In the spirit of my lecturer training course days, I am writing this to ponder about a class I just took which didn't go so well and to think of a way to improve it for another time. Sometimes things seem to happen too fast in the class to be able to help the students effectively there and then but if you think about it afterwards you can work out what you ought to have done. Probably of no interest to anyone but me.
I am teaching a first year module called Technology in Society students this semester. I inherited the module from a colleague but got lucky because it is pretty interesting. The purpose is to make the students aware of themes relating to the impact of new technologies on society: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the Singularity, the environment, and genetics. It's mostly taught through fiction in the form of films, novels and short stories, butI have introduced quite a lot of scientific material too so the students are aware of the state of the art. It's quite a challenging module for me to deliver because I haven't got that much experience of supporting students of this stage in discussion based tutorials.
For the class this morning, the students were to read “Where am I?” by Dan Dennet and answer some questions proposed by me. The purpose of the reading was to introduce the students to philosophical notions underlying artificial intelligence. The article is a thought experiment about dividing the brain from the body, having multiple bodies and multiple brains. It gets quite confusing quite quickly.
I split the students into pairs to discuss their answers to these questions and my colleague and I went round each pair to help them. It is a small class, so it is luxuriously possible to give each student a lot of attention. The students had evidently had problems with this article, finding parts of it confusing, and some of them hadn't been able to extract the main point from it. Here are some problems I noticed and things I could do to help next time:
- Many of the students had read the article but didn't have the text with them, and had no annotations of the text or written answers. This gives me less to go on when trying to diagnose their level of understanding and can mean their conversation peters out when a staff member is not there to coax them. Their verbal discussion is sometimes not as good as their written work. I need to insist they bring written answers and their notes on the article next time. It may actually be that they have never been taught how to do this sort of academic reading effectively and I should do a class where we read something together in class. (Have been reading about reciprocol teaching of reading, could borrow some ideas from that).
- One student (whose native language is not English) said he didn't understand most of the article. He found it hard to explain what he did not understand. He also finds it hard to think hypothetically so the whole idea of a thought experiment was weird to him.At the time I just got him to join a group of students who did understand the article so they could explain it, but in future he probably needs more individual help. But he needs to able to articulate what he doesn't understand, so maybe I should get him to mark confusing text in a certain colour to remind him of specific problems he had when we discuss it later.
- Some of them were confused by parts of the story itself - maybe getting them to write a 100 word summary first would have helped them clarify what actually happened before going on to the more philosophical stuff. Similarly, I should have asked them to summarise what point they thought the author was trying to make. I think my problem is pitching it at too difficult a level, as the other module I am teaching if for 4th yr/Msc and I forget how little experience the first years have with academic reading.
Ho hum! You live and learn.