How I Will Teach Next Semester: Human Evolution and College Teaching

I have wondered for a long time how to apply my ideas about human evolution to teaching. My theory of human evolution says that specialization and trading are central to human evolution and includes a mechanism that increases diversity of expertise. The more diverse the expertise of you and your trading partners, the more you gain from trading. If I make knives and you make knives, we will gain less from trading than if I make knives and you make baskets.

I also discovered — independently — that the more choice I gave my Berkeley students (junior and senior psychology majors) about what to learn, the more they learned. It was as if they had an internal drive to learn all sorts of different things and the more I allowed that motivation to push and guide them, the more they learned. To see big effects it wasn’t enough to merely give them a wide choice of term paper topics (as many college teachers do). I pushed them out into the “real” (off-campus) world (they couldn’t do a library project) and said learn whatever you want. In this situation they learned an enormous amount. The connection with my theory of evolution was obvious: something inside of them was pushing them to be diverse in what they learned. What they learn = what they will become expert in. What they become expert in = what they will have to trade.

The more I allowed the underlying diversity of my students to be expressed, the more they learned. Yet almost all college classes treat all of the students in the class the same: same material, same assignments, same tests. The diversity of the students — especially the ways they differ from the professor — is a nuisance. So my theory suggests that standard college teaching is greatly at odds with human nature. It assumes one size fits all when that could hardly be more wrong.  It should be possible to greatly increase how much is learned by doing a better job of recognizing human nature. My experience so far supports this prediction.

Recently I thought of a new way to deal with diversity among my students. Next semester I will try it. One of the courses I am teaching (at Tsinghua University) is Frontiers of Psychology, with about 25 students. It’s required of freshman psychology majors. Here’s what I’ll do. For the first four or five class periods (one class per week), I’ll cover a wide range of psychological topics, ideas, and methods. There will be reading assignments (e.g., choose one paper out of 30 and do a class presentation) but no grading. Then every student will draw up a list of “learning goals” for the rest of the semester.  The goals can be whatever they want (related to psychology). They can read a book, read some articles, collect some data, give a talk to a high school class, whatever. Each goal will have a deadline. The assessment will be binary: goal completed/not completed. Their final grade will depend on how many goals they completed. The goals will be ordered. The further down their list they get, the higher their grade, with each level of completion assigned a grade at the beginning. They will make class presentations throughout the semester about their progress: what they are doing, what they have learned.

For the students, the benefits (compared to conventional teaching) are that (a) they get to learn exactly what they want yet (b) the grading criteria are very clear and (c) they are still motivated to work. For me, the benefits are that it should be a lot easier to judge if a goal has been completed than to grade homework essays, which is what I’ve done recently. Nor will I have to worry about what happens in class each week.

Any comments?

9 Replies to “How I Will Teach Next Semester: Human Evolution and College Teaching”

  1. This incentives students to set easy goals.

    Whether that’s a good thing depends on your students. If they are perfectionist that need to learn to set goal that they can actually achieve it’s good.
    If they on the other hand are people who try to game the system to get the highest grades with the least amount of effort it’s bad.

    Seth: In my experience, college students want to learn stuff quite apart from grades. I will assign grades to the various achievements so if the most difficult goal isn’t very hard that student will have ensured they don’t get a very good grade. But I agree with your basic point: it isn’t obvious it will work.

  2. I have a reservation much like ChristianKl. What about a well defined skill, like computer programming?

    Mark Guzdial’s research shows that most colleges don’t teach computer programming and computer science well. At Georgia Tech all students had to take an intro to computer science and for business majors it was known as a “three-peat” until the department figured out more effective teaching methods.

    (I follow Mark’s writing to this day. I tried to teach a group of high school aged home schoolers to do programming a couple of times. I considered my efforts a failure because I only ever selected the students likely to succeed if they practiced on their own. Mark’s work shows there is a better way, much like you are attempting here.)

    However, coding and computational thinking are a hard skill, in the dual sense that you either have the skill or don’t, and that it is difficult for many people to acquire.

    “Learn what you want” seems too open to allow teaching difficult skills.

    Once you have the prerequisite skills there’s tremendous benefit to go and “build what you want using your newly minted skills. You have two weeks.” Or two days even. We did a three day project here where I work. Anyone in R&D could work on anything they wanted for two (and a half) days and then there were dozens of presentations as we explained what we built. It was successful at generating a lot of innovative ideas, which are otherwise very tough to come by in our environment.

  3. When I was teaching World Lit (1st semester: the Bible through Milton; 2nd semester: Rousseau through Richard Wright), I had no discretion as to the material to be covered.

    For the midterm and final exams, my students were required to choose three of the (many) exam questions and wrote a one-hour essay on each—but I had the students set the exams: each could suggest as many questions as they liked, and I put all their questions as choices on the exam.

    The idea was to let them dig deeper into whatever interested them and write their essays on that, even if this meant an essay on Mme Bovary, an essay on Hedda Gabler, and an essay comparing Mme Bovary and Hedda Gabler.

  4. To satisfy the ‘easy goals’ concerns, after a student makes a presentation, you could ask the class whether the goals were sufficiently difficult to merit a passing grade. Peers can always identify slackers.

    As for drawing up one list of goals at the top of the semester . . . the companies I worked for always required yearly goal-setting, and then the manager and I would review the goals and progress every quarter. During most Q1, Q2, or Q3 review sessions at least one goal would be revised. Now that I am out on my own, I set personal goals every year and review them at least every 3 months, and I typically modify at least one goal. Either I exceeded or underachieved the target metric, or I changed life direction such that one enthusiasm has replaced an earlier one. In summary, you may be spending less time grading essays and more time consulting one-on-one with your students. (Sounds like a good trade-off to me.)

    I don’t know if it applies; your approach reminds me of Lee Sheldon’s teaching method where he has students accumulate experience points (XP).

  5. Will you help the students who need greater direction/structure to develop their goals? I think for some freshman, a “sky’s the limit” approach could be scary.

  6. Very interesting, Seth. I’ve been trying to revamp some of my courses to better meet the diversity of student interests and tap into a more natural way to learn. This quarter, I’m teaching a large course (188 students) on the Principles of Learning (Pavlovian and Instrumental conditioning, mostly), so I followed the traditional lecture and test format out of necessity. But, I did have three students from the class taking the course for honors, which entails conducting their own research of the primary literature (with some exceptions) to more deeply explore a particular topic or theme. Instead of the typical APA format paper to turn in at the end of the quarter, I had the students publish a weekly blog, each blog post focusing on one or two papers. At the end (next week) they are to write a wrap-up blog post to put what they’ve covered into perspective along with their own analysis and bigger question, future direction type stuff. They and I have thoroughly enjoyed the process so I’ll replicate this again! One of the blogs even covered the Shangri-la diet (which I also covered in class lecture as an example of using our knowledge of Pavlovian conditioning principles to manage our own eating behavior in the real world).

    The blogs, if anyone is interested, are here:

  7. The more I allowed the underlying diversity of my students to be expressed, the more they learned.

    Well, yes, but … Perhaps the major justification for school (certainly elementary and high school) is that everyone should know some minimum set of things. In other words, the major justification for school is that students don’t get to pick what they learn.

    Seth: Fair point. I agree that it is important to teach everyone how to read, basic math, basic science, and a few other things. As you say this happens in elementary school and high school. I don’t think it has been explored enough how to allow students to learn these basic skills in many different ways but I agree every student should learn them.

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