Sunday, March 27, 2005

Freshman-Level Courses

While malingering on the couch, I was reading some some stupid book that my mother sent me the last time she did some major cleaning. The book tries to explain some of the reasons why otherwise bright and capable people don't end up majoring in science, and it focuses on the freshman-level courses.

They found a bunch of adults (mostly grad students in the social sciences or the humanities) who have taken at least a semester of calculus at some point in their lives but who have not taken a freshman-level science course and had them enroll in either Intro to Physics or Intro to Chemistry.

And guess what they found? By reading the book, going to class, trying to follow the lecture, doing the homework, and thinking about the material, almost all of these science-phobic people earned As in these "weeder" courses. Many of them complained that the courses were too routine and that they weren't challenged to think especially deeply about the material. They noted that their classmates were passive, seeming mostly to sit there and "take dictation", and mostly interested only in the specifics of how to do the problems that would be on the test -- not in the big picture or main ideas. And, for the most part, doing rather poorly in the course. (Sound familar, anyone?) (Aside: juniors and seniors in my gen-ed class almost always earn As. Almost every single F is earned by a freshman.)

And why are these classes like this?

I know that in my department we teach THOUSANDS of students each year, and we only have a few dozen majors. Almost all of our teaching is to freshmen in other departments. These other departments tell us which topics they want their students to see and how many semesters we have to cover it (and it's often too much stuff in too little time). Completing these sequences in math certifies that the student knows some basic facts, can be trusted to be in a certain place at a certain time more often than not, and can follow basic directions.

Teaching freshmen how to think and reason is hard work -- they resist. (Some of these adult-students suggested that the test questions should be less routine and more like the hard homework problems or else should introduce new concepts. Can you imagine!?) When I ask my gen-ed students what their favorite part of my class is, they almost always tell me, "the part with the formulas." (And they get very upset when I remind them, "A computer can plug numbers into formulas; no one is going to pay you to do something that a machine can do.") And as long as intro-level courses continue to be service courses taken by freshmen who haven't yet learned how to study, think, or learn, nothing is going to change.