Friday, October 29, 2010

Being a student isn't easy, it requires actual work

Wandering about the internet this morning prior to doing some actual work, I happened upon a blog post by Seth Goodin about teaching, and how students should demand better instruction. Historically, I've generally agreed with and enjoyed Seth's blog (though lamenting being unable to comment there directly), but in this case, I think he's missing the point.

I can certainly appreciate the plight of college students everywhere, spending tens of thousands of dollars to go to school. I did the same thing for my college years, and even continued for another 5 1/2 years to go to grad school. Almost three years out of it, and I've still got loans, and probably will for a few years to come (9 1/2 years of postsecondary education isn't cheap in the states). However, I had the pleasure of being taught by amazing professors at both institutions that I attended, but even more importantly, attended school with interested and engaged students (I wasn't the only one doing homework on Friday nights). Sadly, this isn't always the case...

Everyone agrees that if you have a poor teacher/professor, your learning (and grades) will suffer... but there's a limit to which that is the instructor's fault. So often when I was both studying and teaching, I would hear complaints (and offered a few myself) about a poor instructor. Either they didn't care, didn't understand where their teaching fell on deaf ears, taught something unrelated to the course, ... However, when confronted with this type of instructor, a student is given an opportunity to engage themselves in learning. Classes come with books, and instructors are meant to help the student understand and integrate the knowledge and wisdom within those books. But prior to the internet, Wikipedia, or Khan Academy, students have managed to learn, despite poor instructors. How? They read and studied the books, consulting their fellow and elder students when they had questions. I know I was different in this regard, as when I found difficulty understanding my teacher during Trigonometry in high school, I read the book, studied, and understood it. When asked by other students how I managed to do well despite a confusing teacher, I pointed at the book. Only a few of them had taken the time to read the book beyond the problems, or when they did, would take the time to understand it.

Back when I was a TA in grad school, I made many mistakes (mostly in my first couple quarters). But by the final quarter of my teaching stint, I was doing 3 back-to-back sections for the same course, an hour each. The students who showed up and let even just a little bit of my enthusiasm rub off on them were engaged (if you are not excited about what you are teaching, students won't care, and students won't come). But what happened was that 5-10% of students never showed up for any of the discussion sections (except for reviews prior to exams). They would sometimes go to class (sometimes watching television or DVDs in the back rows), read their classmate's notes, hand in half-copied, half-bullshit homework, and expect to learn enough in one hour to be sufficient for an Algorithms/Data Structures midterm/final. Sometimes they managed to cram enough, but usually we would be overly generous and give them a D-.

I can appreciate what Seth is trying to say: expect more from your teachers/professors/instructors. But an amazing instructor can only go so far. Students must also be engaged and willing to participate in the process of learning, otherwise they are at least as much to blame for wasting their time and money as a poor instructor.

If you want to see more posts like this, you can buy my book, Redis in Action from Manning Publications today!


  1. Hi Josiah,

    I can only agree with you. Mathematician here, doing a "kind of" TA (my grant says that to get money I should give a certain amount of classes), and my students just don't do anything by themselves. They think that there is some kind of osmotic component to learning, and just by sitting there watching me solve exercises they will get enough to solve what they get in their final exam. And it is not the case.


    Latest in my blog: Overwhelmed With Projects? Declare Task Bankruptcy!

  2. Sorry...I believe you are missing Seth's point. He is talking about students who are willing to learn and put in the effort but the instructors aren't holding up their end of the bargain. One could argue ad infinitum as to how an instructor got to be that way. Regardless, a diligent student is entitled to demand an engaged instructor.

  3. Yeah some of the onus is on the student. But I tell ya. I learn a whole lot more from an instructor who knows their material. Why should I have to pay for the class, then go teach myself outside the classroom?

  4. I agree heavily with your sentiments, but also with the Anonymous comment. I had to put in a decent amount of effort and personal time to get any real fruit from my college experience, but I was appalled by how few other people were willing to put in any time of their own ("osmotic," used above, is a great word for what most other students are doing).

    I think Seth's post was (in part) to demand that professors give their students some credit, and make the scarce part of the university model (professor's time and attention) actually worthwhile. If professors acted as Seth's post would urge them to, all students who don't fit your model will fail (or, more likely, change majors) leaving the ones who stick around with a more worthwhile education.

  5. Your point is interesting, but being recently dropped out (planning on returning once financially stable) from my bachelors. I recall several situations where I took tests that were given to the teachers with the books, and the tests had questions where the correct answers were "wrong" (not reality). sometimes there were multiple right answers. Sometimes the question was so ambiguous that no right answer could be determined. The books were so bad that they couldn't be used to counter prove the tests. This is awful, but it was made doubly bad because the professor didn't know what he/she was talking about, and would not be given to reason when it came to proving the tests was wrong from an outside source.


    q: what's the end result of i after incrementing it 5 times. (actual programming loop given)

    why it's wrong: the beginning value of i was never given.

    q: which is a primary color: green yellow

    wrong: bother are primary colors in different color wheels, RGB? CMYK? RYB? etc.

    q: will defragmenting your drive improve performance

    wrong: this depends entirely on, is it fragemented now? what kind of load does it have? defragging isn't going to help a busy mailserver much. Probably why linux has never considered it a priority for filesystems, it's not that helpful on servers.

    I could go on... the point I'm making is if you think you can rely on school books and studying to teach you your wrong. I know what I know now because I would spend time not studying for class, and spend time teaching myself from better books and better sources.

  6. @Anonymous An engaged student certainly has the right to demand an engaged instructor. However, in my experience as a student and as a teacher, disengaged students are a problem for an otherwise engaged class. Take this old article about teaching binary to third graders: . The disengaged students didn't learn anything, and no amount of good teaching will help.

    @MaintenanceMan It is absolutely the case that people learn better with better instruction. My point was not that you can get a peerless education from books (which you can), but that even when confronted with a poor instructor, a student has a choice.

    @Paul You make great point. The problem that happens (based on the experiences of friends and colleagues who are teaching and taking classes) is that few people are engaged enough to get anything out of a teacher who is teaching more than the book. As the Hacker's Manifesto said, "we've been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak... the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We've been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us will-ing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert." While there are those who want steak, there are many who refuse to eat.

    @xenoterracide You also make a good point. There are a lot of garbage books out there, and Richard Feynman wrote a great article about it . But this is where students again have a choice: you can choose to not consume the bullshit that is being fed to you. Vote with your feet, your mouth, and your dollars. Walk out, complain about the failure of those teachers and those classes, and go somewhere else. What I was trying to express in all of this is that students should not merely passive consumers of education. Demand better education. But be willing to do something about it until it does get better, and when you get old enough (and/or wealthy enough) to make a difference, vote for better education (the voting to reduce taxes/budgets is part of the reason why California is in such a sad state of affairs when it comes to education now).