Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Stubborn Teachers

I believe strongly in certain tenets of education, like taking the emphasis off of busy work and homework and placing emphasis where it belongs: on actually learning the subject. My physics course here at Cal requires its students to complete weekly online homework assignments from a teaching aid dreaded by many a science major, Mastering Physics.

And so every Monday at 1pm, I hate my life with such a passion, because

I stare. At a blinking cursor. In front of a long string of variables, parentheses, and Greek letters. Above a memo from the automaton instructor informing me that I have one more attempt remaining to answer the question.

I submit to its evil intentions. I give up. I click 'Show Answer'. I see an equation appear in the box. The same equation that I had crafted over the past 43 minutes, with a parenthesis moved ever so subtly.

This happens all the time.

Another fact: I like to argue, especially in written form. It's what netted me a solid GRE writing score (although it did nothing for my math section, which was expected). And so I emailed the professor about my thoughts, in hopes that I could persuade him to reconsider this torture:

What's frustrating is how trivial some of my mistakes were (squaring 2 and d_2 instead of just d_2), and yet the program would offer no real constructive advice on how to glean the correct answer from my input. While I do enjoy your lectures, I am really not looking forward to an entire semester with this frustrating teaching aid.

He responds a day later:

Perhaps the best approach is to learn a precise approach. Math is not free-form; it requires a level of precision that also helps to clarify one's thought.

If that doesn't help, and if you're thinking of a career in medicine, consider that a misplaced decimal point on a prescription can kill a patient. "Well, that was a trivial mistake" won't cut it then. The same problem applies in most professions, including law, etc.

Of course, I take this reply as a slap in the face for a d-d-d-d-d-duel, and respond as such:

I understand what you're saying about a certain level of precision when it comes to math, but your analogy really doesn't fit, unless you want me to assume that every week, Mastering Physics gives me life or death decisions to make, and in which case I'd ask that you clarify your expectation with the rest of the class. This is only a homework assignment, given to help us learn physics.

Also, in terms of human grading, there is not a GSI in the world that would give me a 0 for such an answer, when I did the same work and got the same results (sans the unfortunate typo) as any other student with full credit.

All I'm saying is that this teaching aid is really sucking the life out of studying because it emphasizes formatting answers and not the actual work involved in getting there, and if one felt so inclined, it is easy to see which one has the more important life lesson.

At this point, I feel that I've addressed all of his concerns. Yes, precision counts, but learning physics does more in the context of a physics course. If we're to pretend that moving a decimal the wrong way will kill someone, then we should also assume that we're not really learning anymore, and instead only focusing on getting the right answers with the educational tools we already have--which misses the entire point of homework, unless someone wants to correct me on my perception of homework's purpose for being used as a study aid.

But what does he respond with?

It's pretty clear you've already made your mind up. Having taught
this course in several forms over a number of years, I've learned
that in cases like this it's best to just say that I disagree, and
that I think it's unfortunate you're missing the point of how MP can
help you learn.

I wish you luck learning the thinking skills you'll need for this course.

Yeah, he insults me and avoids my arguments. Great. I don't have the 'thinking skills' necessary for doing well in the course, nor the prowess to comprehend how important it is that we do not potentially terminate someone with that one misplaced parenthesis. Maybe the professor can update me on what these 'thinking skills' are, as I've been told that professors normally teach these to their students.

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