Education: Some Assembly Required

While I was at Michigan State University, we had a change of president. The new guy in charge (at that time – it’s changed again since then) was M. Peter McPherson (and, as he would tell you, McPherson rhymes with person). He came from a business background, and under his guidance, students became consumers and professors became the provider of a specific good – an education. This idea of education being something that can be purchased pre-supposed that a student’s learning is directly correlated to the professor’s teaching. This is a model that doesn’t work real well. Learning is actually a collaborative journey, and like with any collaboration, success depends on what all members bring to the table. As a student, I saw the “student as a consumer” model as broken, but also as justification for expressing teenage indignation at any faculty member who wasted my time on stupid assignments or in teaching me things the US education system expects people to know by 8th grade. I also understood, however, that when I decided not to go to class, I was totally on my own in earning my desired A. I was a consumer, and it was their job not to waste my time. However, if I decided not to RTFM (or at least my textbook), when things blew up, it wasn’t their fault.

Today, that sense of student responsiblity in learning has diminished as consumerism has grown. Now, sitting on the other side of the student-faculty collaboration, I try to abide by a few simply rules learned from my student experiences. I don’t waste my students time teaching them things I expect anyone accepted into college to know (unless forced by a classes’ required curriculum). I articulate what I am going to do, and I teach to multiple learning styles. I don’t stand in front of the room regurgitating the text book. I use research on good presentation technique and learning to define my teaching style. What I do in the classroom is thought out, and there are reasons for everything I do.

Unfortunately, what makes for good research-based teaching and what is responsible, doesn’t also make students happy. The consumer mentality that I witnessed as a student has grown into a belief that a college education is something that is purchased. Period. Good grades are expected, and the need for hard work doesn’t seem to be anticipated. What I have been told by students (plural, very plural) is that in a good class I should stand in front of the room, copy key points and specific examples involving numbers onto the chalk board or display them in a PowerPoint. Everything that I want them to learn should be written down. I should not expect students to know how to take notes on what I say. Homework problems should be gone over in class before they are due, and even when I provide homework answer keys, I should spend time in class going over solutions to past homeworks in detail.

If I spent the time my students wanted going over just the homework, I would never do anything other than going over homework.

One of the older faculty here explained to me that students seem to believe that if I work enough examples for them, I will eventually work all the problems that may be on homework or exams. This means, when they see a problem, they will not need to think but can rather simply repeat what I said in class. One of my students explained that students don’t know how to take notes, they simply know how to copy what is written on the board. Put together, what this tells me is my students want me to copy by hand or by PowerPoint the entire Schaum’s Problem Solver for them so they can copy it into their notes.

That’s not teaching. (But it would be plagiarism.)

So, students aren’t going to get in my class what they want. As consumers, what they are paying for is the obtainment of a set of skills that allow them to perform future jobs while at the same time receiving a socia-scientific framework that allows them to make informed decisions in fields outside their specific realm of expertise. This means that an engineering major should be able to understand the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and an English Major should be able to grasp the dangers of Bird Flu without over-reacting. A college education should create literate people capable of combining ideas to solve problems.

Feel free to call me Pollyanna.

In my college classroom, I work hard to give students information that is framed historically, applied to the world around them, and demonstrated in representative examples. Recognizing that people learn best in different ways (some need to read things, others to hear things, others to watch things and others to do things), and that everyone learns best if they read, hear, watch and do things, I use multiple techniques in class. Because I am human, I can not convey any one point in more than two ways at once, and in general I can’t write and do anything else involving my hands. (e.g. I can speak and perform a demo, I can speak and write, etc, etc. )

The problem I am facing – the problem that is driving me crazy right now – is that many of my students have learned to discard any information that isn’t written down by me for them. This means that when I do a demo and explain verbally what is going on (often I do a verbal set of questions and answers with them) that content is generally discarded after class. This semester, I have verbally done many of my homework problems in class as demos, asking my students questions as I went (If the moon is here, and the Sun is here, what season is it). The students could consistently answer the questions in class. This semester, after those demos and verbal questions, my students said I hadn’t covered the material on the homework. What they meant was I hadn’t written down the verbal questions, written down the answers, and drawn all the demos on the chalk board so they could copy the sketch into their notebook.
So the question I have to ask myself is this: As a prof, is it my job to write down everything I expect my students to write in their notes. The answer is no. There are three basic reasons: In life, the key points aren’t going to get written down for them; They have a text book for a reason; It is a waste of class time.

