Saturday, January 13, 2007

On Dumbing Down

One of the pressures faculty sometimes get subject to, is to 'dumb down' the content of their courses. This pressure frequently comes from the less able students, when they complain that a particular course is 'too hard'. However, such pressures can also come from administrators and other faculty, if there is a perceived difference in standards between different course sections. Here this issue will be addressed, in the light of my own expereience. Hopefully, it will be instructive to others.

A few years ago, I taught a basic course on reasoning. Indeed, the series of posts here on this topic are, to some degree, based upon this course. It was not an especially easy course, as it required the students to develop particular skills. This particular course was required of our majors (although there was an alternative) and by a couple of other programs.

A number of other faculty also taught sections of this course. They were of the opinion that my section was too demanding. Thus, I came under pressure to 'dumb down' my section. I spent a whole Summer wrestling with this issue. What was especially problematic was that I could not think of a way of making the course less demanding, without leaving the students with serious gaps in their skill sets. Eventually, I decided to keep my course the same and run the risk of having poor enrollments, as students opted for easier sections.

This choice actually had the slightly opposite effect. My enrollments went up, to the point where people were begging to get into my section, while the other sections still had plenty of space in them. I also noticed that the quality of the students and their performance significantly improved.

I was a little puzzled by this, as it was exactly the opposite effect to what I expected and ran contrary to the dire warnings of other faculty members. When I ask the students about this, they explained what had happened to me.

They knew that my section was difficult and demanding, but they also knew that this meant that they got the very best training. Thus, what had happened as a result of my policy decision is that I had succeeded in attracting the very brightest and most motivated students! Needless to say, I was very happy with this outcome!

I no longer teach this course on a regular basis. However, every time I do teach it, the class is packed. This I think is a powerful reason why faculty should resist the pressure to 'dumb down'.

There is one final irony that arose in the context of this class. I once had a student come and visit me in my office, during the Summer, to thank me for teaching them this class. At first, I was a little bemused, as my recollection was that the particular student had actually failed the class. When I asked about this, they confirmed that yes, they had failed. However, despite this, they still maintained that it was the most useful class they ever took during their time in college. This just goes to show that one can never tell!

The CP


Blogger Zaza said...

Speaking from the student's perspective, it makes sense to me that having a demanding class, developing important skills would attract a large number of people. And yes, the very best thing about keeping a class demanding is that you typically only get the brightest and the keenest. I know this is the case for many of my classes, and I am glad that most of my profs keep the courses the way they are and are able to weed out those who aren't dedicated or interested enough. Always interesting to hear the professor's side!

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having just graduated, I am in complete agreement with zaza's comment. I am grateful for those professors (of which there were few) who provided such classes. These classes pushed me to learn, to stretch, to question - not just answer multiple-choice questions by rote. These are the classes that enriched my life and for that I am a better person. Nice to know that are professors such as this at ULL.

9:55 AM  

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