Sunday, November 6, 2011

Getting it together

Hey everyone..

Recently I met up with some friends from undergrad and we were discussing life and times in engineering school. You have a lot of good friends. You study and learn, yes, because there are classes and homeworks and tests and exams. But a large part of my memories are of time spent with friends, little comments and jokes cracked just before an exam. I valued my friends and classmates for their friendship and their company through those times. And yet, all these years I had never credited them with teaching me everything I have learnt!

This one is a 5 minute introduction of the problem

Someone recently pointed me to a very good talk on education by Professor Eric Mazur who teaches Physics at Harvard. He spoke about the problem with the common lecture-homework-exam approach. He says that it is not the teachers alone that enable a student's learning and understanding. Real learning, be it in engineering or any other discipline (his own examples are from physics), largely happens outside the class when we do homeworks with friends, discuss problems and questions, and study for exams with others.

 Short clip of Mazur's solution, gives a gist of the teaching technique

Professor Mazur proposes and adopts a system where lectures are pre-recorded and attended online like pre-class homework. Actual class time with the teacher is spent in a question-answer session involving questions asked by the teacher, answered by students (first on their own) through interactive voting systems, then discussed by students with a few of their neighbours and re-answered based on their renewed understanding after the discussion.

This is the full length video of one of his talks.. bit long, but really good!!

He says that, as you grow more senior and advanced in the subject, it gets harder for a teacher to understand what difficulties a person newly learning this concept may encounter. It is the student who has just recently learnt a concept who knows exactly what those difficulties are and can therefore "teach" better. His demo class seems very interactive and involved. It's so common to go "No talking in class" that a place where students are actively encouraged to talk and discuss amongst themselves is very nice!

I guess I always thought of my teachers and books when I thought of my education. Never appreciated the involvement of friends in our homework sessions, and discussions we had outside class. But when I think back, I can remember many many times going over something with a friend and together we got it! Or learning something from someone who had just picked up that piece before me and remembered how they too were confused by some right-hand-left-hand-rule or the other. I remember understanding a concept in circuits over a phone discussion. Once a friend and I even figured out how to plot rivers on a map... on the phone..! (See now, that was all learning.. completely justifies the phone bill!)

Certainly got me thinking about technical education and how it could perhaps be jazzed up a bit. Also made sure I give due credit to friends and classmates from school!! ;)

Cheerio and thanks for stopping by!

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