Monday, December 22, 2008

Teaching Pt. 4

There is yet, one more factor to discuss; instructor bias in explanations. It often happens that an explanation of a concept that an instructor thinks is clear and easy to understand is difficult for students. Also, it often happens that other instructors think the explanation is clear, so the instructor, even if he/she asks other instructors what they think about the explanation often get highly biased feedback.

The problem is that concepts are easy to those who already understand them and know how to use them. So, when instructors look at a textbook or another instructors explanation of a concept, they tend to use their own mastery of concepts and techniques to "fill in" or "understand" parts that students may find difficult. Hence, what the instructor thinks is easy is actually difficult for the student.

Now this does not mean we have simplify ideas to the point of compromising the main concept, rather it is a balancing act. You have to balance ease of understanding with integrity of the main concept.

For example in regards to textbooks, it is best to let the students decide which textbooks they think are easiest to learn from. Then from that list of textbooks (usually there is more than one) let the instructors decide which textbook(s) satisfies their objectives for the class. This way you satisfy both the student AND the teacher.

In regards to explanations, one way to develop a sense for what constitutes an explanation that is understandable for the student is to practice explaining concepts by tutoring students. After tutoring many students you develop a sense of how to explain concepts in a way that the student understands and leads to mastery of the main concept.

John G.

P.S. It may often happen that tutors have a standard answer for common questions. While this may be efficient, it runs the risk of falling into the trap of explanation bias. So, once a tutor identifies a common question, it may help to have an answer ready, but always try to improve the answer based on experience.


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