Friday, September 30, 2011

Everything I Say Might Be Important

The other day, while working intensely on editing a document in a cafe, my attention wandered for just a moment (or two) and I tuned into a nearby conversation between two undergrads. One of them said something like this:
I hate Professor X. He never tells us whether anything he says is important, so we have to assume it is all important and so I need to take notes on everything he says and it is impossible to do that.
There was a bit more to the conversation, and it seems that this student is really struggling to sort out what is important and what is not important in a lecture, and therefore isn't getting much out of the class. If a lot of information is presented in each class, and all of it is theoretically equally "important", she can't possibly take it all in, she spends a lot of time feeling frustrated, and she therefore hates the class (and its professor).

One thing that interested me was the idea that it's better to assume that everything might be important than that none of it is (or might be). A famous gripe of professors is when students who miss a class or arrive late ask the professor if they (the students) "missed anything important". Would you rather have students wonder if you happened to touch on anything important in a particular class, or would you rather have students assume that you are probably saying lots of important things (if only they knew what they were) and hate your class as a result?

Not knowing anything about the professor or class or student in question, I am not going to speculate more about that particular situation, except to say that I hope that the student goes to talk to the professor -- not to complain, of course, but to discuss strategies for understanding the lecture material and thereby to alert the professor that at least one student is confused and struggling.

Overhearing this conversation made me think about how/whether I convey **What Is Important** and What Is Not, while teaching in a classroom.

Most of us are well aware that some students classify information as important (likely to be on the test) vs. not important (safely ignored). And many of us professors think that everything we say is in fact important (and could be on the test), but realistically, some of our pearls of wisdom are more pearly than others. We may emphasize a certain topic (perhaps even specifically described as important, key, critical, significant, fundamental etc.), and then some/most of what immediately follows is elaboration: we give examples, we try to explain and not just state. All of that is important, but there is also sort of a hierarchy.

I am going to try to be more aware of this in my classes, but I am curious as to how often I say "This is a really important point/concept/question" (and then, ideally, explain why it is important and not just assert it). I think I try to be clear about this and not just assume that students will automatically know, but to be sure, I do provide review questions that represent important information from each class. Or, I should say, the most important information because, of course, it is all important.


zed said...

I've been more aware of this recently too. I always provide a summary slide at the end of a lecture with the heading 'important points', as a clue. I also figure it should be obvious what's important based on how much time I spend on it. Sometimes I tell the students 'this is a detail you don't need to worry about too much but it's cool', which then implies that everything else I say is important.

Anonymous said...

I had a captive audience this past weekend with a group of students on an optional field trip. Somehow conversation drifted to lecture styles and trademark phrases of several faculty members. I asked if I had any (annoying) trademark phrases (I can be oblivious to such things). The group couldn't think of anything right off the bat, but several said they know I'm covering something VERY important when I slow down my speech. I know I will preface "fun factoids" by stating it will not be on the exam, but I didn't realize I was giving away clues on some of my best testing material. No wonder I don't often get the question any more of "what will be on the test?"

plam said...

My students have complained about not knowing what's important as well. I've tried to say "this is important" at various times, but maybe I forgot to explain why various things are important as well. More stuff to add to the "things to change" list for next time I teach (in 8 months' time).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for understanding this distinction. As an undergrad, classes where the profs did not understand this were the ones where I wasted the most energy and time, worked the least efficiently, was the most anxious, and probably retained the least long-term.

And quite frankly, the likelihood of this sort of thing was one of several criteria I used when choosing my post-bacc program. (Price, likelihood of getting into my grad program, and quality of my actual education were some of the others.)

Some of my best undergrad classes, especially in lab sciences, were the ones where profs were able to help us distinguish between the material we needed for the exams, and the material we needed for long-term success or real understanding. This led to many, many "Ah-ha!" moments, and even some actual delight. It also reduced a lot of my anxiety -- can't speak for my classmates.

- Morgan

another anonymous person said...

