Lecturing and Killing the “Coverage” idea

I don’t think I’ve written about this, but I am obsessed with large lecture pedagogy. Although a sizeable number of students in my intro class seem to really like it (although liking isn’t the point necessarily) and I get good ratings, I have always been interested in how to be a better teacher. The thing is that a great deal of academic pedagogical theory has been written as if we all teach small classes. The reality, however, is somewhat different. Happily, some people at McGill have realized this and started occasionally having lectures and events that discuss large lecture pedagogy.

Today was one such an event, a lecture by Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard, who used to lecture but doesn’t anymore. Instead, he will start a class off with a few brief notes, then post a multiple choice question. Students would be given a clicker and with some software, they could see the aggregate answers for the question. Then, they would have to convince their neighbor of their answer, and the whole class would then answer the question again. Basically, class would be a series of these exercises. Mazur’s theory is that the students who know what they’re doing convince the students who don’t, and his data suggest that students wind up with better comprehension of the material (as opposed to the regurgitation of information they’ve gleaned). I haven’ explained his method well but you can visit his site to learn more.

But there were a couple things I left thinking about (I left “early” — an hour into the presentation, as the room was so stuffy I thought I might faint). First, while this is clearly translatable to the humanities, there are issues about the weight of ideology, and whether rational arguments will win out as often when students are first exposed to the material before they’ve had it explained (if, for instance, they don’t understand the language in “Encoding/Decoding” it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to argue about it. So perhaps some information transmission is good.

The other thing that was striking was Mazur’s finding that retention of material from introductory courses is very low. A year after the class, sometimes only two months later, students who passed an introductory large lecture course in physics will likely “remember nothing but the pain and the grade.” With his method, retention is somewhat higher though not that high. Which leads me to conclude what I’ve always suspected: the very idea of “coverage” is somewhat bogus, because students don’t hold onto the material. It’s better to teach them a way of thinking or simply introduce skepticism, and hope that they retain a few of the ideas you throw at them over the course of the term. That doesn’t mean one should teach narrow courses, only that we shouldn’t try to live up to an impossible idea of comprehensiveness that turns out not to matter.

7 replies on “Lecturing and Killing the “Coverage” idea”

  1. I’m obsessed with the problem of coverage. So is my field. There’s a notion that simply having read Faust — literally just making it through all the lines of the text (admittedly many of them) — is good for you (which is odd because it’s about the devil). But the whole idea of teaching “critical thinking”, which has itself become something of a mantra in the humanities, seems equally unsatisfying. I mean if we are all teaching critical thinking, then why do we need departments? (Why do we need departments is a good question in itself come to think of it.)

    I was realizing the other day as I was trying to work through a particular symbol in Goethe and how he was thinking about symbols in general — and having a really hard time of it — that there is such a thing as field-specific knowledge and that I have this octogenarian sense that we are losing this. I asked my graduate students if any of them had read “Narratology,” the basic handbook for the study of narrative. Not one. Not one! If you cannot describe the difference between character bound and external narrators, between synechdoche and metonymy, uses of anachrony, etc., how on earth can you explain the significance of these linguistic objects we call literature (or the news for that matter)?

    I ask this because I’m still trying to figure out the purpose of introductory courses, survey courses, and comprehensive exams, where we ask grad students to read a lot of famous works outside of any critical or historical context. What’s the point of knowing this information? Instead I try to teach my intro course as an introduction to reading and narrative (or poetic) analysis, how to make sense of language and story. It just so happens along the way they’ll read the Nibelungenlied and learn a little bit about the middle ages or the eighteenth century, but that seems secondary to my thinking (even though it often seems their primary goal: first comes the enlightenment, then romanticism, which of course they instantly forget).

  2. Great post, and great response too from Andrew. I am going to be thinking about this too, although not until summer comes round.

    After teaching the course called “Introduction to European History” last term, I do wonder what the point is (unless it’s just a kind of remedial education: many of our students have excellent high school and Cegep backgrounds and don’t really need the survey, but then there are some others who lack that, and do).

    I tend to think that subjects with a canon (so any literature, history of art, history of music, history of political thought, philosophy, etc) have an easier time — you have this sense of familiarising the students with the canon. But History doesn’t really have this (at least not any more), and the result is that it’s really, really hard to compose the syllabus. I don’t mean this to sound like bragging (“my survey course is supposed to cover an even more ridiculous amount of material than yours!”) but the comparison is worth thinking about.

  3. “Romanticism, which they instantly forget” — Isn’t that as it should be? What can one really “know” about romanticism? What is its narrative? It is with us always, like an albatross around the neck — that’s canonical. That’s the question I ask — how do fact and feeling interact? What values do you transmit through the process of relaying information? Like the broadcast model offered up by Peters — there’s always some static. But can we sometimes make that angelic connection? And should that be the overriding goal?

    Pedagogy suggest that dialogic is the way to go — a la Friere. Stimulate the vital, the active, the involved, the revolutionary. The pedagogy of the oppressed.

    Or just keep pounding away at the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles and encourage law, order, and procedure.

    Tough choices there. You really can get spread thin.

  4. I teach “critical thinking.” When I did the interview for the job, I was asked why I thought I was qualified to teach the course. I said they should look at all of the classes I had taught in various disciplines over the years. I explained that the one question I had was, why was there a need for a course on “critical thinking,” when good courses in general would include a critical thinking approach. Basically, I thought I’d be good at the job because I’d been doing it forever.

