12 April, 2011

Lecturer, where's your faith in theory?

Agenda for this week: yet another block course at the institute of Production Science and Management at TU Graz. Topic: Operational Risk Management. Yet another course, where the morning session after introductions starts by the lecturer's so-called motivational input:
"We will go through some theory for the morning. I'm sorry, but it's always like this, the first session of the block has always the biggest part of theory. I know you find it uninteresting, but we'll get to the case study in the afternoon."
I must say, nice going with the speech! If I didn't know better, I'd think the speech is saying "fall asleep now, wake up for the afternoon". I wonder how the students are to motivate themselves for the theory part, if the attitude of the lecturer, who in Austrian culture is more of a formidable authority than in Finland, is already at this point acting apologetic. This wasn't the first time a lecturer seems to be conveying the message that theory is an annoying obligation, only to be completed because of some higher decree. Never is the usefulness or the applicability of the theory mentioned. No lecturer says out loud that understanding theory is a necessary part of understanding practical methods.

The sentiment behind the courses seems to be: rush through theory and then throw the case study to the students, let them learn with it. One could call this a swim-or-sink strategy. There are a couple of problems with this approach. Firstly, too often the case study starts with students looking like living question marks. If confusion was a gas, there would be so much of in the air you could actually just carve block of it with a knife. The insufficient basic theoretical knowledge is a big issue, especially if one is to start analyzing a deep and complex problem. Secondly, raising students into a culture of practical application without proper methodological structure is just plain stupid: it makes us believe all methodologies are as good as others. It makes us use mostly methods we are already acquainted with beforehand. It decreases the learning achieved by using a new method. Applying without knowing what to apply is trial-and-error, not structured learning.

Sure, if you are blindfolded and then try to distinguish the important features of an animal by touching it, you'll achieve it at some point. But if you're first told that the animal in question is large and can be climbed upon, you'll figure out that much faster that instead of tree trunks you're actually hugging the legs of an elephant. It doesn't take much to get a head start in comparison to blind searching.

The "student is a customer" culture has several benefits. Lecturers need to be made aware of the fact that satisfied students learn better. But sucking up to the students is not the right way to achieve that.What should be taught is the important stuff, not just what the students like.

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