Newsletter #4     Brown Bag on classroom tactics

Synopsless report:

I had dreams of coming out of last week's Brown Bag with a neat, crisp list of Interesting Questions, complete with operating instructions for bringing said questions into action in 120 or 124. Maybe at another Brown Bag...

What we had mainly was a lot of interesting discussion which changed direction often enough to bollux my sense of summary altogether. On the other hand the very last topic, brought up in the guise of an almost-change-of-subject, produced a bunch of ideas which I feel deserve general departmental airing. The question that provoked the discussion was "What should we be doing about really basic misapprehensions--such, for instance, as the belief that all functions are linear--which lurk in the basements of our students's souls and emerge on tests?" What fascinated me was that tied up in the question of what to do is the question of what really lies behind the errors. Among the most clearly articulated views were that these are things the students really have never grasped; that they basically know them, but that the knowledge gets slippery under pressure; and that they actually know full well that they are taking illegal steps, but figure they may salvage some partial credit from the wreckage.

Each in its own way would be dealt with by an idea Tom Duchamp produced which I find highly intriguing: at the beginning of each course, give the students a brief, clear and absolute list of Fatal Errors. The deal would be that a solution containing one of these would NEVER receive any credit whatsoever (one would need to choose the list with care and discretion!) If one espouses either of the first two theories of the cause of the errors, an explanatory worksheet could accompany the returned paper.

I'm sure there are all sorts of bugs and snafus around, but the tactic strikes me as practicable even in massive courses, straightforward, fair and potentially highly effective. What more can we ask in life?

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