Saturday, August 14, 2010

Getting The Right Answer Is Not Enough

I start my classes again in 9 days. Even after 39 years, I am always tense as to what I want to say to my students on the first day. They have been in school for 15-16 previous years and, unfortunately, some of them expect every class to be more of the same. A few (maybe more) start off with a poor attitude. I am a big believer in first impressions. I want to get the class off to the perfect start. I want the students to realize that I want something different from them. They are college students, more should be demanded of them. But, if all you’ve ever been asked to do is memorize, it is hard to believe there is something more that the teacher might want.

I got a note today from Steve Markoff, a friend of mine who teaches at Montclair State. He told me about a book where computers were programmed to come up with the perfect move each time in various backgammon situations. The book, then, tries to help the reader figure out why each of those moves was the right one. The computer starts you off with the right move—you have to analyze the situation and figure out why it is the best possible answer.

Steve’s comment was something like “That’s what I want from my own college students—to go beyond just getting the right answer and be able to tell me why it was the right answer.”

Then, I knew what I should tell my students on the first day of the fall semester. From my perspective, too many classes focus on getting the right answer as the ultimate goal-that leads to memorization. I want my students to focus on understanding what is going on and why. How do I convey that desire? Simple—tell them: “When you get the right answer, you are half way home. You still need to be able to explain to me why it is the right answer.”

I think that is an understandable goal-one that will help my students know, right from the start, that I’m stressing something more complicated than what they might have expected.

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