In life, bosses throw content at us verbally and we have to extract the key points for ourselves. When we listen to lectures, read books, attend seminars, the subject isn’t presented in a series of sound bites that are written down so people can copy them down. As humans, it is our job to sift through material to grasp the key ideas. My lecture notes (on someone else’s lecture) should be my summary of what was said that is punctuated by key equations, key diagrams, and bolded points. What is said is what the prof has decided needs to be said because it is important. He or she, just like future colleagues, isn’t speaking just to waste your time while you wait for the next item to get written on the chalk board.

My students all have text books. Text book authors are really good at writing end of summary blurbs that summarize all the content into 2 pages or less. If you want key points and sound bite definitions, just read the book. I do not exist to replicate the efforts of the text book author, so a student can replicate the text book author’s efforts in their notebook.

When I was an undergrad I got really frustrated when class time was wasted. If I have to pause every time I do a demo, setting down what I’m working with to write down exactly what I have said (usually multiple times), I am wasting time. If I say the Sun is farthest North in the Summer, and show this in a diagram, with a demo, and say it, I trust students to write down something from either the diagram, the demo, or what I said so that they retain for later that the Sun is farthest North in summer. Really, it’s not that hard to take notes. Try it, you might like it.

And here is where I look back and my undergraduate days and wonder if I’m being realistic in my expectations. I started life as a social relations major in James Madison College at Michigan State University (yes, a liberal arts major switched to hard science – it does happen). My freshmen year we all took these 250 person lectures on Democracy in America. There wasn’t a large chalk board, and while we were sometimes shown slides, in general, in those pre-PowerPoint days, the profs just stood up there and talked. They interpreted deToqville (sp?) and highlighted the context of the dialogues between Jefferson, Madison and Adams. We were expected to read, and they helped us see the connections between divers content, and then we were expected to take the big picture content and reflect it through detail rich essays. It was an academic conversation that at each turn took the content to a higher level. We were expected to listen, take notes, and learn, drawing our own connections based on the ones they showed us.

So, I don’t think I’m insane in expecting my students to take notes. I don’t think I am insane to expect students to build ideas together to solve problems. I think education is something that comes in pieces where it is the student’s job to assemble the content within their own educational background and context. I’m simply here to make sure none of the pieces are left out of the box and to help sort them into little pieces that help the big picture come together easier. And like that puzzle, education should come with a little black label, “Some assembly required, small pieces may constitute a chocking hazard, recommended for ages 17 and up.”


edit: added cover image: “Ye Old Classrooms” by Alan Levine

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  1. Elaina February 14, 2007 at 9:42 pm #


    I am so sad to hear this is the state of our country’s future. If my bosses had EVER written down exactly what I was supposed to do already, I would have kicked so much *#s. Sadly, it was not fed to me as such.

    Boy, I hope that’s not why I hated corporate so much.


    PS Copper is half dog, half beaver.

  2. Ricky Leon Murphy March 13, 2007 at 11:17 am #

    It is rare to see a teacher go beyond the curriculum and expand on the “required.” I have two teen-aged girls and I see all too often students seeking only what is required and teachers all the willing to provide it. A good example is the standardized testing in California that is required for graduation. A curriculum has been designed around this test just so students can pass and schools can get the money (public schools here get funding based on how many students graduate).

    This is the wrong way to do things.

    Pamela is obviously a teacher that cares and its sad to see students not taking advantage of this. They can learn so much if they simply go beyond what is expected. There could be many reasons for this: lack of respect by the student, poor nurturing environment at home, stress on the job…but whatever the reason it all boils down to choice. The student must choose to want to learn.