    This was at a community college in California, and the reason I was given for the existence of a critical thinking course at that level was because the U.C. system (more specifically, Cal Berkeley) felt the junior college transfers they were getting lacked “critical thinking skills.” So they pushed for a prep course at the JC level. The course is not taught at Cal, far as I know … I guess the assumption is that once you’re there, you don’t need any more prep work.

  5. Sorry about the delay in replying. Got half way through last time and someone under two feet tall started screaming. It happens.

    Some replies:

    1. Nick, I can only imagine how absurd it is to create a 14 week syllabus for “modern european history” — every one of the words in that title is ridiculously limitless. But I would say that *every* discipline has this problem now. The canon wars are over and once you start “adding,” well you never stop. This is a real problem it seems not for our undergrads who don’t seem to care at all, but for our grads who always want to read the “classics” and our faculty who never want to teach them (because they already had the chance). It’s like we’re robbing them of their intellectual childhood or something. They just want to feel grounded, which I understand, but it can be really dispiriting when you put all this energy into a creative syllabus and they’re constantly bickering about not enough “coverage.” (Plus that’s what we *examine* them on, so who’s to blame here?)

    2. I hear you, Necromancer. The number of times I’ve just wanted to read something aloud and say, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you just *feel* how beautiful that is?” But then I remember all the ways scholarship has showed us that appealing to a feeling for the beautiful has served, since the 18C, as one of the most efficient means of racial, gender and class distinction that I get cold feet.

    3. I love that Steven teaches critical thinking. A great class would be a “critique” of the notion of “critique,” because, after all, what term is more central to intellectual modernity than Kritik?

    4. Jonathan writes: “but I do believe each field, in addition to its particular texts and theories, offers students training in a way of thinking about the questions it poses. To me, that’s the jackpot.” And more: “It’s a standard conceit of liberal arts education that our goal is to create free thinkers; that may be our goal, but it can only be accomplished through training people to think in a disciplined fashion.”

    On one level I agree: each discipline teaches you to ask questions in different ways. But: what happens now that so many of us are trying to undo disciplinary boundaries, or at least cross them? Are we training people to think in a disciplined or “undisciplined” fashion? Where the hardest part is just how absurd the latter sounds from a “common sense” point of view, but how important such undisciplinary thinking is today.

    I think someone just threw a lamp off the balcony…

  6. Well, to develop my last musing: there are two models out there, both of which work better in fields other than my own: “coverage” seems to be to do with familiarizing the students with a body of information or a canon of texts (broadly define), which are considered essential or foundational by some kind of convention (with flexibility of course). On the other side there are “techniques”, or ways of doing things which are also considered vital to the practice of the discipline. And in thinking about this all, I’ve realised that my thinking is shaped almost entirely by friends who did musicology degrees. Let me explain:

    What I mean by “coverage” would be the music-history courses (Chant to Bach in part 1, then Bach to Boulez in part 2, or something similar). What students called “Techniques” meant learning how to write a fugue in the style of Bach, or how to harmonize a string quartet a la Haydn. For degree-level English, the analoguous course would be learning Old English so you could read Beowulf in the original. These latter courses are often the ones most fetishized by departments, and are often battlegrounds for debates between modernizers (“this stuff is a waste of time!”) and traditionalists (“we had to learn it, so they should too — it’s good for them!”). I remember hearing about the scandal when the Cambridge Faculty of Music was debating abolishing the compulsory Fugue exam for all undergrads. For some, this was rather like Stanford abolishing Western Civilization. I guess in any language-lit programme, the “techniques” side divides further into learning the language, as well as critical reading techniques (practical criticism (if that still exists), and lit theory).

    So maybe “critical thinking” courses fit in as technique courses for the humanities as a whole. I think there is a shared set of techniques across the humanities (but not the social sciences).

    Both types of intro course are considered foundational to those fields in which they exist. Both seem to me to make sense as models for introductory courses. And yet neither really works as a model for History. A survey of European history from Plato to Nato often inevitably boils down, in practice, to a Great Books course — which means it becomes literature, political thought, or philosophy — and I don’t think anyone (except for the French Ecole des Chartes, the state archivist-school) actually teaches historical technique (it is all tacit craft knowledge, for us!)

    I’m not sure whether this advances the discussion or not, but I wonder whether this division holds up for other fields. It kind of comes back in my view to the difference to fields which are the “history OF something” (all the humanities, from classics to history of science) and “History”, which is a container-concept, the content of which is, in our teaching practice, defined as everything which the other humanities don’t deal with.

  7. Wow. A real thread in my comments!

    Nick, The music examples are great and work well for canon-influenced humanities fields. I also think those fields are the most likely to move away from a discipline-specific “methods” course as they move away from their canons. Perhaps “critical thinking” is the undergraduate methodological equivalent of that transdisciplinary canon of “Theory” that overtook the humanities sometime in the 1980s.

    For me, though, this isn’t really about disciplines or fields, despite the fact that the course that was the subject of my original post was “Introduction to Communication Studies.” More and more, I find myself feeling “old school” in various academic contexts, where I believe in basic erudition and deep reading. Of course, I also picked a field where it’s easy to fly that flag since Communication Studies doesn’t really stand for much, as a field. You have a lot of freedom to know what you need to know to do your work (except maybe in CS departments that are social scientifically oriented). So I have the luxury of not needing to fight with my colleagues over the necessity of the methods course or whatever.

    Instead, I still think that whatever we believe about what students should know (and I suspect introductory Physics is about as “canonized” as it gets in terms of concepts and methods), how they learn and how much they retain is another issue entirely.

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