David Pritchard's Course Reform MIT Style

MIT classoom
March 29
Timmy Hussain '20

Dave Pritchard’s xTalk on March 20 spanned a wide range of topics from the failings and successes of traditional teaching methods to the disparity between approaching education as an engineering project with clearly defined aims. Pritchard believes many classes fall into a recursive cycle of teaching topics and skills that neither students not faculty find useful.

It was interesting for me to see Prof Pritchard break down education from a research perspective, using different approaches to viewing education problems. How to engage student interest and deliver content in an introductory physics course like 8.01/2 so that students are able to understand concepts and carry them forward in their academic careers (even if they have no intention of majoring in physics)?

One point raised by Pritchard was the result of a survey question posed to faculty asking “if you had 20% more time, what would you teach?” As an MIT student, it was a relief for me to see that “teach more stuff” was not high on the list. Instead, “sense making” won by a mile.

Sense making, as described by Pritchard, is the ability to make sense of your answer in a number of ways. Subconsciously, students already do this when we get thoughts like, “oh, that number looks a bit too large”, or “would the units of this equation be what I’m expecting?”, or “well, I’m pretty sure electrons don’t have a positive charge”.

Sense making is also about developing a way of thinking where you are able to break a question down into its required logical steps as opposed to memorizing those steps and hoping they work every time. In my own learning, I definitely fall into both of the above categories. For the sake of time, I will often memorise a method if understanding it all seems more tedious than is required. But I’ve also come to realise that memorization can be detrimental to academic success especially when a question which looks nothing like what we had in class suddenly makes an appearance in a midterm/final.

Pritchard also touched on the concept of cognitive knowledge which, according to his experience and research, falls into 4 categories:

  • Facts/Concepts - developed through textbooks, lectures, peer instruction.
  • Procedures/Operations - developed through problem sets, exams.
  • Strategic Thinking - developed through problem solving but not exercises, challenging exam questions and developing different methods to check your answer (sense making).
  • Adaptive Expertise - not appropriate for an introductory class but instead developed through research, design, and doctoral theses.

As a student currently taking 8.02, it was insightful to see how the course’s TEAL format is intended to be used both by student and teacher alike. Students are expected to read through course material before class so as to familiarise themselves with facts and concepts. Any misunderstandings/gaps in knowledge can be filled in during the course of a lecture with concept questions and group problems encouraging interaction with each other, TAs, and the professor. Procedural, operational, and strategic thinking is developed during the weekly problem solving days and further tested during quizzes and exams. It makes a lot of sense to me when it’s broken down into these components.

A final poignant point was Pritchard’s analogy of a master hunter and inexperienced apprentice. The master hunter watches as the apprentice completes a task, pointing out if s/he is going in the wrong direction and suggesting ways the process could be more expedient. While this analogy certainly fits the 8.01/2 TEAL format (TAs literally watch us flounder) I’d like to think every professor, TA and/or upperclassperson would be more than happy to take on the master hunter role, serving as a beneficial resource for students.

Timmy Hussain '20

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