Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I have tutored in various subjects before, and given presentations in
various topics, but this is the first time in my life that I have
taught a class over a period of time. It is defintiely a learning

Actually, I am not teaching the full class. Twice a week, a professor
gives a lecture in a lecture hall to about 300 students. Once a week,
the teaching assistants meet sections of about 20 students. Our job
is to answer questions, do some additional lecturing, and give quizzes
and homework.

Most of the class is freshmen. This class is specifically designed to
train and test critical thinking skills. For most of the class, this
is a completely new experience. They have all excelled in high school
via some combination of rote memorization and raw intelligence. This
class requires a completely new way of operating, and it is a little
traumatic for many of them.

For example, the ideal test taking strategy all through high school is
as follows: Read the question, then read the answers, then choose the
answer that most closely resembles something written down in your
textbook or lecture notes. This strategy specifically coached in some

In this econ class, that simply will not work. The tests are
specifically designed to trick people using such a strategy. Many
questions are exact copies of a statement in the textbook, but with
one key word changed to reverse the meaning. Other questions require
some kind of multi-step problem solving, and the answers are often
formatted like:
A: statement
B: statement
C: statement
D: Both A and B
E: All of the above

So you have to make a decision about the correctness of every statement.

I have told the students that their test taking strategy should
change. I recommend that they cover over the answers, not even
looking at them, and then see what facts they can deduce from the
information presented in the problem. This usually involves drawing a
picture and/or doing some math. Then, only after they have an idea of
what is true and known, they should look at the answers and decide
what is right.

They are still at the point in their academic careers where the best
way to teach them how to do something is to have them memorize a
sequence of operations. This usually works, but in order to really do
well on the tests, you really have to master the material. Usually I
have no hope of teaching this.

One student, however, is a third-year engineering major. A recent
conversation went something like this:

Him: "I don't really understand this elasticity of demand stuff. I
know how to calculate it, but I don't really see how it connects to
the graph.
Me: "The elasticity is the reciprocal of the slope of the demand curve
graphed in log-log space."
Him: "Okay, thanks. It makes sense now."

Obviously, most students would never understand that statement at all,
and I would never use class time to attempt to explain it. But I was
able to connect to his math knowledge to explain something.

This is an example of how I can usually do a good job of tutoring
people individually. However, my lectures are no better than average,
and I need to figure out how to improve them. I guess it is a matter
of experience. But the ideal use of class time for me seems to be to
give lots of practice tests in order to convince them to study on
their own, pay more attention during the professor's lectures. and/or
come talk to me individually.

No comments: