Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Teaching sociology: The difficulty and amount of class material

I have a theory about how much class work to assign. Distinguishing between quantity (who much) and difficulty (how hard), I would posit the following functional relationships between class material and amount of learning.

Difficulty of work. I believe that there is curvilinear relationship between how difficult class material is and how much students learn. Something like this:




Why? If the material is too easy, students don’t take it seriously. If it is too hard, they (at least many of them) throw up their hands in frustration and don’t think they can do it. The ideal—challenging but doable.

Amount of work. How much work, on the other hand, has a positive relationship with learning that asymptotically approaches some level that represents the most students feel they should do for any one class:

Why? Assigning “too much” material gets students frustrated, but they don’t learn less than they would with less material. Instead, they just stop learning more.

Positioning my classes. As such, my goal is to assign lots of medium-difficulty material and assignments. Graphing difficulty by amount, this is where I try to position my classes as follows (with some of my undergraduate classes as illustrations of each cell):


For additional essays on teaching sociology: www.brewright.com/teaching/essays.html

3 comments:

chris said...

thoughtful post, brad. i try to practice stealth teaching. i aim for students to learn as much as possible while inflicting as little pain as possible. if i can turn some class work into interesting or leisure-like activities (e.g., getting them to read about the class or talk about the class in their off-hours), they seem to take more away from the course materials.

Brad Wright said...

I like the idea of stealth teaching... making it painful doesn't make the students smart. I suppose the trick is in how to do it. I'm impressed by the feedback you got from your students when you asked how they talked about class outside of the classroom.

Michael W. Kruse said...

Your post made me think of how my dad said he constructed his exams for Chemistry tests. As I recall it went something like this, assuming a test with 100 questions:

60 Questions - If you were semi-conscious you should get most correct.

20 Questions - You had to have read the materials and engaged them.

15 Questions - These required you to demonstrate some mastery of the material and to be able to apply it in new contexts.

5 Question - Separated the passionate from the merely studious.

I think he let his students know this at the beginning of the class. The class would be easy to pass but if you wanted an “A,” few were earned. That allowed each student to assess what they wanted and apply themselves accordingly. Not sure this would work in all subjects but it seemed to for him.

Anyway, your attempts to require appropriate degree of difficulty and quantity of work made me think of this.