I won't ever say anything is "not important", but I do make sure students know what is likely to be tested vs what I am telling them because I think it is valuable to know.

I sometimes label the more extraneous material as "for advanced understanding","just for fun", or when I am being particularly honest, "not required for the test, but required to be good at this field"

Anonymous said...

"Is this important" in studentspeak translates to "Is this going to be on the test/exam? Am I going to be tested on this? do I have to spend my time learning this for the exam?"

Not "how to I integrate this information into the structure of information I already have so as to expand the horizon of my knowledge and understanding of the subject matter"


Anonymous said...

I do a summary slide of the previous lecture at the start of the next class.

On the first day, I tell students unless specified, everything in class is fair game for the test. However, there are hints for things that will definitely be on the test: if I repeat it more than once, if I say "everyone get that last point?" or if I say "this is really important."

I also make sure to tell them when something is not going to be on the test, like demonstrations or discussing science in the recent news. It's nice, because the students are focused on the conversation (not writing notes) and participate more.

Anonymous said...

When students say they cannot identify what is "important", they are really saying that they do not have the conceptual framework to absorb new ideas and information. In my now 2+ years of teaching, I try to provide the conceptual framework first (with lecture goals, etc), so students can better absorb what happens in lecture. (Studies do show that new information that is connected to a larger concept is retained better than new information that is completely disjointed).

Unfortunately, not every student is equally motivated, and all students do not develop at the same rate intellectually. I have had freshman who are able to grasp the "big picture" intuitively and grad students who struggle. The best that a professor can do is to be clear and transparent about our methods and expectations, so that there are no surprises, and hope that students are willing to meet us halfway.

Anonymous said...

If many students are confused about what's important, my guess is that the lectures are not well-organized. Doing the standard: "here's what I'm going to talk about", talking about it, and then a reminder of "here's what I talked about" is a great way to help the audience (of whatever type) key in on the main points you wanted to make. Many lecturers do not create this sort of structure, and a few have lectures that wander aimlessly.

Anonymous said...

I teach a first year introductory course with about 200 students. I arrange my lectures as central idea, example, example, example. I tell the students that the ideas are important, and they have to know them for the exam, whereas they will not be asked about any of the specific examples. However, if they understand the examples, they will understand the central idea better. I still get complaints that they don't know what is important and what isn't.
This year we are doing a pilot run of a "how to figure out what's important" tutorial. It will be run by our "online teaching" specialist, who doesn't know anything about my subject. Her role will be to sit with the students after the lecture and go over the structure of my lecture and teach them how to extract central concepts and important points. I get to be the guinea pig for this because I am considered to be a serious and conscientious teacher and I am one of the first professors they meet. It's an interesting idea, and I am curious to see if it will work.

Anonymous said...

A couple of commentators have mentioned putting up a summary slide at the end of lecture, or some variation on this theme. My variation is to put it up at the BEGINNING of the lecture. After all, I'm not writing a mystery novel. LD

The Audiovisualist said...

When I was an undergraduate during the stone age, it used to be common to include a statement on the syllabus that anything in any lecture or the readings might be on the test.

EliRabett said...

Nothing helps like saying "this will be on the test" and putting it on the test. Another tactic is to provide a list of things the student "Needs to Know"

GMP said...

I actually like to start every lecture taking questions, and then do a brief recap of what we covered last time. It takes a few minutes, but is a good way to warm up and go over the key points from last time. We also do a recap near the end of class. I think these are sufficient for most students, I can't remember the last time someone complained that they didn't know what was essential and what wasn't.

Btw, I tell students that anything we discussed in class or was part of homework is fair game, and urge them to redo HW problems before the exam.

Anonymous said...

As a student (20 ys ago), I remember having that feeling when I was forced to take a course in the social sciences. I was a 4.0 student and did horribly in that course because my math-oriented brain could not possible understand what was the bottom line of the material the professor covered. I think most of the comments today assume these students were talking about a science class, but maybe the students had a point...

