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Intro courses and differentiated instruction January 25, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, teaching.
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Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad discusses the notion of whether there ought to be differentiated instruction for introductory classes. Looking back at my experience, I guess I’ve have *ahem* a few thoughts on the topic.

I don’t know what they do now, but way back when I started at Caltech, they had Math 1 (freshman calc) and a small group which was affectionately (or not) called 0.9 (point nine). The year I entered, I was placed via exam into 0.9 and had the dubious distinction of being the only one in the class who hadn’t taken calc prior to entering. We used the same book as math 1, but had a different teacher, who was a grad student. She was helpful, but had a horribly thick Romanian accent, and I couldn’t understand anything she said. (I did try!) A lot of the people in that section ended up transferring out. (Maybe they kept us together so we wouldn’t ruin the morale for everyone else as we were the most likely to be flushed out. I’ve often wondered…)

Honestly, I think something like that could have worked. But it was stigmatizing and limited one’s options. (Generally, one works on homework with people in their house, and that meant there were only 2-3 other people in your house from that section…whereas everyone else could study with the other 85% of the freshman class.) Studying with other people from that group was sometimes like the blind leading the blind – we would’ve been better off as a group if we’d found other people with a better handle on the material. Using the same book (and agreeing on what needed to be covered) would ensure some consistency. Most importantly, I think you have to be exceptionally careful about who is placed as an instructor in that environment: someone who is a marginal instructor is not going to be able to bring complete newbs up to speed. Another approach would be to provide things like extra recitation sections (open to everyone) for people who want help (something that used to be done regularly with a lot of math and science classes but which have not been showing up on my radar lately).

But after that experience, my feeling is really that differentiated instruction isn’t the way to go. There are indeed a lot of people who may have an advantage because they’ve seen some of the material in high school. It means they have a year of coasting. Yes, it feels unfair to those who haven’t, but soon or later, the coasters are going to be just as overwhelmed as everyone else: they’re merely delaying the inevitable.

And what’s worse is that I’ve seen people in the situation crash and burn later because while they may have seen some of that stuff earlier, they didn’t spend any time developing good study habits. When they hit something they didn’t know, they were really not ready and able to handle the challenge.

We all have our own academic crosses to bear.

I do think, however, there is something that can be done. When I was working on my MS, the program (in EE) began requiring ‘placement exams’ in every class. The idea was that you were tested on the knowledge you were expected to have even before beginning the course. Each instructor wrote their own exam at the beginning of the semester and gave it out on the second day of class. If you didn’t do sufficiently well, they recommended extra study of the previous content matter (preferably with specific areas of focus) or even retaking the previous course in the sequence. I would think this would work fairly well for physics because a truly introductory level physics course shouldn’t make any assumptions other than a certain level of math competency. If you don’t have that, then maybe you need to go back and take more math. I think that is a very reasonable expectation.

But if there isn’t a more basic course and the introductory level course assumes a certain level of knowledge? Then, honestly, you have to work at it. Or go someplace else and take it and come back. However you want to do it. But if it’s something that is fundamental to a student’s education, they’re better off facing that early on. I do, however, think that it’s best if the instructor is very explicit about prerequisites for the course. It saves everyone a lot of hassle and heart ache later on. It also keeps the instructor from assuming too much.

Going from physics to EE meant I was taking grad level classes that assumed a lot of knowledge I didn’t have. (As an example, my first introduction to transmission lines was on an exam problem worth 25% of the test!) It was terribly frustrating, but it’s one of those facts of life: if you want a degree, you have to work for it. There will always be people who have a better background, are smarter, are harder workers, or even are simply better at making the teacher happy. It can be a blow to the ego to be around these people, but at some point, you get used to it and learn to do what you need to do to get through. The sooner you face that, the better off you’ll be. And hopefully you’ve got an instructor who can communicate that to you very kindly.

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