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Friday, June 17, 2005

Teaching and the Mystery of Pat

Unlike a lot of my peers, I actually enjoy teaching the Introductory Finance course. Since it's the core finance requirement for the College of Business, all business have to take it. So, most of my students aren't Finance majors, and many of them have serious deficiencies in their math skills and problem solving skills. This comes out mostly from seeing their approach to what they call "learning".

Robert Talbert at BrightMystery tells a story about about a student in his class, named Pat (Ugh! Now I need some "mental floss" to get that image out of my head) for angrogenous anonymity's sake. It hits the nail on the head. Pat didn't want to hear questions, only answers:

So the problem wasn't Pat's skill with the material so much -- the processing skill was the problem. Accordingly, when Pat would ask me a question such as, "Can you tell me how to do problem 7?", I would say: Let's start by asking the right questions. What are you being asked to do in this problem? What information is given to you in the problem statement? And what do you know from the course, your reading, or your work on other exercises that will help get you to the goal? I made it a point to NEVER give Pat explicit help on content unless it was a last resort -- Pat absolutely HAD to cut the apron-strings from me an learn how to approach, analyze, and solve a problem alone, or else Pat's chances for success in a future career or even making it through college didn't look good.

If Pat needed help on content, I'd ask: Where have you worked out, or seen worked out, a calculation like this before? What are the relevant rules? And so on. Because all the content Pat needed had been done in class, in the readings, or in the exercises; 9 times out of 10, Pat was like every other student in the class and just hadn't paid attention in lecture, done the exercises, or read the examples -- or was making some basic algebra mistake that Pat needed to learn how to catch on Pat's own. My questions were intended to get Pat to go back and seek out the content information Pat needed and evaluate Pat's own work, because that's how it would work in a problem-solving or test setting when I can't give explicit directions on content.

Pat sent me an email just after midterms that said something like: I now understand why I am not doing well in your class. My learning style is such that you have to show me exactly what to do, or else I can't do it. But you always answer my questions with more questions, which isn't showing me exactly what to do. So from now on, please show me exactly what to do first, and then I should be able to do it. My response was something like: Pat, we've been doing this every day in class -- I work a few problems at the board all the way through during lecture, and then I give you exercises that are based on the stuff you've seen. So you are seeing me show you what to do, and yet you're still having difficulty solving problems on your own. So perhaps your assessment wasn't quite right, and we should be working on your problem-solving skills in office hours.

Click here for the whole post. Of course, Pat's mother intervened, and the email response to her was priceless (and much, much more gracious than I probably would have been). I'll probably save it in a text file for future use. Make sure to read the comments to the post too.

Since I teach a course that non-finance majors have to take, I run into a lot of "Pats". In the core class, they don't learn all that many concepts/tools/techniques (and most of them seem to be related to , but they do have to learn how to use them in a wide variety of settings (i.e. time value shows up as "the price of a bond is the present value of the cash flows" or "the NPV is the present value of the inflows less the cost")

However, the only way top learn how to recognize the "simple" problem behind the seemingly complicated one that they can't seem to solve is to muddle through a lot of exercises and learn how to ask the "right" questions. Unfortunately, the only way to learn how to ask the right questions is to experience the frustration resulting form asking the wrong questions.

Kind of like life.

Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs for the link.

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