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to add, as the significant other of someone who struggles, that some students do have the inability to distinguish what is "important" if it is not explicitly stated. ADHD, and some anxiety disorders, even if mild, can make hints and subtleties utterly incomprehensible. So, please don't assume your students are "unmotivated" or "intellectually underdeveloped." I am amazed at just how explicit some things need to be in order to be heard and understood. This is not due to lack of effort to understand, however. Some people are easily lost in the details while others are great summarizers. Just because someone can't pick up your body language undertones does not mean they aren't able to contribute to the field/class.

my 2 cents

Anonymous said...

Bloom's taxonomy deals with stages of learning:

Remembering is considered the easiest skill - with analyzing, evaluating, and creating the highest. These are stages of intellectual development, and we don't all get there at the same rate with every subject.

In college classes, you can get a very mixed group of students, so professors need to assess the stage at which their students are in in their approach to learning. The idea is to push everyone from the "remembering" stage, which is unfortunately often the dominant type of learning emphasized in high school, to being able to evaluate ideas, e.g. know "what's important".

So, yeah, we all deal with information differently, and Anonymous @5,15 notes, students can also have a range of learning disabilities and being explicit in lectures is important to making everything accessible.

We also make lectures accessible to those with hearing disabilities, our library uses OCR to voice to help those with visual disabilities with reading assignments. I am always given a heads up about any student with ADHD - and that seems increasingly more common.

But unfortunately, large lectures are geared toward the middle 50%. The students who need more help have to be brave enough to ask for it, and the students who want more of a challenge will also need to ask for one.

Also, I think that students sometimes overemphasize what can be learned in lecture, and don't realize that a lot of learning can happen outside the classroom, studying and reading on one's own.

Maybe all this new emphasis on online learning that allows students to work through material at their own pace will be a solution to the problems of the big lecture class...

Anonymous said...

Teaching is not an important part of my career path, so this is easy for me to say:

If something is Important, it seems logical that it should be:

- Flagged in advance. Preferably, as some have said, at the beginning of the lecture, so students can be attentive for it (without checking out on the other parts of the lecture).

- Illustrated in more than one way (e.g. concept, example, example, example)

- Reinforced through problem sets and exam questions.

Anonymous said...

Any chance this student is simply lazy and not fit to be in college?

Doctor Pion said...

The biggest problem for students learning physics is to realize the difference between the fundamental concepts (very few) and equations (a few more) and the hundreds of examples that can be done using those equations and what you were supposed to still know from math classes. Far too many think their job is to learn several hundred special equations for several hundred special problems. The only way I know to attack this is to start every problem the same way and make sure they know that is also how I will grade them.

I make it a point to write on the board that "this is a (main principle) problem because (characteristic it has)" as often as I can manage to do so.

Once in a while, I might say that "Some of you might be wondering 'Can I use that last equation on an exam?' The answer is 'Yes, but you will earn less than half of the points for the problem.'"

Other strategies I like

"X gets used a lot in (next year's class for majors in Y)." An example of the setup (or just a picture) of a more complicated problem can help here. Note that this requires talking to professors who teach junior-level classes to the majors in your intro-level class. I cannot recommend that enough.

"This week in lab." If it is important enough to do a lab, it is important enough to remind them to review that topic from last week's (or last month's) class.

"Yes, every test has a problem that requires using (general principle, like F=ma)" in reply to a question about whether a specific application of that principle will be on the test.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting point that I actually never considered in this way as a student. But the easiest classes to follow where the ones where lecturers made it clear what was important. This was normally because they were the lecturers who had put the most thought and consideration into the best way to teach or who were naturally good teachers, not necessarily because they were trying to highlight what was important.

That said, one of my favourite lecturers was so clear and concise in explaining complicated topics that he barely said a superfluous word. This caused much complaint amongst my classmates because the level of concentration and amount of note-taking required was so great, as everything said was genuinely important.