Thursday, February 14, 2008

You know your students are listening when...

I teach 4 quiz sections on Tuesday. (Quiz sections are basically just hour-long problem-solving sessions to supplement student's lecture learning.) Every Tuesday, we have a quiz in quiz section, and then we go over the answers. Before I give out the quiz, I make sure to ask if there are any questions.

This week, in my second section, a student actually had a question (this is an uncommon thing, and warms the TA's heart, as it proves that someone has at least a foggy idea of what they are supposed to be learning). So, I wrote the first example that came to mind up on the board and worked through the problem, from beginning to end. As I neared the end, I realized to my horror that the example I'd chosen was on the quiz. It came to mind so quickly because I'd covered it in my last class not 40 minutes earlier, after they had taken their quiz and we were talking about the answers. Feigning nonchalance, I erased the problem and administered the quiz anyway, suggesting that the student's classmates might want to thank him for having a question.

Today, I was entering grades for the quizzes into the computer system, and noticed that one of the students in that section had gotten the problem wrong. (It wasn't my turn to grade this week, so I hadn't seen the quizzes until today). Just out of curiousity, I decided to see how many students in that section had gotten the problem wrong, even though it had been done for them on the board not even 60 seconds before the quiz was handed out. There were four. Out of 22. Four.

Now, I know better than to be curious as a teacher. Generally, when it comes to figuring out what your students have actually learned, curiousity is a dangerous thing. Satisfying it usually leads right to depression and "why do I do this???" sorts of questions. But, I really do care what they're learning, and what kind of an effect (if any) I have on that. So, I decided to be very scientific and use my other sections as a control variable. I hadn't blurted out the answer to their quiz questions immediately before administering it, and so I could compare the number of students that got it wrong to see how much I'd skewed their grades by pulling the wrong example out of the air.

I counted the number of students that got the problem wrong in one of my other sections. Same number of students, same time of day (no excuses about early or late classes making people sleepy...). If anything, I would say that I have more students struggling in my control class than in the one I gave the answer to, so I'd have guessed that this group would have gotten more wrong even without the handicap. How many got the problem wrong in the control class? Four.

Now, to some degree it is comforting to know that my teaching has nothing to do with my student's success. It's especially comforting when I'm having an off week and feel like I can't manage to speak a coherent sentence, never mind inspire great ideas. It is a pretty well-documented phenomenon that the TA has absolutely no influence over student's grades. There are 3 TAs for this class of 300 students, and there is absolutely no statistically significant difference in the average scores for our students on the exams, even though we cover vastly different material in very different ways. This has held true in every big class I've ever taught; even TAs that don't do anything more than show up don't have a decrease in average grades compared to those of us that spend hours and hours preparing worksheets and lectures and interesting problems. I've come to accept this, and, as I said, even find some comfort in it at times. I'm ok with the burden of learning being on the students, and in general if I can make their learning more pleasant along the way I consider it worthwhile. Still, it is hard to accept that explicitly giving them the answer immediately prior to a quiz has absolutely no effect on their ability to do the problem. Somehow, words came out of my mouth for 3-5 minutes, and no one heard them. Or, at least no one that needed to hear them heard them. The people that already knew the answer heard me, I'm sure.

This is just one of those moments in teaching where you realize how immensely unimportant you are to a student's learning process. A good student will learn with or without a great teacher. A teacher can help, inspire, ease the path to learning, but it is the student that takes the first step and the final leap. It's discouraging at times to realize that nothing you can do will help them more than they can help themselves, and yet it is wonderful to know that each one of us holds the true power of learning, and one bad teacher here or there truly need make no difference. It's beautifully empowering for the students, and I'm glad it's true. It can also be crushingly unflattering to the teacher that thinks that their words actually matter. I suppose it highlights the essence of good teaching, though. It's not the facts, or the explanation, it's the inspiration to think and explore, giving the encouragement to try and the support necessary succeed. Teaching becomes such a different game when we remember that we're not transmitting information so much as inspiring students to learn for themselves and to live up to their own potential. Perhaps I like that role better, after all.