs too - we own it!

froggiemama said...

Everyone here seems to be scratching their heads over the fact that most STEM lectures leave the students completely in the dark as to how to actually solve problems. Generations of students have had the experience of watching the brilliant lecturer go through a proof or explain an algorithm, and then find themselves lost when they try to use that knowledge to do their own work. Perhaps that is because in STEM fields at least, LECTURES DON'T WORK!! The outcomes for most STEM courses is to have the students be able to do something - solve some class of problems, set up a mathematical model, write an efficient program that does something useful, identify a substance by setting up an experiment, and so on. Yet, we are clearly not teaching the students to do these things. We leave them to flounder. That is the biggest reason for the very high attrition rates in STEM majors - students feel so lost and confused when they go to do their homework that they despair of ever making it in the major.

I honestly think some variant of the flipped classroom (and oh boy do I hate that term for a concept that has existed in the STEM world at least since the 90's) is most likely to see success in certain STEM fields, especially the more hands on fields like electrical engineering, computer science or civil engineering. In these fields, no one cares about brilliant lectures or fascinating class discussions. They care that the students learn to problem solve. So why not focus on problem solving?

The field of architecture has long used studio classes as one of their main approaches. This idea has now moved into engineering education and computer science education. The idea is to hold some number of the classes as studios where the students work on projects and are critiqued. The critique sessions are integral to this approach. And this approach has been around the engineering world long before the current "flipped classroom" fad.

Anonymous said...

"Having just gone to see the newest iteration of Walking with Dinosaurs yesterday, I would not say it is a replacement for actual teaching."

I did not know that there was a new one out!

But ... Walking With Dinosaurs 3D has an IMDB rating of 4.3 out of 10.

The earlier version (now available on DVD) has and IMDB rating of 8.4.

The new one may be awful, but I wouldn't judge the old one based on the new one.

[Also ... we need to consider the target audience for any documentary. I'd say the "walking with..." stuff aims for middle school. Downfall is aimed at adults]

-Mark Roulo

froggiemama said...

I know the original one well. My then-4 year old loved it. I have seen it probably over 50 times. My kids outgrew it though. I don't think it is targeted to middle schoolers at all, but rather to preschool through second grade.

The new one wasn't awful at all. It was quite entertaining. But it is also targeted to younger kids, though my middle schooler and his friend liked some of the snarky comments.

SteveH said...

"LECTURES DON'T WORK!!"

What does "work" mean? In all of the engineering classes I took and all of the math and CS classes I taught, I never expected myself or my students to be able to do and understand the material from the lecture. It's just an introduction - hopefully a good one. I had plenty of important things to tell my students that took up all of the very limited class time. This is not in place of doing the homework. Yes, homework is where one really learns the material, but that doesn't mean that the lecture is not necessary.

How can NOT lecturing be an improvement unless the lecture is so bad that it wastes their time. One could allow students to start the homework in class, but would that be with or without any introduction at all? Will students flounder less if they don't have the teacher introduce the material? In college, students are expected to collaborate on their own time and the professor is supposed to be available to answer questions.

"The idea is to hold some number of the classes as studios where the students work on projects and are critiqued."

They need this structure not because lectures are bad, but because some students don't know how or won't do this on their own. Most homework is not large collaborative projects that need critiques or checkpoints. On large projects I had in college, our teams met with the professors outside of class time.

Froggiemama said...

So essentially you are saying that students in engineering and CS should just suck it up and teach it to themselves, since as you say (and I agree), the real learning happens with the projects. That sounds suspiciously like the critique of constructivist learning I keep hearing on this site - that kids are left to flounder about, teaching it to themselves.

The "introduction" contained in the lecture is the easy part, and could be obtained from the textbook just as easily. Indeed, I learned in college that lectures were eminently skippable since the same material was in the textbook - and that doing the projects was the important thing.

Computer science has about a 50% attrition rate, and I think the figures for the other engineering fields are similar. I don't think the traditional approach is working.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Froggiemama wrote "Computer science has about a 50% attrition rate, and I think the figures for the other engineering fields are similar."

A rate is a change over time. Do you 50% per semester, per year, or over a 4-year BS degree? Those are very different claims.

Almost all fields have a high "attrition" rate if you count how many students intend to do a particular major when they start vs. how many graduate with that major. Even fields which graduate more students than initially intend to do that major (like psychology) have a high attrition rate when measured by the number of students starting there who actually finish there.

Engineering fields tend to have net losses of numbers, because it is much easier to transfer out of an engineering major than into one, due to number of courses required and long prerequisite chains. So students thinking that they might do any of several fields including engineering are advised (correctly) to start with the engineering and move on to something else later.

Engineering also loses students because of the greater grade inflation in other fields—students who want an easy A don't stay in engineering.

In short, the attrition rate in engineering fields may not have much to do with pedagogy.

SteveH said...

" learned in college that lectures were eminently skippable "

You believe that lectures are unhelpful by definition. I don't. I have seen good ones and bad ones. If one replaces lecture with in-class group work with the teacher as the guide on the side, how, exactly, is that better than expecting students to visit the professor during office hours?


"Computer science has about a 50% attrition rate, and I think the figures for the other engineering fields are similar. I don't think the traditional approach is working."

There is a large attrition rate because it's just plain difficult. There are things one can do to make the first courses less sink or swim, but that usually involves covering less material. This could take the form of more in-class help time, but anyone can cover less material to reduce attrition. That's a separate problem.

My old advisor at Michigan tells me that engineering departments are being kinder and gentler and less sink or swim, but the problem is whether that takes the form of lowering expectations or not. Are students required to take a data structures class anymore? Do they have to take any class in assembly language programming? Students find that there is often a huge difference between the easy web site "programming" they did in high school and the programming they are expected to do in college. Some expect to get what amounts to a vocational degree.

Good lectures can help and bad lectures can hurt. Slowing down the material can help. However,

"I don't think the traditional approach is working."

doesn't even come close to understanding the causes of attrition.