  1. Canonical Instructions » Blog Archive » On Education: Some Assembly Required - February 8, 2007

    […] Recently Pamela Gay wrote an essay called Education: Some Assembly Required, in which she bemoans the lack of involvement students have with their own education. She remembers a time when students were active participants in class, when they thought about what the professor said, when they read the book, when they worked on the homework. I’ve thought about those issues myself before, usually with some disappointment. It is easy to dismiss Dr. Gay’s essay as an exercise in nostalgia by a young educator. Were students really better in the past? Professors as a whole have unreliable memories of how effective students were in the old days, since they were likely among the best students in their class. Sure, they may have been more involved, they may have been more serious about the homework, but were their peers? The problem is only exacerbated because many professors attended better, more selective schools than the ones they teach in–so they have unrealistic expectations of their students. […]

  2. Star Stryder » Blog Archive » Outreach and Careers in Academia- by Pamela L. Gay - July 15, 2007

    […] Fraser and I got a great letter from someone who listens to Astronomy Cast. This person noted quite correctly that Carl Sagan was strongly criticized for spending so much time popularizing astronomy. This person asked if things have changed significantly for us today. This is a hard question to answer. There are people whose jobs it is to publicize astronomy. They are embraced by the astronomy community for what they do. These people are education and public outreach officers and program directors. These people, unlike Sagan, aren’t professors. I’m trying to be a professor, but to make Astronomy Cast and teaching both happen, I have chosen to teach part time. Like Sagan, I’d like to be a tenured professor, but I’m still trying to figure out how to get there from here. The criteria that faculty are judged by don’t leave room for someone to spend a lot of time popularizing science and expressing opinions in op-ed pieces or blogs. Were I a full time professor, I would be promoted / granted tenure based on three different criteria: scholarship, teaching, and service. Scholarship generally refers to activities I do that move forward our knowledge and understanding of whatever I decide to do research in. For me, that is variable stars and studying how New Media can be used to promote Astronomy. Because I chose to spend significant amounts of my time communicating astronomy research done by others, the amount of time I have to do my own original research is limited. This means that it is harder for me to get significant amounts of research done compared to other people with the same professional demands (teaching, service, etc…) To be competitive, I have to use time that would otherwise go to sleeping, eating, or weeding to either blog / podcast or do research. I have a personal goal of publishing a minimum of 1 peer-reviewed paper a year. For some small teaching-focused universities, that is enough, but it isn’t necessarily enough for big school’s like Cornell, where Sagan was tenured. So yes, blogging and podcasting get me criticized: There are those who say I waste my time communicating science when I should be doing science. It’s a problem, but if I select where I work carefully, it’s not a large problem. The next of these criteria is easy to understand; teaching refers to how well I am able to teach astronomy in the classroom. This is largely, but not entirely a popularity contest. I do get observed by one of my peers on one day of my choosing (when they remember to come – which doesn’t always happen). Student evaluations are weighted very heavily. I generally do pretty well in this category, but my blogging and podcasting can effect my evaluations. Last semester I let off steam in my blog (here) and was reprimanded multiple times as different people became aware of the post. This was actually a very serious problem for me, and it is why my blog is no longer on my university office computer. I now fully understand why FemaleScienceProfessor writes anonymously – the cost of publicly writing something you feel is true can be too high. Every time I write an opinion or discuss something controversial I take a risk. All it takes is one student to be offended and write one angry letter to my department chair. So… I live with a constant nagging fear at all times that what I say outside of the classroom will get me in trouble in the classroom. This too is a problem, but it is one every faculty member faces in one way or another. The third category, service, refers to how well I serve my community through my actions. In the category of service it seems like this should be a slam dunk for someone who communicates science to the public, but it’s not. If I were a tenure-track professor, my service evaluation would be based on serving on department committees, university committees, and doing local outreach for programs that have been adopted by my department. The work I currently do with the International Year of Astronomy, Astronomy Cast don’t count for nothing, but they wouldn’t be part of my official service unless I negotiated a special contract – which would be hard and would annoy some people in the process. So, this category is one where I suspect I would get personally annoyed because I’d be forced to do things I didn’t enjoy, but… That’s what happens when you have a full time permanent job. This isn’t a problem, it’s just not a criteria where what I do benefits as much as you may think it would. As much as I want to someday work as a tenured professor (or at least as a professor in a position more permanent than 1 semester) in a situation where I can maintain a small but respectable stream of research while writing and publicizing astronomy, that day isn’t today. I’m young though, that time may come. In order to have the freedom to communicate astronomy today, I have to be a part-time professor. It’s a choice that sometimes makes everything I do a little bit harder, but at least I get to pursue my dreams. […]

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