Monday, May 01, 2006


I've always been a "good" student. The main problem was that I cared about the grades more than the learning. I didn't realize this was a problem until recently. Usually doing well and learning go hand in hand, but not always. How exactly does a C- in Calculus translate into knowledge gained? If I could do the easy problems but nothing with fractions or square roots, for example, did I really understand it?

I have a feeling I was one of those students that make instructors shake their heads a little, thinking, "She could do better than this."

I've come to this realization after thinking the same thing about some of my students. After the exam grading, I definitely thought in a handful of cases, "Oh, you're smarter than that!" And they probably are. Perhaps this class is the bottom of their priorities right now. Maybe they're perfectly happy to get a B with minimal effort instead of an A with a bit more effort. Then again, this was the first exam. Maybe they thought it would be cake and it wasn't quite cake, maybe it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Still elementary, but a bit sticky in places, a bit crunchy in other places. (I think that's probably a terrible metaphor, but it's early).

I see in some of these students myself at that stage. Intelligent and apathetic, we want to slam through the lab material and get out. Maybe something from lecture will click better along the way, but that's a bonus. As long as we get a B, maybe an A-, we're happy. We want the degree in our hands and to be off to the next stage.

This is not the way to go about learning in college. Sadly, I think I've retained very little from my undergrad years. Certainly I gained a foundation in biology to build upon. How membranes function and what mitochondria do, how Hox genes support evolution in vertebrates, F=MA, why carbon is the basis of life etc etc. But if you asked me to teach my freshman bio lab, could I? Not without a lot of review. Genetics was a joke, and I place half the blame on myself and half on a professor that truly couldn't teach the subject, though I know she was at least a decent geneticist.

I went about my graduate level classes the same way. Just pass the exams and get through it. This time around I saved all my notes at least, out of fear for the qualifying exams. Most of it wound up in short-term memory, to be washed away by the next class. I think one of my saving graces has been that I can re-learn a subject or concept quickly if I had a lecture on it before. But obviously that quick refresher doesn't provide deeper understanding of the subject matter.

I think a lot of students have the same mindset that I did. That school is just this necessary evil you must finish before you can get to the "real world." We pick up some knowledge on the way, but that's just icing on the cake.


At 10:46 AM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

I've come to feel that grades most certainly do not reflect understanding and I would almost prefer someone in the lab who didn't have a 4.0, but rather someone with a 3.2 and some relevant demonstration of intellecutal capacity (papers, excellence at something other than grades, etc.)

You've made interesting observations as a TA as I feel that I may have been very like you in school. I didn't go to a top-tier high school or universities, so it was pretty easy to get straight As, yet many folks thought I was capable of doing more. My SAT and GRE scores were what I thought were reflective of my intelligence (around top 30 percentile, or 70th percentile depending how you look at it), but teachers and profs castigated me for not performing at the higher level they thought I should.

The question is are you/they/me truly capable of more or are we really doing our best? What is it you see in your students that our teachers might have seen in each of us? I know I'd get a hell of a lot more out of freshman chem now but some of that is just perspective because I now know from "the real world" how important it is in my daily work life.

I guess this is my long way of asking the following: is your perception of your students one of their apathy or is it just a common thing to many undergrads of not truly comprehending the importance of their core coursework while also worrying about paying for school, dating, and partying (in various orders of import to each)?

I don't have the answer. I was just wondering what you thought since I have felt the same as you as both a student and a teacher.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger B said...

I feel similiar to you and abel. When I go back to teach a section of material now, I realize why my prof ended up emphasizing one piece of the material so much. It's like aha- now I know why they cared so much about X, because it is so much bigger than that and leads to Y, Z etc. You get my point, but I find that is hard to emphasize this same point in a clear and concise matter in the classroom. Maybe the undergrads don't need to know X to the same extent, they really do just want the grade, or maybe they won't go on in this field so it won't matter anyway. But it is something I struggle with. Sometimes I want to shake them, this is just the beginning!! You can go so much farther than this! But with only 50 minutes a week and less then stellar interest it is hard to do.

At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's kind of sad. I am in grad school right now and when I started I was so excited about learning. I couldn't wait. Unfortunately, there is so much emphasis placed on grades. If I get anything under a B (even a B-) I am not eligible to continue with the program. So my priorities are usually staying in the program with the required B or higher and hope I learn something in the process. It's disappointing.


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