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[Fwd: Education as a Commodity]

S L Forsburg forsburg at nospamsalk.edu
Tue Nov 18 15:59:20 EST 1997

> Aren't there any students reading this group? Doesn't anyone remember
> what it was like to be a student? 

Yes, I remember what it was like being a student.  I remember that
the best science class I took was in 1982, Molecular Biology 100A, 
because I learned how to solve problems.  The exams were open 
book--they were  about thinking, not about regurgitation. What
I learned in that class stayed with me through PhD and postdoc and
I still have notes that helped me shape my own graduate lectures in
microbial genetics.  I also remember that the prof who taught the
class was criticized by the students because it was HARD to get an A!  
You had to work at it and think and read and think some more.  
Many of his teaching evaluations were terrible as a result. 
Many students much preferred the multiple-choice type exams that 
required memorization--and were lost from memory the next week. But
he was certainly the most effective lecturer I had as an undergrad.

I also remember what it was like being a graduate student taking
classes, where the point of being there was to learn.  The grades
didn't matter much, it was the learning that mattered-that was clear
to me, and I think, to most of my peers.   Had to figure stuff out
because I knew I had to be able to draw on this in years to come.
And learning this stuff was why I was in grad school. 

Remembering that, I was particularly upset to discover some graduate
genetics students cheated on my problem set last year by copying
from a previous year's key.   The grade doesn't really matter
for them, but they obviously didn't care to make an effort to learn
something.  And, they hobbled themselves further, by losing
the practice for their final-year first -year students' exam 
(the point of the problem set was to give them practice doing 
genetics problems).  With that attitude, why are they in grad school?
I was really dismayed by the lack of any sense of honor, let
along their rejection of learning. This work is serious to me. 
Obviously, it isnt to them.

As a postdoc at Oxford, one term I taught a series of tutorials in
Eukaryotic Molecular Genetics to four students.  For those unfamiliar 
with the tutorial system,  a few undergraduate students from the
same College, reading the same subject  within the University 
will get together weekly with a postdoc or lecturer for private 
discussion.  I would set a topic, they would write essays, I would 
mark the essay and then we would have a discussion. When it 
works well, it is one of the most satisfying ways to teach.

One day the essays from the four students  were so similar that it
was clear they were all derived from the same place, and that was
a review article on the reading list.  I told the students  that
I saw no evidence that any information had gone through their brains,
and I took all their notes and essays to my side of the table.  
"Let's start from first principles," I said.  "What is the problem
with replicating chromosome ends?"   (the discussion was
about telomeres.)

They were SO ANNOYED at me, it took 10 or 15 minutes before they
would start talking much.  But then, they got THINKING, they started
interrupting each other and drawing on the board.  They were still
annoyed at me, because I made them work at it.  But 5 years later,
I bet they still remember basic telomere biology. (And for the rest
of the term, they did not swipe review articles for their essays!)

I don't know that there is any moral here.  But yes, I remember
being a student, and I keep that thought close to me as a teacher.
And I expect my students to work hard and make an honest effort
just as I did.  In turn, I try to create an environment where 
they can learn, and I work hard at my teaching.  If they don't want
to make an effort, and  to fulfill their 
side of the bargain, that's not my fault.  But I resent it when they
can't be bothered to take it seriously, and waste my time.

Finally, reading all these posts, am I glad I don't teach undergrads!

DON'T REPLY to the email address in header.
It's an anti-spam.  Use the one below.
S L Forsburg, PhD  forsburg at salk.edu
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA 
"These are my opinions.  I don't have  
time to speak for anyone else."

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