Just Understand Everything

Mar 24, 2015 • Adam Richie-Halford

##A demotivational story

In my first quarter as a PhD student, I took a thoroughly demotivating course on statistical physics. Our instructor was very intelligent and well known in his field, but I don’t think that he’d ever been given the instructional support that he needed to develop a mastery of teaching. He started the first day of class by telling us that he could not improve upon a classic textbook in the field so we should just read the book from cover to cover and then we would understand everything.

Having set such low expectations for his added instructional value, he continued to meet them throughout the quarter. Our lectures never really correlated with any particular section of the book. He “covered” the required sections of the book within the first half of the quarter and then moved on to “more interesting” advanced topics. My classmates and I struggled to connect his lectures with the required readings and we were unable to follow along with the more advanced sessions because we hadn’t yet solidified our grasp of the basics.

Most lectures were very poorly executed. The instructor would get lost in his own notes. When students asked questions, the instructor would usually respond be repeating exactly what he had said before but with a louder voice. Finally, students would be admonished to read the entire book. It would all become clear if we would just read the book.

The homework sets were incredibly time consuming for me, mostly because I had to spend a lot of time understanding what the question was asking. Often, the solutions that our instructor would hand out afterward simply told us to read a certain chapter in the textbook. Likewise, my study sessions were unproductive because the requirement to “understand everything” was so vague that I felt overwhelmed by the material and didn’t know where to start.

I passed the class and the qualifying exam in statistical physics. But to this day, I know that my understanding of the subject is lacking. It’s a shame to feel like I am missing out on a beautiful field of physics.

##What could have been done to fix this?

My instructor had a very firm grasp of the material. But he either forgot what it was like to learn that material in the first place or he was completely self-taught because his expectation for students was one of instant and unaided expertise. To combat this expectation and (re)motivate the class he should have done some of the following things:

  • Compose a list of topics that students will be expected to know. The requirements to “understand everything” and the advice to “just read the entire book” are not constructive. Their vagueness can be overwhelming and they fail to capitalize upon the expertise of the instructor in focusing students’ attention on the salient aspects of the class.
  • Correlate each lecture with a section of the textbook. This could be as simple as writing down the appropriate chapter or section numbers on the board before class begins.
  • Cover less material, cutting the advanced lectures out entirely, in order to move at the pace of the class and ensure that students get the fundamental concepts before moving on.
  • Confer with other instructors about course content. For example, ask them if the problem sets are clear or ask to see or use their previous problem sets. Ask them for a list of topics that they covered in a previous section along with a rough schedule of their lectures.
  • Provide, or have the teaching assistant provide, more comprehensive solutions to the homework problems.

##Mea Culpa

I should also point out that as a student, I failed to let the instructor know what I needed to succeed. At the time, I bought into the myth that teaching was an inherent gift. I thought that good teachers were born rather than developed through practice. But it’s likely that my instructor has never really received honest and constructive feedback about his teaching. It’s both sad and uncomfortable when the job of providing that feedback falls on the students. And I’m still not sure how I would have confronted my instructor about his deficits. But I have to admit that as a silent student, I was complicit in a system that has failed to develop this professor’s pedagogical skills.