Accidentally in Code

Great Teachers

Posted on: November 5, 2009

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, given certain circumstances I find myself in. And I’ve realized that in all my time at university (I’m entering my 6th year) I’ve had two great professors. The kind that inspire you, the student, with passion. Who explain clearly. The ones who teach the classes that you work hardest for, where you leave feeling it was worth it because you learned the most.

Two. Out of  – lets take a pretty conservative estimate – thirty.

There were a few more who were good – they didn’t inspire the same level of passion, perhaps, but I at least got the impression that they cared about what they were teaching. A significant number just couldn’t seem to be bothered at all. They weren’t “present” in their presentations. They made something potentially interesting sleep inducing.

If this is typical in Computer Science, no wonder enrollment is dropping.

So what do these great instructors have in common? I feel these can be summed up into a concept of “Teaching Effectively, not Efficiently”. Efficient Teaching is putting all the concepts out there and trying to cram them into your students. Effective Teaching is sending your students away understanding the big picture and interested in learning the details that make it up.

  • Passion. They believe in what they’re teaching and convey that to the class.
  • Practicality. Being able to talk about the practical applications of something keeps students engaged.
  • Understanding > Learning. Memorizing something is pointless if the student can’t apply it.
  • Class Engagement. Class is interactive and doesn’t consist of a prof droning on whilst students fall asleep.
  • Engaging Assignments. These profs set homework students want to do, not what’s in the textbook.

Anything I’ve missed?


3 Responses to "Great Teachers"

Ditto the number of excellent professors you had.

I think you’re right about what makes for effective teaching, but I don’t think there’s a real difference between effective teaching and efficient teaching.

I’ll loosely define education efficiency as something like this:

education efficiency = amount of information retained * relevance factor / total resource cost

I’m not sure if “information retained” is the best measure here, but I’ll use it anyway to illustrate my point.

Total resource cost here includes time, money, mental energy, thermodynamic energy, and other scarce resources spent by the teacher, all the students, the institution, etc.

Note that both the “information retained” and “resource cost” factors are aggregates, not averages, so if one professor wastes an hour of 20 students’s time, then he’s really wasted 21 hours, plus the money those 20 students could have made working at McDonald’s, plus the money the institution could have spent toward a better professor.

Defining efficiency this way leads to some interesting consequences:

– Efficiency goes up when students retain more information, but only to the extent that the information is relevant.

– Because there are many students per teacher, a teacher who spends an extra hour preparing a lecture that saves each student 1 hour is more efficient than one tho does not.

– When resources are spent on making students retain irrelevant information, efficiency goes down. If the students don’t even retain the irrelevant information, efficiency goes down even more.

– Work that does not appreciably increase retention of relevant information lowers efficiency.

– Lectures that are boring, which result in low relevant information retention, have a fairly high resource cost (since you have to count the time spent by the instructor *and* each student attending the lecture).

– Choosing a better textbook saves students time, thus increasing efficiency. Choosing a worse textbook that is also expensive wastes students’ time *and* money, decreasing efficiency. Requiring that students purchase a textbook that they subsequently never use decreases efficiency.

– The larger the classes, the more important it is that the students’ time, money, and other resources not be wasted.

I could go on, but that’s the idea, anyway.

Correction to my last post: “If the students don’t even retain the irrelevant information, efficiency goes down even more.”

I’m not sure about that.

That’s a much more detailed definition of efficiency!! I was thinking more of efficient in terms of those courses where you know a lot for the exam, but you don’t understand it so you’ve forgotten it all by the following semester. I think for CS, effectiveness – understanding – is way more important, because the details change constantly anyway.

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