My Top Myths in Teaching

I was going to do a Top Ten, but these are sufficient, really.  (Listed in no particular order.)

If all the students answer a test question correctly, the question is too easy and should be dropped. 

If the question properly assesses the mastery of knowledge, then when everyone answers the question correctly that means that the teacher and the students have all succeeded!  If one repeatedly drops such questions from tests over the years in favor of those that students cannot consistently answer, it may be that the students are not getting dumber over the years, but rather than the tests are getting more difficult.

Students nowadays are lazy and need more challenging classes so they’ll learn.
There’s a difference between challenging students and just making things hard on them.  Challenging students helps students by “scaffolding” them up to the next level in their learning by providing a level of difficulty that can be surmounted with a reasonable amount of effort on the part of the student and with the aid of the instructor.  Just making things difficult for students is pointless.

Student grade point averages should fall in a normally distributed bell curve, or else the grading scale should be changed to fit a normally distributed bell curve.
The normally distributed bell curve requires that for a number of students that do better, an equal number must do worse! It is not necessary that the curriculum be “dumbed down” for all the students to master the subject material. Nor is it required that good grades be a commodity in short supply. What is the goal of learning?  The goal is the transfer of knowledge.  This goal applies to all the students.  It is NOT wrong for all the students to do well! Likewise, if so many students are doing poorly on a test and the mass of poor grades need to be curved to create a new grading scale, then something is going seriously awry in the teaching-learning-testing process.

Student behavior is best shaped by rewarding correct behaviors with positive reinforcement and punishing incorrect behaviors with negative reinforcement.
If a student is not behaving (socially or academically) in the way we expect, we need to find out why.   Students who are having problems need to be helped, not punished. No long-term benefit is gained by reacting to the symptoms produced by a problem; the cause of the problem must be addressed.  “Helping” is not necessarily doing something for a person (which increases their sense of incompetence), but rather aiding them in figuring out how they can help themselves by either removing the cause of their problem or finding some way to compensate for it.  Teaching them self-help skills not only gives the student tools to solve future problems, but also builds self-esteem, which in turn improves the student’s ability to learn the curriculum.  Punishing the student for having problems not only further breaks down the self-esteem, but can also reinforce learned helplessness.  Furthermore, this kind of system turns the motivations from learning (intrinsic) to getting the reward or avoiding the punishment (extrinsic).

We’re not here to entertain the students!  
No, but we are here to engage them.  An instructor must have enough enthusiasm or thought-provoking information about the subject to create interest.

We need “flunk-out” classes like introductory chemistry or physics to weed out the less-than-stellar students.
Um, I thought the point of education was to teach students the things they don’t know?  The purpose of universities is to serve your student clients, not to remove them from the local populations within various colleges.  When students know (or just perceive) that there are “flunk-out” classes, this dismotivates them, and you end up with fewer students in necessary fields (like engineering), rather than more students and a greater diversity of students in particular fields.

6 Comments

  1. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    3 September 2006 at 19:13

    Oops… brain farted there….

    “Mastery is a criterion-related concept, so using comparison-based concepts (such as the ‘easy question’ makes as much sense as using a piece of chocolate as a fireguard.”

    …should be….

    “Mastery is a criterion-related concept, so using comparison-based concepts (such as the ‘easy question’) makes as much sense as using a piece of chocolate as a fireguard.”

  2. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    3 September 2006 at 19:06

    Okay…. one at a time…. I’ll answer the myths, not what Andrea says….

    1) If all the students answer a test question correctly, the question is too easy and should be dropped.

    * Not always. Mastery is the object once one has gotten through the entrance jump-hoops; and mastery isn’t a comparative concept…. Mastery is a criterion-related concept, so using comparison-based concepts (such as the ‘easy question’ makes as much sense as using a piece of chocolate as a fireguard.

    2) Students nowadays are lazy and need more challenging classes so they’ll learn.

    This is reminiscent of theory X in occupational psychology, in which the worker is viewed as a lazy bastard and the boss as the benevolent, godlike person. Essentially, that scenario is bollocks, since the boss usually wants to exploit the worker to the maximum allowed by law… Challenging classes only help ifthere is the appropriate level of supportive teaching to go with them. Otherwise, it is basically a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

    3) Student grade point averages should fall in a normally distributed bell curve, or else the grading scale should be changed to fit a normally distributed bell curve.

    Dealt with in the answer to Myth No. 1.

