The Student Needs To Do It Himself

by Jack D. Lubahn

Dear Mother & Dad,

There wasn't time enough on the telephone to tell you why I gave out such good grades. It all started last summer when I was teaching a lab course for the petroleum engineers. There were six projects, of which I ran two and the other two pairs were run by a couple of top-notch seniors acting as teaching assistants. After the course was over (six weeks, in two-week rotation of the students), I asked my two T.A.s what they thought was the worst mistake we had made in how we ran the course. One of them had already been thinking about that, and he had his answer already in mind: "Answering the students' questions before they've asked."

I thought about that a lot, and decided to run Strength Lab on a new basis. (I taught all three sections of Strength Lab this past semester.) Instead of my usual procedure of starting with basic concepts and then leading the class through the measurements and analysis, I put them strictly on their own. They divided up into groups, I showed them the equipment they were going to use, told them the objective (a property to be determined or a theoretical result to be checked against an experimental result), and asked them to write a proposal as to how they were going to do it. I said I'd give them all the help they needed, but it was their proposal, and it had to be a sound proposal before they embarked on the experimental work.

The same philosophy applied to the project itself. They had their proposal as a guideline to follow, and if they got hung up on any of the details, I was there to help, but it was their project. You never saw so much argument as to what and how they should measure, and how to get from the measurements to the desired result. Sometimes I'd listen for a while until I was sure they weren't going to resolve their disagreements by themselves, then point out some concept or consideration they weren't taking into account, and which needed to be taken into account to overcome the current stumbling block. Then they'd make good progress on their own until they hit the next snag.

Each of the three groups worked on a different project so they'd feel it was their own project. Since they were starting right off with concepts they hadn't seen yet in the companion lecture course, I gave each student a "mini-text" on the subject of his group's project. It was a self-teaching text, complete with exercise problems at appropriate places & answers or suggestions as to how to check, so all they had to do was read and work problems (more arguments!) to guide their thinking about how to write their proposal.

When they'd finished their report (one report per group per project, 5 projects in all), they got a quiz to see if they had really learned the basic concepts the project required for successful completion, or whether they'd just loafed while their companions did the thinking. If they didn't pass the quiz, they got a solution sheet, a week to think about it, and a second try.

They really got excited about their projects. The attitude was, "This is our thing, and we're going to do it, by golly!", rather than "This is Dr. Lubahn's thing, and to heck with it!" I'm convinced at this point that the better grades than I've ever had before in this course were due to this change of attitude. The failure rate on the first quiz used to be more than 50%, and many of those failing the first quiz got even lower grades on the second try. This time nearly everybody passed on the first try and only one student failed on a second try. Out of 28 students in the three sections, I gave 18 A's, 5 B's, 4 C's, one D and no F's, which is far better than they've ever done before.

The same philosophy carried over into my "lecture" course. I haven't lectured for many years anyway, but this semester I didn't even show them how to work any of the problems. I have become convinced that working problems in class only encourages the student to memorize specific procedures for specific problem types, rather than thinking for himself in terms of a few basic concepts that can be presented to him in a few words. The philosophy is that "education is a do-it-yourself proposition." The student learns by wrestling it through for himself rather than listening to the professor talk.

In line with this philosophy, I put the whole emphasis on the homework. In class, nearly the whole time was spent in thinking about how to apply the fundamentals to the homework they were going to do, and why they couldn't get a check on the homework they'd done by two different methods. I discouraged them from reading formula derivations and solved illustrative problems in the book by assigning homework where they had to derive their own formulas, and where the book's formulas didn't apply.

Again I got the highest grades I've ever gotten: 3 A's, 3 B's, 6 C's, 2 D's and no F's in a class of 14. These grades aren't as high as in Strength Lab, partly because the course wasn't set up for two tries at each subject, and partly because the grades were largely governed by exams made up and graded by professors who were operating on the philosophy of memorized procedures for specialized situations and particular problem types.

In six weeks I'll be teaching thermodynamics in summer school. Already I've been reading over the thermo text that I handed out in pieces to a class I taught a year ago, hoping to improve it in time for this summer's class. It has some good features. It presents the basic concepts in a more simple and straightforward manner than the standard textbooks, and the exercise problems deal with more nearly familiar, everyday situations, such as water wheels and bicycle pumps (in addition to sophisticated equipment like air compressors and steam turbines). But there is a serious deficiency too, which I have only recognized in the last year. In addition to exercise problems, there are illustrative problems, designed to "show" the student this point or that. I realize now that the student doesn't "see" is because I "show" it to him. He sees it only because of what he has worked though for himself. I can provide the learning situation and help with the hang-ups, but the learning is done by what the student does himself. So what I have to do next is convert all the "illustrative problems" into exercise problems, like I did in the "mini-texts" that I gave out in Strength Lab this past semester.