Five Pedagogical Errors that Should Piss You Off

There is an ongoing dialogue in staff circles at the ANU about how to ensure funding as inflation eats into our block grant. We can’t get the kind of student numbers that USyd, UMelb and the others can because we’re in Canberra, so the only thing left is to charge students more but offer them a better service. Here are four things I’d like to see done away with if we move to an emphasis on pedagogy.

1. Compulsory tutorial preparation in technical courses

In my first econometrics course the lecturer expected everyone to have done the tutorial questions before the tutorial. At the tutorial we would then race through those questions with no explication because, after all, we’d already done them. Recently, I’ve had a maths tutor say “question 4 is really easy so I will just leave it for you to do as an exercise”.

Mate, if I can do the questions myself then I don’t need you, do I? The pedagogical technique of getting students to teach themselves is no pedagogy at all. By all means require students to have had a skim of the lecture notes and spent 30 minutes familiarising themselves with the tutorial questions, but then please actually teach them the answers.

2. Expecting students to learn the entirety of a course when only 10% is assessed

If you set two 2000 word essays on 1 week of the readings each as the entirety of the assessment for a course, you aren’t exactly incentivising people to learn the other 11 weeks of material. Indeed, you are encouraging them to only learn the two weeks’ worth of material that they are writing their essays on. Doubtless some students really care about the material, but they probably also care about getting a good grade in their three other courses, so if they can scam some spare time by neglecting 75 percent of the course, they will.

3. Expecting students to have done the readings when there is no assessment attached to those readings

All those arts and law lecturers who eject students from their tutorials for not having done the relevant readings should thank their lucky stars they don’t have any perky economists sitting in. We paid to be here, so we’re bloody well going to stay. You can kick out your customers when you’re prepared to lecture for free. Have you considered that we’re optimising over a 15 week time horizon rather than a weekly one and intend to catch up next week, or maybe even just before the exam, because that’s when we’ll have time? That’s going to be a whole lot easier if we can sit in and engage in some osmosis of the readings right now. Maybe we don’t contribute to the class but at least you’ll discharge your pedagogical responsibility.

4. Asking rhetorical questions and then waiting for an answer

The purpose of a rhetorical question is to open a space in the student’s mind that you can then neatly slot an answer into. It helps the process of logical reasoning. If someone can answer your rhetorical question then I fail to see the point in asking it in the first place.

5. Tutors in normative courses that don’t correct student errors

I understand that tutors need to encourage discussion, but when someone says something wrong and their peers don’t correct them, tutors need to. The most obvious case is when people make invalid empirical claims—tutors need to get on that; 18 year old art students don’t know any better.

Tutors also need to play devil’s advocate if everyone is just having a circle-jerk. For example, if your class quickly agrees that everyone who doesn’t want action on climate change is a douche bag and/or idiot, maybe chime in: “While I largely agree with you, consider this: our ability to predict what’s going to happen to climate over the next thirty years is very weak because it is a wickedly complex issue, so how can we decide which responses are most appropriate? How can we compare the costs and benefits of climate change action vs. say, poverty eradication? If we take a ‘first, do no harm’ attitude to public policy, don’t we have an ethical obligation to not do anything drastic about climate change until we have a better idea of what’s going on?”

I can’t imagine many of the saintly geniuses will have a ready answer, but they might be prompted to develop one. People don’t learn unless you challenge them to take their ideas further. Tutors are the most capable of doing that, so they need to get involved. That’s a pedagogical responsibility.

The author blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com