Bryan Caplan  

Gelman the Education Optimist

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Andrew Gelman's reaction to an excellent post by Alex Tabarrok:
[W]e have different goals when doing the following two things:

1. Attending a lecture, reading a textbook, or watching a lecture video.

2. Attending a concert or listening to broadcast or recorded music.

In general, people are doing 1 to learn, and they're doing 2 for enjoyment. So I think we should expect some differences. Yes, some people listen to music carefully and repeatedly, but that's still different from taking a class, I think. To put it another way, if you're a music student listening to music, that's like a university student taking a class. But lots and lots of people listen to music just to hear it, not to study it, while not so many people watch college classes just for fun.

Andrew's missing a third - and far more common student motive.  He's right to deny that most students come to class for fun.  When they want to have fun, they skip class.  He's wrong, though, to suggest that most students come to class to learn.  If they really wanted to learn, they wouldn't cram before the final exam, then forget the material as fast as humanly possible

The harsh-but-true story, rather, is that most students come to class to get good grades, which allows them to advance further up the educational ladder, which eventually allows them to get a good job.  In a word, most students come to class to signal

At least that's what my 36 years in the education industry tell me.  Can Andrew's experience really be so different?  If so, I'm very jealous.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Andrew Gelman writes:

Bryan:

First, yes, I do expect things are different at Columbia and Harvard than at GMU, in some ways better (Ivy League students are better prepared) and in some ways worse (teaching a GMU student might well make more of a difference).

Also, much depends on the subject matter. When students take a course from me on Bayesian data analysis or survey sampling, they might well want later to signal they've learned such things, but my guess it that they really do want to learn it. I'm teaching tools that can be used in all sorts of ways. Better to learn a tool than to signal you've learned it (or, following an infinite regress, to signal that you've signaled that you've signaled that you've learned it), I'd think.

Finally, even if the goal of taking the class is to signal that you've taken the class (or to signal that you had the ability to pass the class, etc), the goal of attending the lecture is not to signal but to learn the material, at least well enough to get a high grade. That is, even if you come to college to signal, you're coming to this particular class to learn, no?

Bostonian writes:

Bruce Charlton wrote an interesting essay "Lectures are an effective teaching method because they
exploit human evolved 'human nature' to improve learning" http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/ed-lect.html .

Thomas DeMeo writes:

What if the goal of taking the class is to prove your capacity to master a topic in a reasonable period of time? You are practiced at the process of taking a topic, catching up on it in a relatively short burst of work, and demonstrating competence. You don't expect to retain all of it, but you have proven to yourself and others that you can do it if required. Your education makes you good at doing this in general, and provides a history of topics you have demonstrated you can deal with if needed.

BZ writes:

Mr. Gelman,

Back in my day, there were no rolls taken in the university classroom, but, all the same, missing a class was a dangerous activity if you cared about the grade. The books were often too dense to memorize completely; lectures were how you discovered which subset of the material you needed to know to do well. Of course, depending on the course, lectures were the only way to learn the timing of tests and other assignments.

When I was in school, I never missed class, and took awesome notes. I remembered very little of the material until around 1-3 hours before class, at which point I "pushed the stack" by memorizing my notes with a sense of frantic urgency. I then marched into the classroom, dumped it all on paper ("popping the stack"), marched right out, and promptly forgot everything. Of course, my behavior differed depending on my interest in the class, but for most, that was the way it was done.

MingoV writes:
If they really wanted to learn, they wouldn't cram before the final exam, then forget the material as fast as humanly possible.
I completely agree. I taught medical school for eleven years, and, unfortunately, that approach is used by the majority of medical students. That explains the mediocre knowledge and abilities of so many physicians. I also taught graduate students, and most of them used the same approach.

I taught one group in which most students used the pyramid approach (learn and remember foundational subjects, build a layer of more complex subjects, and add specialized knowledge). That group was physician assistants. Some of them developed better skills than the average family practice physicians.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

I wonder if BZ still has his notes; I guess that he does, since he refers to them so concretely.

The courses that were hard for me, but that I excelled at (one math, Shakespeare) were the ones that I was able to teach myself before hand -- performing in Shakespeare's plays in high school, for example, or working through a programmed learning linear algebra text before taking the class.

Atrocious teachers were a liability, of course, and I did not have the good sense to immediately transfer out when I encountered one. I tacked into the wind too often, and took too many hard courses under the impression that math would make me more employable. I was wrong, completely wrong, and now wished I had done things differently.

To make matters worse, there were no guidance counselors, and department chairs were unapproachable. I basically followed my more gifted friends, until that became impossible. We all ended up in other professional programs.

Looking back, what strikes me is the enormous waste of time and effort to attain something so elusive, the entry level position with a good starting salary. It was for me, literally, a bridge to nowhere.

Floccina writes:

@Andrew Gellman:

Also, much depends on the subject matter. When students take a course from me on Bayesian data analysis or survey sampling, they might well want later to signal they've learned such things, but my guess it that they really do want to learn it. I'm teaching tools that can be used in all sorts of ways.

But they could probably learn it better, cheaper and faster by hiring someone to tutor them in the subject. If a person wants to learn to play piano he does not sign up for a piano class at a nearby University. Universities are for getting credentials other better means exist for learning things.

The best argument that I know of with what I said is that one may not know what he needs to learn and a university supplies that, but how hard is that problem to solve.

terrymac writes:

I took atrocious notes, because I only wrote down that which was not immediately obvious to me. Many assumed that I was not learning; on the contrary, the "obvious to me" stuff was easily learned, and happened to include 90% of most classes.

I seemed to be better at learning than most of my peers. Why? Largely because I taught myself to be an autodidact at an early age. Most students are handicapped by an excessive desire to mimic the teacher, to regurgitate, rather than to understand.

Understanding sometimes requires grappling with incompetent instruction. It sometimes requires conflict; it is dangerous if one's goal is approval.

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