Andrew Gelman’s thoughts about teaching led me to mull over what I learned last semester from teaching at Tsinghua. I taught two classes: a freshman seminar that covered a wide range of psychology research; and a class for graduate students about R.
Some things worked well:
1. In the freshman seminar, one of the assignments was to design a Mindless-Eating-type experiment. (Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink was one of the reading assignments.) One of the students designed a really good experiment in which people on different buses get different treatments. She happened to be a senior applying for graduate school and her work on that assignment helped me write a really strong letter of recommendation for her.
2. I graded the students on their comments on the reading and set the bar very high to get a full score (3 out of 3): they had to say something that interested me. A fair number managed to do this. The bar wasn’t too high.
3. I had lunch with all the students in the seminar (about 5 per week). The students seemed to like it. I certainly did.
4. There were classroom debates about which paper was the best (one week) or the worst (another week). They got everyone involved, was far less passive than listening to me talk, and gave them practice speaking English.
But there was plenty of room for improvement:
1. Students in the seminar were frustrated by the vague criterion (“interest me”). Toward the end I posted the comments that got the full score and that seemed to help.
2. In the seminar it was hard to get feedback about how well I was being understood. The best I could do was pass out slips of paper and have the students write down what percentage of what I said they understood. More immediate feedback (e.g., when I used a too-difficult word) would have been better.
3. In the R class I hoped the students would analyze their own data. This was too hard for quite a few of them. In the future I’ll give them a data set.
4. One student dropped the R class because my English was hard to understand.
5. In the seminar, some students (freshmen) complained that other (older) students, whose English was better, talked too much. They had a point and I should try calling on people randomly. I also should try to get general feedback after each class (e.g., “tell me one thing you liked and one thing you didn’t like about today’s class”).
6. In spite of my constant complaint that professors treat all of their students alike (e.g., all students get the same assignment) when they aren’t all alike — they differ substantially in what they’re good at, for example — I pretty much did the same thing.
7. I should have at least tried to learn my students’ Chinese names.