was team teaching; now FACTS?

Bill Purves purves at THUBAN.AC.HMC.EDU
Mon Jul 12 17:45:52 EST 1999


>On July 9th, Bill Purves wrote:    "I'm not a believer in
>>having the accumulation of specific facts be the point of a course.
>>Put a nickel in me, and I'll bore you to tears explaining why
>>I think there is virtually NOTHING specific anybody needs to know
>>at the undergraduate level."
>
>PLOPPP.......(the sound of a nickel).....I wonder if Bill could expand a bit
>on this? Aren't we preparing biology majors for MCAT & GRE exams, and for
>careers in biology that require knowledge of some "specific facts"? And
>wouldn't we like non-majors to be at least conversational on biological
>topics? Bill's statement is a little disconcerting to someone who actually
>learned alot as an undergraduate, and now spends a lot of time trying to
>prepare accurate, well-organized, up-to-date lectures to undergraduates!
>
>Dave Robinson
>Biology Dept
>Bellarmine College
>Louisville, KY

Thanks for the welcome nickel, Dave!  All donations gratefully accepted :-)

It won't surprise anybody to hear that I made that assertion assuming that
at least one nickel would come in.  I was about to say that I hope we'll have
an interesting discussion, and then I realized that to a considerable
extent I'd be preaching to the choir, given this group's interest in
optimizing learning/teaching.

Of course, a person who knows NO facts is probably in a bad situation ;-)
although we might agree that there are more important SKILLS than important
FACTS.  When I said that "there is virtually NOTHING specific anybody needs to
know," I did include the word "virtually."  But what if we dump the
"virtually"?  What FACTS are the irreducible minimum?  For me, perhaps the
bottom line is that I would hate to have a student's (major OR nonmajor)
undergraduate biology experience not include a serious consideration of
evolution, at some level.  (In my 1952-56 undergraduate education as a
bio major at Caltech, I think almost the only time I heard mention of 
evolution was in a geochemistry course taught by Harrison Brown--but, then,
the big shift in biologists's attitudes toward evolution was just happening
in those days.)  If the student can't be given a good, serious consideration
of evolution, I'd as soon she not be given ANY consideration of it.

Part of my attitude is a reaction to other attitudes I've encountered.
At an HHMI meeting a few years ago, biologists at a fine (and here anonymous)
university were describing the ideal introductory bio course they had
devised.  I was startled by the extent of the content, so I asked whether
a particular lecture might not be dispensable (cheer up--it was a
zoological topic ;-)  One of their faculty said, "We couldn't accept a
student into our graduate program if he hadn't had that material!"
I pointed out that if that was their criterion, then (1) they'd probably
rarely accept a student from any other institution and (2) they'd find
few of their own students remembering all that stuff three years later,
when they got into grad school--because they felt the students HAD to
learn it in the intro course.  Of course, we arrived at no real
consensus in that session...

Now I'll try to start being more concise:

* We must remember that our classes are not, by and large, homogeneous.
  Even if we narrow the discussion to introductory biology for majors
  of some kind, there are students with many different goals, motivations,
  and abilities.  I believe that we should try to serve them ALL.
  At most institutions, not all will take MCAT or GRE.

* The people who are/were most capable of learning under a heavily
  fact-oriented, lecture- and textbook-dominated curriculum are, I think,
  those of us academics who have chosen to take our undergraduate teaching
  seriously.  It's easy for us to believe in it, because we were good
  children.

* I'm this, like, OLD dude, and I've known an awful lot of scientists,
  teachers, and students.  I've seen no positive correlation between
  research success and typical undergraduate information-retention
  measures.  (Sure, I've known top scientists with blockbuster undergraduate
  records, but they haven't been the rule.)  Almost none of my current
  scientist friends around the world whom I consider to be real hotshots are,
  in fact, working in areas in which they even HAD undergraduate or grad
  school experiences.

* Yes, a lot of our students need to perform very well on MCAT/GRE/etc.
  And it's true that a lot of content for those exams is right there
  in those bloody encyclopedic introductory textbooks ;-) and in the
  courses taught in many schools.  I don't think that the students
  stop (or in many cases even START) learning them in the intro
  course.

* I'm not against students learning "facts."  I'm all FOR it!  But I do
  believe that most of them will learn the ones they WANT to learn,
  and they'll learn them ONLY when THEY want to, in service of some
  goal.

* By the same token, I believe that faculty WILL set forth "facts,"
  ideas, skills-to-be-learned, etc. whenever we teach.  But each of
  us has her or his own set that we want to work from.  Students
  are unique, and so are professors.  That's why I believe in letting
  faculty members chart their own paths (assuming they WANT to),
  if a department can agree not to be disrupted by this.

* Those individual faculty members, tripping along their paths, should
  not, I think, expect all students to carry away the same "kits"
  at the end.  But they must try to make sure each student carries
  away SOME kit!

* It's a separate topic, and one we revisit periodically, but I'll
  say parenthetically that I view lectures and reading-the-textbook-
  chapter-after-chapter as the least effective of the tools at our
  disposal for helping students learn.

* Finally: No, I don't think there are specific facts that a student
  MUST learn in the introductory course.  But they must learn HOW to
  ACQUIRE the skills and facts they need by the time they're needed.
  A truly great course or curriculum will leave the students with
  that skill and a desire to use it.

With my usual apology for my incurable logorrhea,

(bill)


William K. Purves      Vice President/Editorial Director
The Mona Group LLC                     West Coast Office
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              e-mail: purves at monagroup.com
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