Tuesday, 22 May 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.

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