    4) Student behavior is best shaped by rewarding correct behaviors with positive reinforcement and punishing incorrect behaviors with negative reinforcement.

    Nope. Firstly, negative reinforement and punishment are not the same thing. Negative reinforcement is the implementation of a noxious stimulus whose removal from the scenarioi requires a desired behaviour to have been engaged in. Punishment is the implementation of a negative stimulus upon engagement in am un-desired behaviour. Punishment rarely, if ever, leads to the sort of learning one should look for in educational settings, and therefore has no value as a teaching mechanism. Negative reinforcement is of limited use, and can only satisfactorily be used in parallel with positive reinforcement schedules as part of the creation of an avoid-approach conflict situation…

    5) We’re not here to entertain the students!

    Actually, we’re not, but it doesn’t harm as long as we stick to the business of educating them. Humour in teaching is found in the bible, for example, as a means of Jesus getting his message across in a manner that would allow the message to stick in the minds of a largely preliterate society. (I’m an ex-Catholic who – thankfully – no god would choose to become a priest!).

    6) We need “flunk-out” classes like introductory chemistry or physics to weed out the less-than-stellar students.

    No, we don’t.

    We need properly designed balancing studies courses to get all students up to the requisite level of skills and knowledge in the field of the class concerned.

    My thesis deals with a situation in which a student, diagnosed by me as Asperger-autistic, has been left to rot by his polytechnic, which basically ran foul of its duty of care over him as a student there. This set of myths has basically been replicated almost in full at the polytechnic concerned, and has lead to disastrous results for him, and to a reputation as a careless HEI for the polytechnic.

    Finland is not a world leader in education.

  3. Julia said,

    19 August 2006 at 8:12

    I guess I’m lucky in that I learned to read music at the same age most kids were learning to read, period. (I already had the reading down to the point where all I had to do was read harder and harder things to make progress in vocabulary, etc.) I think my daughter will be able to do the same. I don’t know that either of my sons have much interest in reading music right now, but we’ll see.

  4. qw88nb88 said,

    17 August 2006 at 21:22

    Don’t feel badly, Larry, after three semesters of music lessons I still could not (and still cannot) read sheet music, either. Some things are just not meant to be, and there we are. Or, not.

    I would say that learning how to take tests is definitely an acquired skill!

    I did not realise it was A-level results day; in this neck of the woods it’s the beginning of first semester for secondary school students.

  5. 17 August 2006 at 9:39

    intersesting you should mention this subject as today is the day the A level (UK University entrance level) exams results come out, and every year there is the same tirade in the press about how more students get A grades and the exams are dumbing down, students who can’t even spell and add up etc (thats me)

    Well I got a B grade in sociology, based on 6 exams taken over two years, last year I got two D’ and an A. This year I got 3 A’s and in one exam scored the maximum number of marks possible, (that is a first for me)

    I don’t think I achieved that because the exam has dumbed down, so much as I think I have at last grasped the technique of packaging knowlege the right way the examiners want it. (witness the improvement of grades over last year and this)

    I did not do so well with my music technology, which was 1/3 practical and 2/3 examined. got an overall D grade for that because I admit I can’t read music, and only an idiot who can’t read music would enter such an exam and hope to get much better than that (I am of course just such an idiot) The exams really did require a higher knowlege of thery of music than I have in spite of being a performer with a knowlege of the history of music and many genres, the actual need to read scores, know chord sequences and all that crap let me down. I don’t read notes I play them :) Best leave music to the stellar students eh?

  6. Ms. Clark said,

    17 August 2006 at 1:17

    I heard about those “flunk out classes” in chemistry and engineering at UCD. I wasn’t in those fields, but I thought it sure sounded harsh. Most of my professors had fair grading practices and explained them well to the class. I agree with your approach to teaching. I never did understand the whole curving the grade thing, though I benefited from some curving of the grade, and I remember one midterm in junior college where the professor made some big mistakes in writing the test. I couldn’t figure out a problem early on in the test and I was totally stunned by how it could be happening, the question made no sense, but no one asked for clarification either, we all just skipped over the question or guessed (wrong). I was totally shook up for the rest of the test, the confidence had been knocked out of me.

    Fortunately, the professor seemed to realize he had blown it, and almost everyone ended up getting a pretty good grade for the whole course (he gave us some points to make up for those we lost on the bad midterm). I enjoyed the class overall, but I that one test was one of the worst ones I have ever experienced.


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