Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What To Expect

Yesterday I described two different views of an undergraduate student I mostly only know from classroom interactions. Here is another (evolving) view of a different student I also mostly only know from classroom interactions:

A few years ago, I taught a particular student in a Science class. It was a class mostly for Science majors, but it was not a very high level class. For the first half of the course, I wasn't sure about this student's abilities; he worked hard, but, at least at first, his questions tended to be of the "Is this what you want?" and "Can you tell me if this is right before I turn in my homework?" sort. By the end of the class, he was over that and he did well in the class because he worked hard and understood most of the essential course material. I thought he had a lot of potential, but didn't have enough information to predict how the rest of his undergraduate Science experience would turn out.

Fast forward a few years to a fairly high-level talk in my department -- the sort of talk attended mostly by faculty, postdocs, and grad students, but a few motivated undergrads attend as well. In the questions-from-the-audience time after the talk, this undergraduate student asked the speaker an EXCELLENT question. This question showed that he understood the talk very well and could apply what he had learned in classes to ask a perceptive question involving application of the speaker's results to an interesting and relevant concept not mentioned by the speaker. This made my day.

Particularly when our interaction with certain students is largely confined to one or more classes taken early in a Science major, we may form an impression of them as not knowing much. Of course there are always some students who understand everything easily, and there are students who don't seem to understand anything, and those impressions may turn out to be applicable beyond the initial impressions. Many students, however, are somewhere in between, at least when they start taking courses in their major. Those in-between students can change a lot during their undergraduate years, as they progress toward their degree.

If we see them in other classes over the years, the progression may not seem dramatic. If we see them at the beginning and then not again in any substantive way until their final year, the difference can be startling, not because we don't have faith in the ability of students to learn and grow, but just because we didn't see those intermediate stages.

I feel like attempting an analogy with the Stages of Life: If you don't see a student much between their scientific "infancy" and their scientific "youth", is it like seeing a baby and then seeing that "baby" years later, walking and talking? I suppose it is sort of similar, at least in the sense that it can be startling to see a dramatic change from helpless non-verbal baby to a mobile talking creature, but it is also different because we expect this of babies. I think we also expect it of students, but maybe not quite with the same degree of certainty. (Discuss.)

And in the anecdote described here, it wasn't so much that the former "baby" was walking and talking, but was also doing elegant cartwheels while demonstrating fluency in a new language. It was awesome.


Colleen said...

Students see the change in ourselves too. I made a comment on a talk recently that I realized immediately after sounded just like something my adviser would say. I then surveyed my classmates as to whether I should celebrate or check myself into the nearest psychiatric facility (but was secretly glowing). My adviser often gets the reaction "he's obviously brilliant, but I never understand what he is talking about." One day I hope that people will think I'm pretty smart (don't need brilliant) AND that they understand what I'm talking about. From the feedback I've gotten, so far so good.

Yael said...

This is one of the most happy-inducing posts I've seen. Describes my feelings as a course instructor, and also explains why my professors in undergrad and grad school grinned so widely when I could do something I couldn't do before after they gave me feedback.

Optixmom said...

Sometimes that blossoming effect doesn't manifest itself until the student leaves the university with their degree. I know many individuals who got through their coursework with adequate, not stellar grades, and didn't have their "AHA" moment until they started a job.

I get the same excitement you did from seeing previous students as authors in magazine articles for our professional society or in respected trade magazines. Seeing them finding their place in our industry (and a place of honor) is thrilling.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Colleen. We get the same thrill ourselves even though we *are* there the whole time. (But it's harder to notice in oneself.)

I went to my field's national meeting as a first-year grad student. I was dazzled by all the amazing science being done and found every single talk amazing. I was a little overwhelmed and super excited.

Fast forward four years. Last year I presented at the conference, and wasn't hardly dazzled at all. Of the talks I attended, most of the research was mediocre (technically competent, but not really advancing the field in an appreciable way), a few talks were really inspiring, and a few were outright bad (poorly designed experiments, wrong statistics, illogical conclusions).

I was actually a bit disappointed because I remembered the conference being so dazzling the first time around. But after checking with some friends (who had the same sort of experience), I realized that it was *me* who had changed and not the conference. The fact that I could differentiate among great, mediocre, and bad science means that I've learned lots and lots in the past several years. It's exciting to see that progress, even though it means not being quite so dazzled all the time.

Anonymous said...

It is very different, because most of these babies never learn to walk and talk. Development of a real independent-thinking scientist can never be taken for granted, and is in that sense almost by definition going to be a happy surprise if one sees the beginning and end but not middle.

Anonymous said...

How fun to see those changes! Today I had students working on a project come into discuss it and ask a very smart question about the analyses that brought together coursework and a previous project. Everything else - the mistakes, the need to sometimes push them along, all those things that are frustrating in this process just faded away - they are learning and sometimes I don't even see it until they really making those leaps. Ahhh - that's job satisfaction. Plus they have cool results!

Anonymous said...

I was one of those students who changed a lot as an undergrad. In my case, I was an "non-traditional" student: I was older, had worked for a few years, and hadn't take a math or science course in the previous 6 years or so before heading back to college to study physics.

The first year or two were a struggle as I was catching up to my cohorts: kids who had gone directly from AP calculus and AP physics in high school to university-level physics. However, I had a strong finish and am now at a Top 20 program for my graduate studies.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, I was mostly the frustrating student with no self-confidence who had to be prodded along and have my hand held every step of the way. Despite the outward appearance of being a rather helpless “baby”, the whole time I was observing my advisor and learning tons about how to be an independent, productive scientist. During my time in under this advisor, I went from crawling to pulling up and occasionally standing on my own—decent progress—but I just wasn’t ready to walk. I was still developing the muscles and coordination. My advisor was very patient and encouraging and SO wanted to see me walking. Though not explicitly, she was constantly telling me, “I know you are capable of walking. See, just like this! You’re almost there. If you fall down, you’re safe here.” But I wasn’t ready. (And I was frustrated with myself for not being ready)

As soon as I moved to my current lab situation, I immediately and naturally transitioned to walking on my own. This sudden change and the ease with which it happened surprised even me, especially because my current environment/advisor had nothing to do with it. Though I’m not by any means running or doing cartwheels yet, this post inspired me to go thank my first advisor!